The building is rising so close to King Street that many drivers are astonished at the pace of its construction. The steel girders seemed to be barely in place when the masonry started a few months ago. Now that almost all the bricks are in place, the crew is putting finishing touches on the building that will soon become Alexandria's first new high school since 1965. After students shuffle off on May 25, a wrecking ball will be taken to the old school a building that served as the city's public-school melting pot for more than 40 years.
"It's sad to see the building torn down," said Mayor Bill Euille, a 1968 graduate of Alexandria's only high school. "But I think the name protects the historic significance of the school."
In Alexandria, the name "T.C. Williams"is contradictory. Some people associate it with the high school. But the man for whom it was named has his own fame. Former Alexandria Superintendent T.C. Williams supported Virginia's resistance to integration in the 1950s and 1960s. Although Williams once fired a black cafeteria worker who wanted her children to attend white schools, Euille said that he strongly supported keeping the school's name.
"If the name were to change, the heart and soul of the school would be lost forever," said the mayor. "A lot of alumni felt that way when we were in the planning stages."
THE NEW SCHOOL is set to open this fall in a high-tech 461,000 square foot building. Its three stories will accommodating a maximum of 2,500 students. The building's environmentally friendly design is anticipated to receive a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification offered by the United States Green Building Council. Known as "LEED" certification, the green features of the new school include using rainwater water in the toilets, employing solar panels to save energy costs and filling 90 percent of the building with natural light.
"I think it will be one of the best high schools in the mid-Atlantic region,,"said Mark Krause, director of facilities for the school system. "This school is the state of the art."
LEED-certified features include a 450,000-gallon underground cistern that will collect rainwater from the building's roof and store it for use in toilet flushing, air-conditioning operations and irrigation; a measurement and verification system will track water and energy usage at the facility; and a garden roof that will clean roof run-off before draining to the storm sewer system and provides a living laboratory for students. Students will be able to collect environmental data at a board in the student commons.
"We looked at about a half dozen options," said Krause, who was part of the committee that began planning for the new school four years ago. "We decided early in the process that it would make a whole lot of sense to go for the LEED certification."
AT THE SITE of construction, workers carry a checklist with them to keep track of recycled materials. Current building practices create approximately two pounds of solid waste per square foot, but LEED certification has been designed to reduce waste by encouraging the use of recycled materials while simultaneously recycling waste materials.
"Eighty-nine percent of the total weight of our trash is being recycled," said Dan Pierce, contracting officer at the construction site. "I‚ve never worked on a project quite like this before."
Pierce said that the most challenging part of the job is dealing with the small footprint, constructing a six-acre school on an eight-acre site. But the strict environmental standards of LEED certification also pose a challenge. Aside from the recycled materials, many other aspects of the construction contribute to the certification: use of local materials, erosion and sediment control, indoor air-quality management, stormwater management and light pollution control.
"The lights point down instead of up, that way they don‚t blind the neighbors," said Pierce. "And the waste from the masonry that‚s now going on will be crushed and used as bedding for underground pipes."
THE PRICE of the school — $99 million — will pay for a high-tech new 461,000 square foot building accommodating a maximum of 2,500 students. Arlington is currently financing $95 million to renovate Washington-Lee High School for 1,500 students and $97 million to rehab Yorktown High School for 1,600 students. That's $192 million for 3,100 students. By contrast, Alexandria is spending $99 million for a T.C. Williams that will be expecting about 2,000 students when doors open later this year.
"I think Alexandria has benefited tremendously by consolidating all of our resources in one high school,"said Councilwoman Del Pepper. "This is a demonstration of careful management on the part of Alexandria leaders over many years."
Although the enrollment capacity is 2,500, school officials are expecting 2,000 students in the next academic year. Population at the school has been steadily declining for years, a trend that isn't expected to change. T.C. Williams enrolled 2,020 students last year, 1,997 this year and a projected 2008 population of 1,955.
The superintendent expects enrollment to continue declining over the next five years.
Since 2001, the city has lost 883 students. That's an 8 percent decline and the declining trend shows no hint of slowing anytime soon. A recent study funded by Alexandria City Public Schools projected a division-wide enrollment of 10,139 for the 2015 to 2016 school year, a decline of 219 students.
"The United States as a whole continues to undergo major shifts in public student enrollment, due in large part to past events including the baby boom, the availability of birth control and the development of suburbs," reported the study, which was conducted by DeJong, an Ohio-based educational facility planning firm. "As of the 2000 Census, the size of a family was at an all-time low of 3.14 persons and is expected to experience a further decline."
The study also tracked a lack of retention as the students become older. For example, 25 percent fewer students are in the 12th grade this year than were in the 6th grade six years ago. The enrollment peak is in Kindergarten, which has 995, with a low in the 12th grade, which has 585 students.
"The build-out analysis shows that while there is new development with potential to yield students, declining enrollment projections due to lower income class enrollments and low survival ratios will offset the potential student yields," the study concluded.
OTHER AREAS in the region are experiencing rapid increases, with Loudon County growing 35 percent in the past four years and Prince William County counting for 17 percent more students. Yet statistics show other localities should expect declining school-age populations. Arlington's population has decreased by 5 percent since 2002, and Alexandria's enrollment numbers have dropped 8 percent since 2002.
Nevertheless, local officials are willing to spend massive amounts of money on new school infrastructure. But the key difference between what's happening in Arlington and the buildings that is now rising on King Street is one of degree. All of T.C. Williams will be demolished as a completely new landscape emerges from the mechanical claws after the hardhats have been shelved. The classrooms where generations of Alexandria students attended daily lessons will be shuffled from this mortal coil as construction workers erect a parking structure.
"It's going to be an exciting facility," said John Porter, the longtime T.C. Williams principal who is now an assistant superintendent. "I can't wait to see it."
THE $99 MILLION price tag for the new T.C. Williams includes demolition of the old school, construction of a garage, preparation of the construction site and furniture. But it does not include moving expenses, which Superintendent Rebecca Perry has budgeted $500,000 for in the operating budget for 2008.
"It's a lot harder to move from an old school to a new school than it is to open a brand new school and not move anything," said Perry. "As a matter of a fact, I'm concerned that it's not enough."