About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Inflection point or ‘rinse and repeat?’

About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Inflection point or ‘rinse and repeat?’
Mark Eaton (Courtesy photo)

By Mark Eaton

On January 11, the Alexandria Times reported on Alexandria City High School teacher Matthew Henry’s distressing letter to the School Board. Henry’s letter described three recent encounters with students that made him feel unsafe, including an abhorrent hallway confrontation with students who called him a homophobic slur. The letter said, “I feel like my school and district is letting me down. This is why I’m so shaken by this.” 

I worked with Matt Henry in ACHS’ English department for many years. I have a high regard for him as a teacher and a person, so his letter carries special weight. 

Henry’s letter is a potential inflection point: It’s an opportunity to renew the decades-long discussion about alternative education in the secondary schools and to create a new and better educational experience for a small, but critical, group of ACHS students. Alternatively, things will go on as before and this will simply be another ugly incident at ACHS that depresses most of us and validates the prejudices of some of us. 

In a large public high school, the few can significantly affect the many. In the 14 years I taught at ACHS, administrators repeatedly described their world this way: “Mark,” a principal or assistant principal would say, “We spend 80 to 90% of our time chasing the same [insert a number from 25 to 75, depending on the school year] students.” 

It is incontrovertible that the 3,600 students at the King Street campus – out of a total of 4,700 ACPS high school students – include a group, exemplified by the students who threatened and verbally abused Henry, that is not well-served by being in the large high school environment and who would benefit from an alternative setting. 

Alternative high school education, how it should be designed and where it should be delivered is not a new topic in Alexandria. When I first ran for School Board in 1997, a proposal for a freestanding alternative school for high school students was a major campaign issue. Community leaders, notably Glenn Hopkins of Hopkins House, weighed in on the issue with intensity. 

Alexandrians with long memories may recall that the then-T.C. Williams High School offered an alternative program, the Secondary Training and Education Program, which was housed in a largely self-contained – and less than appealing – area of the old T.C. Williams building. The STEP program lasted only one year after the new building on King Street opened in 2007. Former T.C. Williams Principal John Porter told me, “STEP helped a lot of kids.” 

There are plain, but challenging, truths about alternative education: 

• These programs succeed through the work of relentlessly dedicated teachers, counselors, and administrators. 

• Every possible effort must be made with students and parents/ guardians to build a welcoming culture and overcome concerns about resegregation, discriminatory placements and students being “warehoused.” 

• Alternative education must be funded appropriately. 

• The scope and lines of administrative authority must be clear. 

• An alternative program has the best chance for success in a setting that is purpose-built and separate, but close to, the larger high school. 

ACHS Executive Principal Alexander Duncan told me the opening of the new building at the Minnie Howard Campus this fall should ease the crowding at the King Street campus. Duncan is interested in exploring an alternative education program at or near one of the high school campuses that would complement the Chance for Change program that is delivered in the ACHS central administration building on Braddock Place. 

Henry, and other ACHS teachers, are asking for help. The students who threatened and verbally assaulted Matt are also asking for help. Both groups deserve Alexandria’s attention. 

So, a suggestion to ACPS leaders and Alexandrians concerned with the best interests of our high school students: Please use Henry’s letter as an opportunity to get past “rinse and repeat” and instead see it as an urgent call to intensify the discussion about alternative high school education in Alexandria with the goal of taking decisive action. 

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 free subscriptions to his newsletter are available at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/.