School board nears decision on high school project

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T.C. Williams High School (Courtesy photo)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

School is back in session and students aren’t the only ones with major deadlines. The school board will vote on the new high school project – and the future of Alexandria City Public Schools – during its Sept. 26 board meeting.

With high school capacity estimated to hit 5,000 students by 2025, the vote next Thursday is a significant step forward for ACPS. The school board will vote to approve one of two potential directions: creating a second high school or a series of smaller satellite campuses for T.C. Williams High School.

“We have to know that the priority for Sept. 26 is, are we going to have one high school or are we going to have two comprehensive high schools?” Superinten- dent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. said at a Sept. 5 school board work session.

The school board and Hutchings denied requests for comment prior to the vote.

During a March 21 school board meeting, the board empowered Hutchings and ACPS to move forward with the planning process and to explore design plans for a connected high school network; in addition to a two high school model.

The board’s decision on March 21 also charged Hutchings with providing a cost comparison between two high schools and one high school with satellite campuses, exploring alternate sites, including T.C. Williams’ Minnie Howard campus, and presenting programming options.

The school board discussed a plan to address high school capacity at its meeting on March 21. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

Since then, an educational design team comprised of teachers, students and community representatives was assembled to provide guidance and advice during the design process.

“From June 2019 to August 2019, an educational design team — including teachers, students and staff from ACPS — developed four educational programming options that will now be considered by the Board,” Helen Lloyd, ACPS director of communications, said in an emailed statement.

All four options would accommodate the additional 1,600 students ACPS is anticipating. The EDT presented all four options during a school board work session on Aug. 22.

(Read more: School board approves amended high school capacity plan)

ACPS, with design consultants and Savills Real Estate, conducted separate site and development studies, Lloyd said in her statement. Savills put out a call for privately-owned sites, but the search resulted in no expressions of interest, according to an Aug. 28 staff report.

“Because we did not see expressions of interest, we can only build on land that we currently own for a new structure,” Hutchings said at the Sept. 5 work session.

According to the Aug. 28 report, five potential city-owned sites have been identified instead: the existing T.C. Williams campus; T.C.’s Minnie Howard campus; Francis C. Hammond Middle School; George Washington Middle School; and a parcel of land in Potomac Yard.

Map/ACPS

“Staff has conducted program, site and cost (due to be presented on Septem- ber 19) evaluations into each of the four options,” Lloyd said in her statement. “The final decision rests with the School Board.”

The two high school model

Under this model, ACPS would have two separate high schools – T.C. Williams and a new high school with its own identity.

The EDT’s preferred options for a two high school model both emphasize themed high schools. In one option, one high school would be focused on math and science, the other on humanities. In the second option, one high school would have an International Baccalaureate program with a focus on world languages and arts, and the other high school would emphasize STEM programs and interdisciplinary curriculum design.

In both options, the two high schools would offer the required core curriculum, work-based learning, community partnerships and Advancement via Individual Determination.

According to the report, both schools would likely have reduced student bodies and, as a result, reduced course options.

Councilor Amy Jackson, an Alexandria parent, expressed concern that having two distinct high schools could create divisions in the community. According to ACPS’ report, students had the same concern.

“We have to make sure all our kids succeed, that no one falls through the cracks and having a distinct other high school it would make me anxious that that’s exactly what would happen,” Jackson said.

Councilor Amy Jackson (Courtesy photo)

Community members expressed similar concerns at a Sept. 17 community meeting. Some questioned whether the two high school model could risk recreating the city’s past mistakes.

“I think the demographics of Alexandria are very important,” resident Bruce Brown said. “I think many of us know the history of Alexandria and what we went through in the 60s, 70s in terms of the integration of the city … and what that all ended at. Are you concerned we might be replaying that record 60 years later?”

Hutchings said that every proposed model emphasizes equity.

“Regardless of whether we have one, two, three, four high schools, if we have educators in our buildings, we’re going to be able to meet the needs of kids,” Hutchings said at the Sept. 5 work session.

Course offerings aren’t the only challenge that come with having two distinct high schools, though. Hutchings said that site selection and redistricting are both important factors to consider.

“If the board was to go with two high schools, we would have to make a decision on where that high school would go,” Hutchings said. “… And then we would have to have discussions around what are all the other factors that come along with doing a high school, which is redistricting, how you choose which kids go to which school.”

(Read more: School board approves FY2020 budget)

ACPS has yet to determine how the student body would be assigned to each school, but the report notes that, “Options for assigning students could include using neighborhood boundaries, a lottery, school choice options, or an application process.”

Space remains the biggest challenge for a two high school model, especially in a city like Alexandria where real estate is such a precious commodity.

Fields at T.C. Williams (Photo/ACPS)

In the proposed options for a two high school model, ACPS used three potential sites: the Minnie Howard campus, Francis C. Hammond Middle School and George Washington Middle School. If either of the latter two were selected, the middle school would remain and a new high school would be built on the property.

According to the report, ACPS was looking for property that could be used for either the two high school model or the connected high school network and fit one of the following criteria: 20 or more acres for purchase; an existing building with at least 300,000 square feet; 100,000 to 150,000 square feet and 100 parking spots for lease; four or more acres for purchase; or at least 100,000 square feet of development through a public-private partnership.

Local real estate agents were unsurprised that ACPS was unable to find private real estate options.

“There’s nothing in the city that fits this. Where would you find 20 available acres inside this city? It doesn’t exist,” Bob Swearingen, a real estate agent at McEnearney Associates, said.

ACPS is in a market with limited space and high demand, William Wiard, managing broker at Weichert Commercial Brokerage, said. On top of that, the process of finding and developing one large structure could result in additional delays.

“With something at that size, it might make sense to go for smaller, more spread out locations than trying to go for one big location based on price and all the other factors that might delay it,” Wiard said.

“If they’re willing to go the satellite route, depending on how big that’s going to be, there might be some more possibilities,” Rick Lane, a commercial real estate agent at Weichert, said. “But I would be surprised if they did anything else other than building something on land they already own.”

The connected high school network model

The second option that will go before the school board is a connected high school network, a non-traditional system of smaller satellite campuses that are connected to T.C. Williams. The smaller sites would offer specialized programming for students and flexible space for ACPS.

The first of the two options for a connected high school network presented by the EDT proposes that T.C.’s King Street campus would be a humanities-focused space, while a second smaller site would offer advanced lab and technology options for science and math courses.

T.C. Williams High School (Photo Credit: Aleksandra Kochurova)

The second option would expand the T.C. Williams campus to include an on-site student hub with additional lab and technology facilities. The EDT proposal suggested using the adjacent Chinquapin Park Recreation Center. ACPS’ site investigation team determined that the Chinquapin site could not be developed in the required timeframe.

The process of converting Chinquapin, which was granted to the city by the National Park Service in the 60s as public outdoor recreation space, into a school could take up to five years, Mignon Anthony, ACPS’ chief operating officer, said at the Sept. 5 work session.

Although the two high school model provides a one-site space and capacity solution, the connected high school network addresses several concerns that students and the community have about the prospect of a new high school.

The ACPS report found that students appreciated that the connected high school model still allows all students to come together under one roof, but emphasized the need for strong communication to keep the student body united across multiple campuses.

According to the report, community members were concerned about transportation logistics and ensuring the satellite campuses stay connected to their respective neighborhoods.

Dr. Gregory Hutchings (Photo Credit: Susan Hale Thomas/ACPS)

At a Sept. 17 community meeting for the high school project, some parents and community members expressed interest in how satellite campuses could offer smaller learning environments.

Regardless of what model the school board chooses to proceed with, the vote on Sept. 26 will be a major step forward for the high school project. But the vote won’t be the end of the process. In some ways, what the school board isn’t voting for is just as important as what it is voting for.

The final programming options and design still need to be worked out. School board member Ramee Gentry cautioned her fellow board members and the community that there is still more work to be done.

“It’s a pretty poor analogy, but we’re deciding to build a house,” Gentry said at the Sept. 5 work session. “And if I sold you on building a house and you asked me, ‘Well, what size refrigerator are you going to get?’ I don’t have that answer for you right now, and that’s OK. That’s just not where we are in the process.”

(Read more: Council approves Seminary Road lane reduction)

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