School board approves one connected high school

School board approves one connected high school
(Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

The school board voted 6-3 in favor of one high school with a connected high school network during its meeting on Sept. 26. The school board also voted to use land at T.C. Williams High School’s Minnie Howard campus to build a 1,600-student satellite campus as part of the connected high school network.

The vote on Sept. 26 came down to two options: to move forward with either a connected high school network or two independent high schools.

Both options were selected by an educational design team as the best ways to deal with the high school’s ongoing capacity issues.

High school capacity is estimated to hit 5,000 students by 2025, and conversations about new high school options have been swirling for years. During a March 21 school board meeting, the school board voted to empower Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., to look into design plans for a connected high school network, in addition to two high schools.

 (Read more: School board nears decision on high school project)

After that vote, ACPS assembled the EDT, a team composed of teachers, students and community representatives. The group devised four educational programming options – two for each high school design – and presented programming options, site options and cost comparisons over the past two months.

According to ACPS, both options would cost $181 million to build and would be able to support 4,500 students, with 2,900 students housed at the existing T.C. Williams site. Given the weight of the decision before the school board, the meeting on Sept. 26 drew a sizable crowd of students, parents and community members.

The school board voted 6-3 to approve one connected high school during its Sept. 26 meeting. T.C. Wil- liams High School will remain the hub with a 1,600-student satellite campus at the Minnie Howard site. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

The divide between students and parents was apparent from the statements made during the public comment period of the meeting. Students were uniformly in support of the connected high school network, while many parents of ACPS children expressed support for the two high school option.

Lorraine Johnson, a junior at T.C. Williams who had taken part in the high school project, said she had noticed the divide between students and parents at a prior community meeting.

“To my surprise, not only was the option for two high schools still on the table, but, in an Alexandria city community meeting, all I saw were different versions of the same type of parent,” Johnson said.

Johnson spoke to the school board alongside two fellow Titans Rebekah Lamarre and Kamari Brown. All three argued that having one connected high school would allow students to maintain access to a wide range of courses and T.C. Williams’ diverse community.

(Opinion: A student’s input on the school board vote)

T.C. Williams Principal Peter Balas also spoke at the meeting in support of the connected high school network.

“We’re already a connected high school network that’s working,” Balas said in an interview. “We have aligned and streamlined Minnie Howard, King Street [and] the satellite [campus] along the lines of scheduling, opportunity maximization and creating the smaller learning communities– whether academies or teams – that allow us to make what’s so seemingly large feel like they’re a small community in it.”

Balas disputed the claim that students can easily fall between the cracks in a high school as big as T.C. Williams. The principal argued, much like his students, that having two high schools could create divisions in the city.

“I urge you to continue to oppose the separatist ideals that are associated so publicly with the name of our high school by voting to keep us connected,” Balas said. “Separation may be in our school’s name, but you can oppose it by voting to keep us together.”

Balas’ comments were followed by a chant of “T.C. united,” a phrase that some community members had emblazoned on their shirts.

T.C. Williams High School Principal Peter Balas stepped up to the podium during the school board meeting on Sept. 26 to express his support for one connected high school. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

Most, if not all, supporters of the two high school option argued that creating a second, smaller high school would create a better educational environment.

“Here’s the facts: Bigger high schools fail low income students,” Angela Mills, a mother of two students at Mount Vernon Community School, said. “How can we ensure we’re not building another dropout factory? We can’t.

Smaller is better, full stop.” Several parents were also encouraged by the idea that two high schools could provide students with more opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities.

“A second high school will provide children with the space to learn, grow and participate in sports, extracurricular activities and clubs in a way that provides greater opportunity for more students,” Mary Bell, a mother of two, said.

(Opinion: Alexandria needs a second high school)

Supporters of the two high school option all pointed to the untested foundation of the connected high school network model.

“We can’t just vote on educated guesses and hunches,” Mills said.

After the public comments, Hutchings expressed his support for the connected high school network.

“If we were to dismantle that approach of having one high school, and this is my point of view, I believe that we will not afford our young people the opportunities that they’re receiving today,” Hutchings said.

The superintendent said that, in the two high school model, each school would offer core courses but would have reduced offerings compared to T.C. Williams’ current available classes.

Hutchings said the city’s history must be considered, but cannot determine its future.

“We have to make sure that we’re using our history to help us inform the decision that we make tonight because what we do today is going to impact our future,” Hutchings said.

T.C. Williams High School (Courtesy photo)

School board member Michelle Rief began a round of statements from school board members.

“Folks, we have a mega high school that’s bursting at the seams,” Rief said. “Making it a bigger, multi-campus connected high school and thinking current inequities will go away is naïve because our kids will only become smaller and smaller parts of a larger and larger bureaucracy.”

In addition to the practical concerns around transportation and scheduling, Rief said the connected high school network model is an untested short-term solution for a long-term problem.

“I remain concerned that 5,000 students is too large for one school,” Rief said in a statement after the meeting. “Decades of research shows that kids thrive in smaller school environments.”

School board members Meagan Alderton and Heather Thornton also supported the two high school option.

Alderton, who took part in the EDT, said that she was frustrated by how much the potential actions of adults were impacting a decision for students’ futures. Alderton also argued that building a second high school would provide an opportunity to confront the inequities, privilege and divisions that a single high school has been able to hide.

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

“Listen, I’m not naïve to the idea that to build a second high school would basically mean going to war,” Alderton said. “We would be going to war with all that is privilege and entitlement. It would require outstanding courage, fierce confrontation and massive resistance. But my concern is that if we don’t fight this war up front on its face, I don’t think we’ll ever get past it.”

School board member Ramee Gentry, formerly board chair, questioned the idea that smaller schools are inherently better for students.

ACPS designated four potential sites for a new high school building. (Map/ACPS)

“It is not through the size that we achieve success. It is through the successful implementation of thoughtful educational design that we achieve success,” Gentry said. 

Gentry also cautioned the school board about the redistricting process that would need to take place with two independent high schools.

“If we embark on a high school redistricting process now, it will take up more time and more money, and it will impact every single student in the city,” Gentry said. “It will consume the work of this school board, leaving no time for other urgent focus areas that we as a school board have already identified.”

Rief later clarified that the board considers redistricting every five years.

Vice chair Veronica Nolan and board member Christopher Suarez said they were concerned that creating a second high school could exacerbate inequities in ACPS.

Suarez, who said he saw intense inequities in Chicago public schools, agreed with Alderton’s point about the debate drifting away from the students, but he arrived at a different conclusion.

“The almost uniform [view] of the students has been in support of the one T.C. solution because they agree that diversity matters, being exposed to people that are different from them matters,” Suarez said. “They understand that they have access to a plethora of options at T.C. that they may not otherwise have.”

Suarez said he envisioned “a fragmented future” with the two high school option and argued that the problems at T.C. Williams need to be tackled and dealt with before ACPS even considers creating a second high school.

“I want to get it right before we do something that, at least in my personal opinion, would compound the problems and the challenges for us,” Suarez said.

The school board discussed a plan to address high school capacity at its meeting on Jan. 24. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

Board chair Cindy Anderson spoke last and in support of the connected high school network.

Anderson, who previously served as chair of the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria, warned the board about how difficult it would be to divide resources, including scholarships, between two high schools.

“That’s a million dollars that goes to our students. [It’s] not so easily split in half because, first of all, there are things that are dedicated to T.C. that are in trust, that maybe through legal means you could get it separated,” Anderson said.

Suarez made a motion, seconded by Gentry, to adopt the connected high school network option with capacity for 2,900 students at the existing T.C. site and a new 1,600-student building at Minnie Howard.

Before the board could vote, Rief proposed an amendment, seconded by Jacinta Greene, that “the design and rebuild at the Minnie Howard site could be done in such a manner that, with minimal effort and cost, it could be converted to an independent school at a later date.”

Some school board members seemed exasperated by Rief’s amendment.

“I am frustrated by the introduction of an amendment at this point in the process when the community has not had an opportunity to weigh in, the community has understood the options and has understood this is what we’re voting on,” Gentry said.

Anderson said she specifically asked for any potential amendments in advance in order to determine how significant the repercussions would be.

Rief said she wanted to ensure her colleagues’ desire for flexibility in the new site was represented in the motion.

“I proposed the amendment because my colleagues expressed hope that the rebuild be flexible to adapt to future growth,” Rief said in a statement after the meeting. “Rather than hope for it, I thought it would be prudent to formalize those intentions.”

School board member Margaret Lorber agreed with Rief’s sentiment and the need for flexibility but found the amendment too prescriptive, she said.

The amendment was voted down 7-2, with Rief and Greene in support.

The school board voted 6-3 to approve Suarez’ motion, with Alderton, Rief and Thornton dissenting.

Moving forward with the high school project, ACPS will reconvene the EDT and bring in an industry advisory board to determine programming options and begin the design phase, which will last around three months, Hutchings said.