‘Give Us a Direction’ in Alexandria?

‘Give Us a Direction’ in Alexandria?

School Board to vote on strategy for high school expansion.

“Most people I’ve talked to haven’t been following very closely and don’t know very much about the connected high school concept. …Those who have been following it have a lot of questions.” —School Board Member Michelle Rief

The School Board will vote on Thursday, Jan. 24, on a proposal to expand T.C. Williams into a multi-site “connected high school network,” notwithstanding uncertain fiscal ramifications and public buy-in.

Student enrollment is outpacing seats division-wide, not least for the secondary school. Under current conditions, T.C. Williams High School would operate at about 130 percent of design capacity within a decade, based on enrollment forecasts. Addressing the problem is one of the school division’s top priorities, and paying for it constitutes one of City Council’s largest foreseeable citywide capital investments.

Last fall, Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings and COO Mignon Anthony outlined for the prior School Board three general choices, though details remain forthcoming:

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

Hutchings and Anthony prefer the third option. They’ve asked the School Board formally to approve it as the overarching “strategy” around which to tailor subsequent planning efforts, namely, site selection.

The School Board needs to move forward by a “process of elimination,” with Thursday's vote being the first winnowing, said Hutchings. “The vote … is not to have a concrete plan on everything that we are doing. The vote is, are we going to have a strategy with one high school … [or] multiple high schools…?” It’s too early in the planning process “to start talking about all the things that everybody want to hear about location and … programs ….”

“We’re just asking for you to give us a direction,” said Anthony.

Hutchings’ administration prefers the connected network strategy for various reasons, but especially because they think it would maximize flexibility for families to choose best-fit learning environments.

“All students are not going to thrive in a very large school” like T.C. Williams in its current form, Hutchings said in a Jan. 17 podcast. “A small learning community” or other more “isolated” environments, including “blended” online-and-classroom studies, might better suit some students. “So this connected high school model affords choices for our students.” He says research shows that smaller learning environments can increase student performance and decrease dropouts.

He also thinks the strategy would enable the division more easily to adapt its portfolio of facilities to future demographic changes.

But the situation poses something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum. If Hutchings is reluctant to conduct detailed planning without knowing the big-picture preferred model, the School Board is reluctant to bless a particular model without knowing more about consequent details.

Several School Board members, prior and current, have repeatedly expressed confusion about what precisely the staff is asking them to vote on, especially given that costs remain undefined.

“What is the financial implication [of] what it is I’m voting on? What’s the cost-benefit analysis of weighing this option versus options …?” asked re-elected incumbent School Board Member Veronica Nolan. “I don’t personally feel like I have enough data to make an informed decision.”

According to a Dec. 20 staff presentation to the prior School Board: “Costs at this early planning phase do not indicate a significant cost savings or exposure of any specific high school model. Capital costs cannot be compared with accuracy between models at this time. … Costs, timing, feasibility and other project specific factors will be determined in spring of 2019.” Although a Jan. 10 presentation to the new School Board expressed greater confidence, saying: “some cost savings are expected from a connected high school network.” Savings could result from “reduced duplication in the operating budget for two comprehensive high schools; more ability to renovate or retrofit space(s) rather than expensive new constructions; smaller sites [being] more available than large sites….”

Some School Board members expressed doubt that gleanings from last fall’s community engagement process well support the administration’s proposal.

School Board Member Heather Thornton observed that an online community survey yielded only 421 responses.

Moreover, “a connected high school network was not explicitly advocated for greatly” during the engagement process, she said, quoting from a staff presentation slide. “Community buy-in is going to be essential in this process, and if we’re not getting explicit advocates right of the bat, that concerns me.”

“Most people I’ve talked to haven’t been following very closely and don’t know very much about the connected high school concept. …Those who have been following it have a lot of questions,” said School Board Member Michelle Rief.

“We literally pushed through as much engagement as we thought we could bear,” given a short timeline to get the project moving, said Anthony. But “a lot of people did not tune in between July and maybe last month. They just didn’t show up. They just didn’t understand. A lot of them are going to understand when we have a feasibility study … and say, we’re thinking about putting [one or more] high school campuses … in your neighborhood, or in this particular place. I guarantee you that is when we’re going to get a whole lot of attention.”

For more, visit www.acps.k12.va.us/Page/2260.