Opinion: Commentary: Alexandria School Successes and What Still Needs to be Done

Opinion: Commentary: Alexandria School Successes and What Still Needs to be Done

Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. comforts a student experiencing a little separation anxiety at the Early Childhood Center at John Adams Elementary School.

Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. comforts a student experiencing a little separation anxiety at the Early Childhood Center at John Adams Elementary School. ACPS Photo

It’s hard to believe that 12 months have gone by since I last wrote for the Alexandria Gazette Packet’s Newcomers issue, at a time when I was just embarking on my journey as the Superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools. This has been an exciting year and we have certainly made some progress; however, there is still much work to do.

As most of us countdown to the first day of school on Sept. 3, with students at Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School having already returned, I want to welcome all our new families and also reflect a little on what we stand for in ACPS. A new school year is a time to reflect on both our achievements and the work that still needs to be done in the coming academic year.

There is nowhere quite like Alexandria. We are fortunate to have students from 114 countries who speak 119 different languages and bring so much to our community and help to create a vibrant and fascinating culture. We also have broad socio-economic diversity. This also brings its own unique set of obstacles that set us apart from neighboring school divisions.

Our incredible diversity is a life-learning tool in itself — one that fosters empathy and a sophisticated understanding of the 21st century world. It is an aspect of our school division we continue to take full advantage of. Whether a student arrives in our classrooms from Afghanistan unable to speak English, or born and raised in our great city, our hopes for that child are the very same: that they will leave our school division the best they can be, ready to take any path they chose in life.

We pride ourselves on teaching the individual child. At T.C. Williams High School we offer more than 400 courses — from the most challenging academic rigors to career and technical studies. There are few other high school facilities in the U.S. that provide such diverse opportunities as T.C. Williams.

However, equity and inclusion are sizeable ambitions and are not easy to achieve. We are not there yet but I am confident we are heading in the right direction.

This month the Virginia Department of Education released our Standards of Learning (SOL) results which showed ACPS now has a higher percentage of students testing proficient in Math than in previous years. Math has been an area of intense academic focus for the school division over the past school year, and the SOL results show 70% of all students testing proficient. These results — which show the percentage of students testing proficient in math increased by nine percentage points — demonstrate the improved delivery of math instruction due to increased professional learning and enhanced curriculum resources over the past two years.

The percentage of Black, Hispanic, English Learner and Economically Disadvantaged students proficient in math all increased by nine percentage points or more. Our rate of growth in math for all students was four percentage points higher than growth seen at the state level, and five percentage points higher for Economically Disadvantaged students also at the state level. We are anticipating similar progress in the coming school year across all subject areas that are now being addressed.

But our results also highlighted an achievement gap that we must do everything in our power to bridge.

This coming school year, ACPS will have an intentional focus on improving reading skills. Our instructional leaders have been analyzing the data over the past year and have already outlined areas for improvement.

This kind of success doesn’t happen by chance, nor does it happen overnight. It happens through hard work, planning, preparation and dedication for all students to experience success regardless of their life circumstances. It is our responsibility as educators to relentlessly advocate and remove educational barriers that prevent any child from reaching their highest level desired.

It is also important to remember that standardized testing is just one measure of success. I hope you have all had a chance to read a copy of our recently published Measuring What Matters. You can pick up a free copy in any library or from City Hall.

In Measuring What Matters, I write that if we are to see success for all our students, equity simply has to be at the core of everything we do. The work of equity needs to permeate every aspect of our work, starting from the ground up, by assessing the learning environments at our schools and providing all students with the social and emotional support they need. We need to take a look at how our specialized programs and learning pathways are implemented so that we eliminate all vestiges of modern-day segregation. All of our students need to be engaged in a rigorous and challenging curriculum if they are to leave us fulfilled and ready for the challenges of life.

This fall, ACPS will make a decision on a model to deliver 21st century learning to the next generation of high school students. Alexandria is growing and our public schools will soon face the exciting challenge of educating up to 5,000 high school students. Since the summer of 2018, The High School Project has been exploring ways to both redefine the high school experience both in terms of programming and capacity needed to best fit future learning needs.

The School Board is being asked to consider two options: A two-high-school model that would mean building a second high school; or a Connected High School Network based on a campus model that would see all students continue to graduate from T.C. Williams High School. In either option, 9-12 grade students will learn together, eliminating the need for a ninth-grade campus.

If we do this successfully, we will be not only be redefining the high school experience for ACPS, but also delivering a direction for Alexandria. Our students are the future; their experiences and skills will ultimately define our city. It will take a community to make ACPS the best place to learn. But once we get there, the entire community will reap the rewards and the City of Alexandria will be a beacon in which to live, work, learn and play.

Don’t forget to take the time to encourage, support and listen to your child as they learn and grow. You will be amazed at what they can achieve. We know this is going to be another awesome school year.

Alexandria’s children deserve the best. We will not let them down.