Your Views: Alexandria needs a second high school

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

Tonight, the Alexandria School Board will vote on a strategy for addressing the capacity needs of our high school students, as detailed in last week’s Alexandria Times, “High school project nears decision.” Alexandria City Public Schools has attempted numerous short-term solutions over the years. In 2016, it established high school educational specifications. It studied different grade-level groupings. It pursued ways to boost the utilization rate of classrooms. Meanwhile, the high school population has grown by another 600 students since 2016. It’s time for a more sustainable, long-term solution.

The best way forward is to establish two high schools and invest in a full-capacity build on the Minnie Howard campus.

With a 2018-19 enrollment of 3,987 students, T.C. Williams is the largest high school in Virginia. T.C. is twice the size of the average public high school in neighboring jurisdictions. It would be grossly negligent to allow T.C. to grow even larger, especially if it means sending students to separate campuses.

Large schools are overwhelming and impersonal. With enrollment projected to reach 5,000 by 2025, students are much more likely to fall through the cracks. Smaller school sizes would especially benefit ACPS, where 25 percent of high school students are English language learners and 60 percent are economically disadvantaged.

Proponents of maintaining one high school point out that its large size allows it to offer a wide range of course offerings and a unified community spirit. But a two- school model could easily deliver these same benefits, and perhaps even enhance them.

• ACPS staff have not disclosed how many and what specific course offerings would no longer be supported in a two-school model. But it is hard to believe that there would not still be sufficient student demand for a full range of course offerings in two schools. If T.C.’s King Street campus was one school of a two-school model, it would still be the largest high school in Virginia. And a second school with 1,600 students is hardly small. In fact, it is the prototype size used in ACPS’s own educational specifications. Two schools would also allow more students to participate in student government, on a sports team or in a performing arts group or club.

• There is ample room in this city to be proud of two high schools. In fact, a single school building dedicated to each school – rather than a connected campus – would more actively promote a united community atmosphere than a connected campus approach. T.C. Williams is already spread over two campuses – King Street and Minnie Howard. In 2018, ACPS-commissioned studies supported the need to combine ninth grade students with grades 10 through 12 on a single campus. It is difficult to see why it would be beneficial for any other subgroup to be separated onto a different campus. The transportation and scheduling complexities also pose significant obstacles.

• Many fear that a two-school model will result in greater inequity. Some cite the history of segregation in ACPS. Others cite current inequity in elementary and middle schools, which reflects de facto residential segregation in our city. Informed by such concerns, the school board should prioritize a more equitable approach to assigning students to two high schools.

ACPS has proposed controlled choice as a promising model that can help ensure that the student population in each high school is socioeconomically balanced and reflects the overall student population. The central location of the Minnie Howard campus makes it an ideal location for a second high school under this model.

The best way to promote an equitable distribution of students to each school is to offer comparable educational programming in each school. ACPS has proposed differentiating schools in the two-school model roughly along STEM vs. Humanities pathways. Any such differentiation would be devastating to the goal of providing equity. Clearly, more work needs to be done on this issue. And that work will continue after tonight’s vote.

If ACPS continues to improve, enrollment is likely to grow. The connected campus approach is a continuation of the current two-campus model that has already been dismissed by students, educators and expert consultants as undesirable.

At the same time, equity remains an urgent priority. But equity is not achieved through masking inequities under the cloak of one large school.

There will be more hard decisions to come. ACPS must design comparable and equitable educational offerings across two schools. ACPS must also implement an equitable student assignment policy that incorporates choice and prioritizes socioeconomic balance. But we can get there under the board’s direction, and with constant engagement with the entire community of parents, students and educators.

-Clarette Cain, Alexandria

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