To the Editor:
“Well, it was a lot of talking about talking,” was T.C. Williams junior Sam Wingfield’s reaction after attending a town hall meeting on the overcrowding at TC’s King Street and Minnie Howard campuses with Vice Mayor Justin Wilson on a beautiful Sunday, Sept. 25. More than 100 Alexandrians, including TC students and teachers, and members of City Council and School Board, came to Beatley Library to discuss what to do about our crowded high school.
Talking about talking, or process, is a necessary element of government at every level. In June 2015, after a lengthy investigation, the council endorsed, and the board adopted, a joint Long Range Educational Facilities Plan that outlined an approach to deal with the capacity needs of our schools which have added 5,000 students (for a total of almost 15,000 students) over 10 years. That plan did not address the capacity issues in grades 9-12. In January 2017 the board and council will begin Phase II of the planning process that will address the secondary grades. The recommendations from Phase II may not be known for years.
At the town hall, numerous parents asked variations of several questions about our crowded secondary schools: "How did things get in this condition? What do you plan to do to fix the problem now?" Or, as one parent asked, “Who do we have to harass?”
Process is important and the joint planning efforts of the board and council are commendable. However, there are times when circumstances combine such that deliberative planning processes compound, not relieve, compelling community problems. This is one of those times.
The board will start deliberating its capital budget in October. The council will take up its capital budget, which includes the ACPS capital budget, next spring. In ordinary circumstances the board and council might be tempted to defer decisions regarding the long-term infrastructure needs of the secondary schools until completion of Phase II of the Long Range Facilities Plan. But, we are not in ordinary circumstances. Here are some facts:
The capacity of TC’s King Street campus is 2,766. Enrollment on Sept. 23 was 2,945. We are well on the way to 3,000 students at the “new” building on King Street which will be 10 years old next fall.
The enrollment pressure on TC will continue unabated as enrollments at the middle schools, George Washington (1,334 on Sept. 23) and Francis Hammond (1,408 on Sept. 23), continue to rise at rates not expected to subside for years.
TC’s staff and students are increasingly apprehensive about safety in circumstances involving the movement of large groups of students, for example, passing times, dismissal and fire drills.
Our superintendent, Dr. Crawley, who spoke at the town hall meeting, acknowledged the need for near-term “temporary solutions,” meaning, probably, trailers. While short-term remedies are necessary, they are not sufficient. A long-term vision coupled with action is required.
The long-delayed 10-classroom addition planned for TC’s Minnie Howard campus has been publicly called a “Band Aid” by board members and openly described by council members as inadequate for the number of students projected for Minnie Howard.
What do we do?
We should not invest so much in the short term that some will believe the problem has been solved. We need a long-term solution that is educationally sound, deliverable in a reasonable time and comprehensive. Much as some might wish for it, 23 acres in Alexandria (the minimum high school site required by Virginia Department of Education guidelines) for a second high school is not likely to materialize. The best alternative is the construction of a new multi-story facility on the 13-acre Minnie Howard site to accommodate the growth in TC's enrollment.
The Minnie Howard property is large enough to accommodate a new facility for our secondary students — a partner to the nearby King Street building — that the community can be proud of. The issue of grade and program configuration — should a rebuilt Minnie Howard house grades 9 and 10 or more grades or specific programs? — can be debated as the planning goes forward on a swifter timeline than that originally contemplated for Phase II of the Long Range Educational Facilities Plan.
The council and the board should act expeditiously to give Alexandria’s public school students and families hope — a vision of, and action on, one great high school in two state-of-the art facilities.
Yvonne and Brian Folkerts
Nancy and Marc Williams
Brooksie Koopman and Mark Eaton