Congratulations, Mr. Duncan!

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By Mark Eton

In an event requiring congratulations, fare- well wishes and reflections, Alexander Duncan III has become the new executive principal of Alexandria City High School’s multiple campuses.

First, congratulations to Duncan, who has been with ACPS since 2007. He rose from being a high school English teacher to being the leader of Virginia’s largest public high school. Second, many thanks and all best wishes to departing Executive Principal Pete Balas, who concluded a more than 20-year ACPS career and became the principal of Arlington County’s Wakefield High School.

Alexandria’s public employees perform vital functions but the principal of the city’s only pub- lic high school plays a special role. Measured in terms of lives directly touched, the ACHS principal may be the most important public employee in the city. The ACHS principal regularly makes decisions, particularly hiring choices, that affect the formative experiences of 4,000 of the city’s young people.

In 14 years at the then T.C. Williams High School I worked with Principals Mel Riddile, Bill Clendaniel, Suzanne Maxey, Jesse Dingle, Balas and an interim principal or two. Of these, only Maxey and Balas served for five years or more. This may be about the minimum duration – and number of staff hiring cycles – to make a real difference in the composition of the staff and the culture of the school.

What accounts for the turnover in ACHS principals? The job is extremely demanding, as a high school principal has many constituents. Many stakeholders approach the principal with problems, not solutions. There were probably multiple unique factors in the departure of each principal. Of course, personnel matters deserve privacy and career decisions belong to the people who make them.

Even so, Balas’ move to Wakefield, the nearest public high school to ACHS and at 2,150 students a little over half ACHS’ size, is disconcerting. Moreso when viewed in tandem with the departure last month of 2023 Washington Post Principal of the Year Liza Burrell-Aldana from Mount Vernon Community School for Arlington County’s Claremont Immersion Elementary School.

In a meet-the-candidates Zoom webinar, Duncan said that in his former role as an administrator at ACHS’ Minnie Howard campus he dealt “mostly with adults.” He made an in- tentional effort to interact with students by be- ing present in the halls at passing time and at lunch and by trying to form mentor-mentee relationships with students who might need them. These are admirable efforts, but they reveal important consequences of the large enrollments at ACHS’ King Street and Minnie Howard campuses.

The communications challenges for administrators driven by the sheer number of students may be one of the results of allowing ACHS to grow to its current size. It is essential to hire principals who care about students and are “great with kids,” but ACHS’ size seems to promote student-administrator interactions that are either brief and incidental or driven by crises.

ACHS’ size provides an opportunity for an idea that would benefit principals and students. What if ACHS administrators were offered the opportunity to teach a single class, even a semester course, every year? Teaching a class would be a change from the daily whirlwind of issues that administrators encounter. It would also allow administrators to get to know students in different and meaningful ways and to maintain their classroom instruction and engagement skills.

Administrators teaching, on an optional basis, seems to be more prevalent at the college level where deans and college presidents often teach a class. ACHS’ enrollment is larger than many colleges and it may be time to think differently about what we ask of, or offer, our high school administrators.

As a high school teacher, I was always grateful for administrators. They generally dealt with more difficult problems than I did and I tried to cooperate with them. I felt privileged and excited each day when I closed the door to Room A202 to explore literature, language and journalism with TC’s, now ACHS’, terrific students.

The venerable cliche and truism is that the teacher learns more than anyone in the class- room. Maybe it is time to share the fun.

The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@gmail.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/.

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