Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

Build for the Future

Most Alexandria residents by now are aware of the capacity constraints facing our public schools—a predicament that parents and teachers have been warning city officials about for many years. There are currently 14,670 students enrolled and there are seats available for 14,122. Moreover, even if our school buildings could accommodate all of the students streaming through the doors, some of the WWII-era and older structures are crumbling and in dire need of modernization.

TCW_logo_smallEnrollment is projected to grow at a rate of about 500 students a year for the next five years before leveling off.  That growth is roughly equivalent to adding one of our smaller elementary schools every year. To meet the elementary school need for space and modernization, the superintendent and the school board have asked the city council for funds to lease sufficient space on the West End to allow an additional elementary school to open this September and to provide swing space so that existing elementary schools can be enlarged and modernized more expeditiously.

The ACPS capital budget request, however, doesn’t adequately address the looming capacity crisis at the T.C. Williams Minnie Howard and King Street campuses.  The T.C. Class of 2016 and the Class of 2017 are roughly 750 students each. The Class of 2018 and those following are all around 1,000 students; two years from now, when the Class of 2018 are seniors, there will be about 500 more students at the King Street campus than are there today. For the current students, it’s hard to imagine hallways, classrooms and bathrooms becoming more crowded than they are at present. At the March 10 school board meeting, T.C. English Department chair Mark Eaton, speaking on behalf of the T.C. Instructional Leadership Team, showed a video of school dismissal on a typical day (watch here starting at the 1:06:40 mark).

The schools’ budget request includes about $30 million for a 10-classroom addition at Minnie Howard, an expansion that all agree is inadequate. (Last year, ACPS asked for funding for a 20-room addition, but the city council did not allocate enough capital improvement funds to cover that. ACPS took the tack of cutting this year’s request in half, even knowing that the smaller request will result in severe overcrowding, in order to more closely match the budget guidance from the city.)

An option proposed by Eaton and the Instructional Leadership Team on March 10 would involve a more prudent long-term investment of scarce dollars: Tear down the existing Minnie Howard, and build a new multi-story school on the 13-acre site, perhaps housing grades 9 and 10. That would accomplish the twin goals of modernization and additional space more quickly and more cost-effectively.

City Council should consider taking this bold step: Instead of putting a too-small patch on the secondary school capacity problem, give ACPS the funds now to solve overcrowding for the cohorts of students who will be arriving at T.C. in the next couple of years—students who have already struggled with crowded schools for as long as they can remember.

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Contact the City Council
Parents, it’s not too late to share your views about the ACPS budget with the Mayor and the City Council, and it’s particularly helpful for them to hear specific examples of how overcrowding and facility issues are adversely affecting student learning. Click here to send a group email to them. They will adopt the FY2017 budget on May 5.

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