On February 20, the Alexandria School Board voted to restructure the middle schools, consolidating the three schools at Francis Hammond and the two schools at George Washington into one school on each campus beginning with the 2014-2015 school year.
A work-group made up of teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members had recommended in December that Hammond (FCH) be recombined into one middle school but that George Washington (GW) remain as two separate schools. This was consistent with the prevailing views of the parent communities at each campus.
In February, however, Superintendent Alvin Crawley and Gerald Mann, director of middle school instruction and co-chair of the work-group, recommended a one-school model at both campuses, with a new administrative structure that is designed to allow administrators to focus more closely on student achievement than they are able to currently.
My own family’s personal experience with the smaller-school model for all three years of middle school was very positive. Mr. Mann, who was at that time principal of GW1, made it his mission to know every child’s name, and teachers knew not only their own students but also those who had the teacher next door. At GW, many parents valued the more personalized approach to instruction and the more systematic evaluation of teacher performance that were the goals of the middle-school restructuring undertaken in 2009-2010. And many felt that the campus was off to a good start this year under the leadership of its two new principals.
Even though Mr. Mann’s own leadership of GW1 showed that the small-school model could be successful, he became convinced that the one-school structure offered the best chance for success among under-achieving subgroups of students. The state Department of Education helped seal the deal by informing ACPS that the recombined schools would be assigned the accreditation status of the school that had been designated as the #1 school (i.e. GW1 in the case of George Washington, and FCH1 in the case of Hammond). This fact worked greatly in the favor of ACPS, because GW1 was rated “Fully Accredited” as compared to “Accredited with Warning in Math Year 1” for GW2; similarly, FCH1 was rated “Accredited with Warning in Math Year 1,” as compared to “Accredited with Warning in Math Year 2,” for FCH2 and FCH3. Given that incentive, maintaining the small-school model became much more difficult to justify.
While many GW parents are very disappointed in the School Board’s action, I suspect that they would agree that classroom teachers who instill a love of learning in their students are ultimately more important than the school’s physical arrangement and the signage over the doors.
To that point, I’ve read a recent comment attributed to a GW teacher expressing relief to be going back to “the way it used to be.” That is precisely what GW parents fear the most. Before the campuses were divided, student achievement was declining, discipline was a chief concern, and the team approach worked only for children who happened to be assigned to the team with the best teachers.
I am cautiously placing my trust in Mr. Mann, Dr. Crawley and the School Board that the new form of organization will achieve the same objectives that parents sought when the small-school model was adopted five years ago. Under the new form, at each campus, there will be one principal with overall responsibility for the campus, plus three “academic principals.” Each academic principal will follow a cohort of students through their middle school years and will also be responsible for teacher evaluations. A dean of students will manage discipline for the school.