In line with my commitment to empowering young people and encouraging them to share their voices, I have invited Alexandria City School Board Student Representatives and T.C. Williams High School Seniors Lorraine Johnson and Ashley Sanchez-Viafara to lend us their voice for this month’s Op-Ed. We must get out of the way of the next generation and allow them to lead.
The time is now!
By Lorraine Johnson and Ashley Sanchez-Viafara
Thomas Chambliss Williams’ tenure as superintendent over a 30-year period signifies the school division’s immense resistance to desegregation. Williams’ efforts to maintain racist and discriminatory practices within ACPS, well after other school districts in the region had begun to integrate, not only perpetuated segregation and impeded integration in Alexandria, but some of the practices established during his tenure were so ingrained that we are still trying to dismantle them today.
Although we cannot change the history connected to our high school, we can change the story and right the wrongs of our past. The school division has actively worked against these sentiments for years – never more so than with its adoption of the “2025 Strategic Plan: Equity for All” ensuring educational equity remains at the heart of every decision made.
Since the mid-1960s, we have made significant changes that are evident in the representation of people of color and in the successes of our school division. For instance, we have three women of color who are members of the school board and two young Black women as student representatives. We have men and women of color holding executive leadership positions at the ACPS central office, and we have a Black man who holds the position of superintendent – the same position Williams once held.
These significant achievements further demonstrate our defiance to de facto segregation and Williams’ values. Today, with students from 120 different countries speaking 119 different languages, the student body at T.C. and the school is everything Williams strongly resisted creating in ACPS.
Our school division reinforces the principles of equity and inclusion in the continued fight to address racial injustices. However, modern day segregation continues in academic spaces – specifically in rigorous courses – creating a divide between students. Take a look at our Talented and Gifted program: Black and Hispanic students make up more than 60% of the student population, yet less than 15% of the TAG classes. These disproportionalities create a lack of understanding between students of color and white students, leading to microaggressions and implicit biases in classrooms.
Changes still need to be made and there also needs to be greater education to help break down these barriers and ensure all students feel supported, respected and important.
There is no doubt that intentional discussions addressing these racial inequities can bring about change and understanding. Renaming the high school is the first of many steps that we must take to address racial injustice. Focusing on these issues through discussions and education has the power to dismantle and create new systems.
We ask people to acknowledge that communities of color are often not provided the opportunity to speak on a platform. We experience these injustices on a daily basis, yet our experiences and stories are unheard. It is essential to hear the input and thoughts of students of color regarding the renaming process. After all, they encompass the majority of our school demographics. Only collaborative efforts can bring meaningful changes to ACPS.
But these need to be collaborative efforts led by those who experience them most. This is a time when we need Black and brown students to lead, to stand up and be counted and to make their voices heard so that they are not only involved in the discussions, but that they are leading the discussions around the name change from the front. This is a time when we need to turn the typical voice that the school board always hears into our voice. And in doing so, we can help transform expectations about engagement as a whole across the city in which we live.
This fall, we ask you to join us on this journey as we start to rethink what it means to be a Titan. Engage with us as we lead this discussion from the place where it all starts – with the students of color, who have made T.C. the school that it represents today. Only through this can we disinherit the legacy of Williams the man and start to redefine what it means to be a Titan from the inside out. The time is now.