Our View: A momentous week for city schools

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T.C. Williams High School (Photo Credit: Aleksandra Kochurova)
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Life happens all at once, not just for individuals but also for institutions. We plan and work toward a goal – a house renovation, a project at work or improvement on an important benchmark – and then after years of planning and effort, suddenly it’s accomplished.

Alexandria City Public Schools attained not one, but two long-term goals in the past week: All of its schools were fully accredited for the first time in the 20 years the accreditation program has been in place, and the Alexandria School Board voted to address the overcrowding situation at T.C. Williams High School.

The celebration at ACPS headquarters on Braddock Place after receiving these two pieces of good news probably rivaled that at Nationals Park after the team’s rousing win on Tuesday night – perhaps sans sprayed champagne.

Looking first at the accreditation news, we are happy for everyone involved in the effort to raise school performance. We’ve written many stories and editorials in the Times through the years documenting the struggles ACPS has faced in trying to bring its schools into compliance. To see years of effort pay off is affirming for everyone involved.

There is, of course, still much work to be done. For though all city schools are now fully accredited, ACPS still lags below state averages in every major subject category on Standards of Learning tests.

ACPS also undoubtedly benefitted from last year’s change in accreditation methodology that lends more weight to other factors, such as achievement gaps and graduation rates, and less to SOL scores.

Still, the statewide full accreditation rate this year was 92 percent – the same rate as last year – meaning the changes did not cause a jump in accreditation statewide. Alexandria’s full accreditation percentage was 82 percent last year, and 100 percent this year. Well done.

The local impact of determining a path forward on the high school capacity issue is even more significant.

T.C. Williams High School was rebuilt in 2007, with a capacity of 2,500 students, yet as of last October – enrollment data for the current school year is not yet available – the main campus housed more than 2,800 students and the T.C. Williams Minnie Howard campus almost 1,200 more. Projections indicate total high school enrollment may reach 5,000 by 2025. Something had to be done to address this situation.

Two primary options were on the table: to stay with one high school, but create a multi-campus, interconnected model or to build a second high school.

The Alexandria School Board voted 6-3 last week for the one-school, multi-campus model. While we believe two high schools would be better for students – and we hope that topic is revisited at a later date – it’s more important that the division moves forward as quickly as possible to address capacity.

The decision to rebuild and enlarge T.C. Williams’ Minnie Howard campus with a capacity of 1,600 students still leaves open the possibility that this campus could one day be converted to a second, comprehensive high school.

It’s also clear that this move alone does not fully solve the capacity issue: Adding room for 1,600 students to the existing 2,800 students at T.C. means that ACPS will still likely need classrooms for another 600 students by 2025. Presumably, these students will be housed in other facilities that are part of the interconnected network, but that’s still to be determined.

While the accreditation news and school board vote don’t resolve every issue facing ACPS, they are both milestones. Kudos to Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D, ACPS teachers and staff, the school board and Alexandria students and parents.

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