Inside the High School Project, part two

Inside the High School Project, part two
Alexandria City High School is preparing launch its ‘High School Project.’ (File photo)

By James Libresco, Theogony

This is the conclusion of a two-part article, the first part of which ran in the May 2 Alexandria Times after first appearing in the Alexandria City High School publication Theogony.

Due to the sensitive nature of this article, several sources agreed to speak to Theogony on the condition of anonymity. Altered names of anonymous sources appear with an asterisk upon first use and are always italicized.

As Alexandria City High School prepares for the opening of its new Minnie Howard campus, engagement efforts are at an all-time high. Behind the scenes, interviews with multiple teachers and administrators reveal that the process is shakier than it appears.

Many staff members don’t believe the administrative restructuring planned to accompany the Minnie Howard opening will necessarily enhance student learning or experiences. Since student support personnel – including counselors – will be tied to deans instead of assistant/academic principals next year, new relationships will have to be cultivated.

“It’s difficult and chaotic in this building a lot of the time, but one thing that makes it function for us is that we know the team we work with, and that team works well together,” mid-level Administrator Walter Caddel* said. “And in taking that away, there’s just a lot of uncertainty.”

“This is too chaotic to do right now,” Sarah Kiyak, who has taught at ACHS for the last 19 years and is leaving the district at the end of the school year, said. “In five months, we’re about to open a new building. We don’t even know which teachers are going to be teaching in each building.”

“I’m not sure why we’re rushing everything,” English teacher Katherine Bentley said. “For next year, we should have just opened Minnie. Then we could try to add these academies. And then we can restructure based on academy. We’re trying to cram way too much into one year, and I think it’s going to be madness.”

Furthermore, many staff members said the decision has been detrimental to their trust in the school leadership.

“How do you trust someone when you see they’ll take an entire group of employees and just clean sweep them out?” International Academy teacher Corrina Reamer asked. “It affects the way I see the district and my interest in staying.”

“Yes,” Caddel said when asked if the relationship with his supervisors has been damaged. “If nothing else, because they have their jobs and we don’t.”

Some teachers are also frustrated because they feel their perspectives on issues like the restructuring are often overlooked.

“Central Office and the upper administration continually say that they want to hear thoughts from teachers, that they want our opinions,” English teacher Alex Anton* said. “I’m in a lot of meetings where they ask me my opinion on little stuff. But big stuff, they just do what they want. … That’s been demoralizing.”

During an online webinar for parents on April 18, ACHS Executive Principal Alexander Duncan described a more inclusive undertaking.

“Our staff has been very involved in this process,” he said, referring to the development of the academy model. “[They] have engaged in focus groups with our consultants on several different occasions, as well as campus-based working group committees. … This whole process has been designed to not only include teacher voice, but to rely on [teachers] and their expertise.”

Anton said this did not happen for the administrative restructuring, something Duncan and Carmen Sanders, Alexandria City Public Schools executive director of instructional support, later confirmed.

“They didn’t ask our opinion at all,” Anton said. “No one asked teachers about this restructuring. No one asked us about firing everyone.”

According to Sanders, staff engagement adhered to the precedent of previous restructurings in the district. The last time ACHS was restructured was in 2017 under the leadership of former Executive Principal Peter Balas.

“Through every restructuring I’ve seen implemented in ACPS, there has not been a voice given to the impacted staff, [including teachers],” Sanders said. “I’m curious because I’ve seen multiple restructurings and there was never this type of teacher response.”

The different reactions may be related to a perceived exclusion from relevant engagement on the academy model.

“We haven’t had a chance to really give feedback on how the academies work in a way that meaningfully moves the needle,” teacher Jordan Payton* said. “There have been feedback sessions, but nothing has really changed, despite many concerns being raised from every conceivable factor. … Questions have been asked, and in many cases those questions were either kicked to other people, who didn’t know the answers, or were ignored.”

Payton said a professional development day in March was specifically designated as a time for teachers to share their ideas, but it failed to pan out that way.

“Most of it was just us getting speeches about how great things are already working,” he said. “And then we were able to give feedback on a very narrow band of things, none of which included the academy structure.”

On the other hand, Bowes said he doesn’t mind how the decision was made.

“It’s not my job to be part of that planning process,” he said. “I’m not resistant to anything that my leaders tell me to do, because it’s their vision for what they want to accomplish. … I have to respect the leaders who made those decisions.”

Even so, ACPS has created methods intended for staff engagement. One of these processes is an online survey where educators can submit questions regarding the High School Project. The questions are then answered by Duncan, Sanders and other Central Office staff in a shared spreadsheet. The spreadsheet, of which Theogony has obtained a copy, contains 123 total questions; just 38 of them have been answered or partially answered. The most recent answers were provided on March 11, according to an indicator in the spreadsheet.

When asked about the pending questions, Sanders said many of them are “redundant” and not questions that she “will be able to answer,” as she believes they are related to localized operational issues. She also said that “finding time to get into [the spreadsheet] again … will be of great importance for me within the next few weeks.”

A Theogony analysis of the spreadsheet found that 24 out of the 123 questions are redundant or duplicates and four pertain to specific operational issues.

Inside teacher working groups, which are designed as a vehicle for engagement, social studies teacher Marie Matthews* says staff perspectives can be brushed aside as well.

“We’ve been on the committees, we’ve put time and effort into them and then the administration has decided not to take our feedback into account,” Matthews, who has been involved with planning the High School Project for years, said.

“It’s almost like you’re starting a relationship; you’re really excited; you’re building it up; you have lots of optimism and hope,” she said. “And then it’s just sort of undercut that, ‘No, we actually don’t care.’ That happens a lot in ACPS, and that’s why a lot of veteran teachers … are a little bit frustrated.”

Matthews said teachers would be more inclined to adapt to change if they were involved in major decisions instead of reliance on outside consulting firms. According to Sanders, a consulting “conglomerate” called Learner-Centered Collaborative was hired in 2023 for the High School Project. Teacher working groups had previously led planning stages of the project, but they were dismantled while the school system navigated more pressing issues like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“ACPS has a track record of inviting consultants to do things for us,” Matthews said. “These consultants are bringing great ideas, but they don’t know our student population. … When it’s time for the implementation, it needs to be done by teachers.”

She also said that when teachers try to share feedback, they can sometimes face backlash.

“There have been some situations where people have spoken out in meetings, and then we’ve heard they were taken into an administrator’s office and lectured to not be so negative,” she said. “[Administration and central office personnel] want everybody to fall in line; they don’t really want to hear the criticism.”

Other teachers concurred to varying magnitudes.

“There’s a culture of fear here,” elective teacher Keera Johnston* said. “If you speak out, you get reprimanded for it.”

Johnston shared what she said is an example of this from 2021. According to Johnston, an administrator instructed a teacher to discuss their concerns only with upper administration and Central Office staff after that teacher replied-all to a schoolwide email thread to advocate for more transparency regarding conflict and drug use. Duncan told Theogony that he “can’t speak to other people’s experiences in the past” and “can only speak to the culture that I am trying to cultivate here.”

“You are driving your amazing teachers and administrators away,” Johnston said about the ACHS leadership team. “This is not a system where teachers who truly have a lot of passion for education want to be … How are we supposed to be great educators when we’re worried about X, Y and Z in the back of our heads? It’s all a domino effect.”

“I agree that there is a degree of a culture of fear among staff,” Reamer said. “I don’t think it’s universal, but I think it’s too widespread. It’s more widespread than any other school I’ve ever taught at. Blowing away the entire midlevel administration without cause certainly supports that fear and that way of thinking.”

Kiyak said this phenomenon is relatively new.

“I think that it started about 10 years ago as the communications program at Central Office started to revamp,” she said. “ACPS does its best to protect what’s going on and keep everything very insular. … It’s a system that prefers silence and compliance.”

Other teachers think the abnormally large school population – with more than 4,500 students across all campuses last year – results in staff feeling isolated by the bureaucracy.

“The school is so big that it’s hard to feel like you can go to someone in administration to talk to them,” teacher Monica Jackson* said. “They’re busy and I understand that, but it makes it difficult to feel comfortable going to someone that you don’t know more personally. I don’t necessarily think it’s fear.”

“This school is a small town; word gets around and people hold grudges,” Anton said. “I don’t think there’s generally a culture of fear, but I can see why people wouldn’t want to talk.”

Payton said he agreed with this analysis.

“There are ways people have of getting back at teachers,” he said. “Administrators can make your life miserable. You could be teaching four different classes; you could be given an insane student caseload; you could be pulled into every Individual Education Plan meeting under the sun as the teacher representative.”

“That’s one of the reasons it’s so important that people like [Assistant Principal] Maggie Tran exist,” Payton added. “They are administrators who work so hard to mitigate those outcomes and buoy them with helpful support and methods of making teachers’ lives easier, not harder.”

Whether or not a culture of fear exists, school staff are hesitant to speak publicly about the restructuring. Out of the 16 affected administrators, 10 declined to comment on the situation, with many saying they were applying to one of the new positions and believed speaking to Theogony could impact that process. Three could not be reached despite multiple requests for comment over email. Two others – in addition to four out of the seven teachers interviewed – spoke only on the condition of anonymity. Just one, Bowes, was willing to speak on the record.

If the restructuring decision was made to support students’ academic growth, a consequence has been its impact on staff morale.

“I’ll probably reapply,” Caddel said. “But the other thing I say is, ‘Would you?’ I’m loyal to the school; I came here specifically over other schools. But if my loyalty isn’t being reciprocated, that isn’t a healthy relationship.”

“I’m not an individual unmoved, unbothered and unfazed by the feelings, the conditions and the perceptions of other people,” Duncan said. “In terms of my role as the executive principal, I needed to make [the restructuring] recommendation because that’s what my job is. In terms of my role as a human being, I wanted to make sure that this team received efficient, adequate and a number of supports from the division.”

“This is Duncan’s choice,” Matthews said. “When there are positions that are open, you bring in people that support your vision. … As long as it’s what’s best for ACPS, I support it.”

But with so much instability in staff positions, mid-level Administrator Caleb Lee* hopes that vision will not continue to change.

“We just have to do it right,” he said. “Keep everything student-centered and aligned with the goal – whatever that is – and make sure it’s not changing so much. … We have to do better as a school.”

“My hope for the school community is that we can continue to find ways to create small communities, like the academies,” Caddel said. “But for next year, I hope they find the team that they want.

The writer, a junior at ACHS, is an editor of Theogony.