Students who return to T.C. Williams High School this year will be in the midst of many dramatic changes. Construction of a new high school building will be at its heaviest. The second year of the laptop initiative will begin, once again putting the controversial computers on the desk and in the home of every student at the school. And incoming sophomores will be the last students to inhabit the old school and the first to enter the new building, which is scheduled to open in the 2007-2008 school year.
"The building is on cost and on schedule," said Principal John Porter, who had planned to take an administrative position as an assistant superintendent this year. When the superintendent could not find a replacement, Porter agreed to stay for the upcoming school year.
"We're looking forward to an exciting school year."
The high school will have 26 new teachers, 10 new support staff members, a new testing coordinator, a new academic counselor for athletes, a new assistant athletic director for facilities and a new clerical position for the front office. For students, three new Advanced Placement classes will be offered this year: Psychology, Environmental Sciences, and Art History.
STANDARDIZED TESTING has become a major part of life at T.C. Williams. A new full-time position has been created for the sole purpose of coordinating, conducting and evaluating the full calendar of tests. Last year's test scores show that most students are meeting expectations, while others are lagging behind.
Students with disabilities performed below Virginia's target for performance in mathematics and science. Participation in testing — an important factor in making sure that the results are accurate — fell behind for several groups: blacks, Hispanics, economically disadvantaged and disabled did not meet participation targets last year.
As a whole, students scored well last year: 78 percent in English performance, 75 percent in math performance and 74 percent in science performance. The goal for that year was 63 percent in mathematics and 65 percent in reading and language arts, so the student body met expectations as a whole. Targets for next year will be 69 percent in reading and 67 percent in mathematics.
Broken into subgroups, the scores from the standardized testing show some disparity at the school. White students at T.C. Williams consistently scored better than other white high school students in Virginia, but blacks students at the school consistently scored lower than other blacks in the commonwealth. Hispanics at T.C. Williams scored better than other Hispanics in Virginia on the English performance test, but not on the math performance or science performance tests.
"We're certainly concerned about performance in all the subgroups, but there are so many other factors at work here," said Porer. "The accountability issue is important to pursue, but we have some difficulty dealing with the No Child Left Behind Act as it now exists."
Under the federal legislation, which passed in 2001, expectations for student performance will steadily rise in the coming years. By 2013, students will be expected to perform at 100 percent in reading and 100 percent in mathematics.
"When you look at the scores for this year, remember that the standard for this year is higher than last year. And next year, it will be even higher," he said. "I think it goes against human nature to expect 100-percent student performance."
Porter and other educators feel that the methods of the system could be changed to more adequately reflect the performance of teachers and schools. He says that a better way to evaluate students would be to follow individual students through the years, a method that would show improvement over time instead of comparing this year's group with last year's group.
"We want to be judged on how well students perform from where they began to where they ended up," he said. "That would be a much better way of evaluating progress."
FOR A SECOND YEAR, all students at T.C. Williams will be issued laptop computers as part of the "laptop initiative" by the Alexandria City Public Schools. The cost of leasing the computers to students at the high school this year is $1,320,573.
"We're continuing to make the laptops more useful without compromising the system," said Porter, adding that all students will have new e-mail addresses this year. "We have expanded capacity for the system this year, so the system will be more useful this year."
Porter says that giving students e-mail addresses will make communication between teachers and students much more efficient. Teachers can give assignments to students, administrators can send messages to teachers and students can seek help and guidance from teachers. Porter says that he usually gets between 75 to 80 e-mails every day.
"That kind of communication with students wouldn't be possible without the laptops," he said. "I think the potential for what you can do with the laptops is unlimited."
Students will receive software that is specific to the classes that they are enrolled in. For example, biology students receive programs that are specific to biology, Spanish students receive interactive language programs and students that have a limited proficiency in English will receive software to help them become more proficient in English.
CONSTRUCTION AT THE SCHOOL has moved into the heaviest phase, and parts of the new building are now visible. Over the summer, Hensel Phelps Construction and its design team installed several major components of the new building. The foundation to the building is almost completed, and installation of geopiers is also nearing completion. Geopier construction results in dense aggregate piers used to support footings and reinforce soil and fill.
This year, the city budgeted $21.8 million to continue construction at the school, a project that is currently estimated at $97 million. Next year, the city plans to spend $19.8 million on the project. The original 2003 estimate for constructing a new school was $80 million, so the cost of the project has been steadily rising. And it still could end up being more than $97 million.
"Until construction is complete, that's always a possibility," said Mark Jinks, assistant city manager.
Jinks added that the contract with the construction company includes an unusual stipulation that the schools system would not have to pay for any errors in the design plan; Hensel Phelps agreed to assume liability for that. But the schools would be responsible for paying for any last-minute changes or additions that are made to the plan. Also, change orders that are made to the construction as a result of soil conditions would be assumed by the city schools.
With a project that could easily exceed $100 million, school administrators are frequently challenged about the need for such and expensive new school.
"I think that most taxpayers in the community understand that having a viable education system is important to the overall health of our community," said Porter. "One thing that often gets overlooked is that the new school will help increase value of the homes in Alexandria."
Improving the existing school was a possibility. But Porter says that when a study was done of the existing facility, the costs exceeded the benefits.
"The industry standard is that you build a new school if the cost of improving your existing school is three quarters the cost of building a new one," said Porter. "By building a new T.C. Williams, we will get a much longer life expectancy than if we spent a lot of money to renovate this existing T.C. Williams."