Keeping Options Open in Alexandria?

Keeping Options Open in Alexandria?

Board approves high school network plan, contingent on more analysis.

“By May 2019, the superintendent shall provide multiple preliminary design proposals for the board’s consideration, including one or more proposals that incorporate the creation of a second comprehensive high school.” —ACPS School Board

The School Board authorized the Minnie Howard expansion, as a first step toward the superintendent’s proposed “connected high school network,” but with some added constraints and milestones, on Jan. 24.

The public schools administration for months has been planning about how best to add high school seats. Enrollment has already outgrown the T.C. Williams main King Street campus (grades 10-12), built in 2007. Last fall, Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings outlined for the prior School Board three general, big-picture choices, though details aren’t yet worked out:

  • Make the existing T.C. Williams bigger;
  • Build another stand-alone comprehensive high school;
  • Keep everything under one T.C. Williams Titans “brand,” but distribute specialty programs, akin to the school division’s existing “academies” (health sciences, finance, STEM), across one or more additional facilities.

Hutchings and school system COO Mignon Anthony preferred the third option, variously dubbed the “connected high school network” or “campus” model. They asked the School Board formally to approve it as the overarching “strategy” around which to tailor subsequent planning efforts, namely, site selection. As originally framed, a favorable decision would have ruled out building another comprehensive high school campus in the city — at least “not [in] the near future,” though perhaps “in the way future,” said Hutchings.

“The vote is: are we going to have a strategy with one high school … [or] multiple high schools … in Alexandria?” he told the School Board during a Dec. 20 project update.

He reckoned that a new stand-alone high school might cramp flexibility for students and families to choose their best-fit learning environments; and also might require infeasible expense, costing as much as $216 million. That cost estimate far surpasses the $124 million the city agreed to last year in its FY 2019-2028 long-range capital improvement budget.

Several School Board members expressed reservations. Some thought the proposal lacked sufficient comparative cost analysis and constituent buy-in.

On Thursday of last week, the School Board voted unanimously to “empower the superintendent to move forward immediately with the design and build of a new high school building on the Minnie Howard site as part of a Connected High School Network strategy and continue to work on additional elements of the network including expansion of the T.C. Williams Satellite campus, and implementation of the middle college program on the NOVA campus.”

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Though they qualified that “students [should] have the option of fulfilling graduation requirements in one building.” That wouldn’t necessarily have been possible under Hutchings’ original proposal, which included the possibility of acquiring smaller, and thus cheaper and more available, sites. The administration says it could also more flexibility adapt a real estate portfolio of smaller sites to future demographic trends.

In a 5-4 split vote, they added the following caveat, explicitly not precluding another stand-alone campus, keeping options more open: “By May 2019, the superintendent shall provide multiple preliminary design proposals for the board’s consideration, including one or more proposals that incorporate the creation of a second comprehensive high school. The superintendent shall provide the board with a comparative cost-benefit (or SWOT [Strengths, Weaknesses Opportunities, Threats]) analysis that incorporates considerations of at least the following: academic literature / research; qualitative references to comparable high schools / high school models that can inform planning and decision-making; financial impacts of the proposed design; impact of design on student achievement, including impact of the design on subgroups (e.g., EL [English learner] students, SPED [special education] students, underrepresented minorities); impact of design on access to academic and extracurricular program; impact of design on interpersonal and social-emotional skills; strategy to allow staff to continue to explore site and program options.”

School Board Chair Cindy Anderson, Vice Chair Veronica Nolan, and members Ramee Gentry and Margaret Lorber dissented.