After long discussion about high school expansion strategy, the School Board will consider initial site options at its April 25 meeting.
The city government’s FY 2020-2029 capital improvement budget, currently under consideration, would allocate $119 million for capacity expansions — the second single largest capital investment on Alexandria’s horizon.
In response to ballooning enrollment, the School Board last year launched the “High School Project,” an initiative to add capacity and modernize programming. The schools’ options for more space essentially boil down to three: (1) expand the current T.C. Williams High School, a disfavored option thus far; (2) build another stand-alone high school; or (3) create a network of smaller sites, but kept under one T.C. Williams banner.
Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings recommended the third, dubbed the “Connected High School Network,” which would have precluded the second, at least for the foreseeable future. In a January vote, the School Board half-stepped in his direction, authorizing new construction at T.C.’s Minnie Howard ninth grade campus; expansion of the existing high school satellite program at the administration’s central office building; and implementation of an early college program, which would have students attend classes at Northern Virginia Community College.
But some School Board members weren’t entirely convinced that constituents clearly understood the choices, or that Hutchings had exhausted the possibility of a second comprehensive high school. In a split 5-4 vote, they explicitly left that option on the table, pending more detailed “comparative cost-benefit analysis.”
While that analysis isn’t due for School Board consideration until September, the administration will publish initial High School Project programming and site options on Friday, April 19. The School Board will discuss those initial options the following Thursday, April 25.
Land availability and cost depend in large part on building size requirements. The current T.C. Williams facility totals 460,000 square feet — the largest high school in Virginia. Hutchings reckons a second stand-alone campus would require a facility nearly as large — nearly 410,000 square feet — for 2,100 students. That would cost an estimated $216 million, 82 percent over the city’s current budgeted amount. He expects multiple smaller campuses would be easier to find land for, and also cheaper to buy or lease.
In December, the city government suggested some 15 sites or areas large enough to warrant study, according to Mignon Anthony, the schools’ COO. Those included, according to city spokesperson Craig Fifer in January: Landmark Mall, currently under redevelopment planning; Eisenhower East; the parking lot adjacent to Regal Cinemas Theater in Potomac Yard; a recreation field and wooded area near Francis Hammond Middle School; soccer fields at Simpson Stadium Park; a dog park near Beatley Library; and a commercial warehouse near the Van Dorn Station Shopping Center.
Specific programming the new high school solution would offer is also still under development. The schools administration is launching an outreach campaign for TC students to give input to the process, including through social media. The campaign, called “Titans Connected,” will last the next two months and intends to build on student-centered focus groups that took place last fall.
“It’s still important to acknowledge that there are a lot of students who don’t know about what’s going on,” said Ewan Thompson, a student representative to the School Board.