In Bird by Bird, one of my favorite books about the art of writing, the celebrated author Anne Lamott tells the relatable story of her 10-year-old brother sitting at the kitchen table, tearfully agonizing over how to begin a major report on birds that had been assigned three months earlier and was due the next day. Lamott’s father puts his arm around her brother and says, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
News of yet another community conversation on June 4 about the “High School Project” reminded me that we’ve been discussing the need to rebuild Minnie Howard—an idea that has both broad support as well as approved funding in the city budget—for more than five years. In early 2016, Port City Notebook described a rebuild proposal developed by a team of faculty leaders at T.C. Williams, emphasizing that “the clock is ticking” and that we needed to accelerate the process of developing educational specifications and getting construction underway. In the three years since then, the only capacity that has been added at T.C. is a couple of portable modular classrooms, known as the “Titan Villas.” Enrollment has risen by more than 400 students, a 12% increase.
The current High School Project timeline indicates that its “design phase” won’t begin until next year. According to the latest update on the High School Project, “once the programming team figures out the best way to use the space at Minnie Howard, the renovations can begin.”
Our school division is like Lamott’s young brother: Years of dithering and procrastination have caused a manageable project to become a last-minute crisis. If the Minnie Howard rebuild had begun in 2017, the larger modern facility would be opening now and our High School Project discussions would be very different and much less fraught.
School boards past and present, along with a succession of superintendents, have been so focused on what would be most optimal 10 to 20 years in the future—one very large comprehensive high school or two big comprehensive high schools?—and too timid to take action that they have become paralyzed by indecision and the growing enormity of the capacity challenge. Bird by bird, ACPS. Just take it bird by bird.
In that spirit, here’s a suggested to-do list for one connected T.C. Williams campus.
- Cut your losses on stadium lights at T.C. Don’t spend any more time or money on opposing the litigation brought by the adjacent property owners. Heed the lessons from the city’s Waterfront Park: The other side has unlimited resources and will keep the matter tied up in court and draining ACPS funds for years to come. Instead, build a football stadium with lights at George Washington Middle School. The students will get a facility sooner, and the new stadium’s use won’t have to be restricted to home football games. Moving quickly on this will allow those fields to be used during the Minnie Howard rebuild. Invite the litigants to help underwrite the cost of the new stadium in the spirit of cooperation and compromise.
- Purchase or lease the medical building next to the Bradlee Safeway and retrofit it to accommodate a larger Satellite Campus to open in Fall 2020. (It’s not for sale, you say. Everything has a price. The building is in poor condition, but the location is paramount. Partner with the city to help current tenants choose from among the many available options for new space.)
- Fast-track the planning and construction process for a larger, multi-story rebuild of Minnie Howard, with a projected opening in Fall 2021. It’s okay if the design specifications may not perfectly match the anticipated needs for 2030. Break ground and worry about that later. Ticktock.
- Invest in a shuttle system (perhaps partnering with DASH) to move students continuously from location to location, similar to those found on college campuses. Shuttles would serve students enrolled in the new Early College program on the NOVA campus, as well as the Minnie Howard, Satellite, and King Street buildings, the new GW stadium, the proposed Virginia Tech campus at Potomac Yards, the T.C. boat house, and other sites yet to be discovered.
- In conjunction with the city, begin planning the rebuild of Chinquapin Aquatics Center to become the T.C. Health and Wellness Center, which would include a new 50-meter competition pool, as well as the student health center, classrooms for the Health Sciences Academy and Health/PE department, and the dance studio, thereby freeing up space in the King Street building. A student-run café/coffeehouse would be a nice addition. Target opening: Fall 2023.*
- Coordinate with the city and develop a calendar and budget plan for upgrading and modernizing one of our schools and/or recreation centers each year, as Arlington County does. This will help avoid the trap that Alexandria consistently falls into—delaying action on known problems until they are a more difficult and more expensive crisis. It would also allow the school division to make minor tweaks to capacity and school districting as population and other factors warrant.
- Search for a site for a third middle school to alleviate pressure on Hammond and GW, and continue searching for a site for a new elementary school.
Bird by bird, ACPS. Just take it bird by bird.
*In 2016, there were some innovative thinkers suggesting that the city and ACPS swap the sites of Chinquapin and Minnie Howard and rebuild both facilities simultaneously. At the time, many thought the idea had merit but would delay both the needed school capacity expansion as well as the planned 50-meter pool. In retrospect, if we had moved forward then with that more ambitious plan, we would be further along on both objectives.
A recent article in Theogony, T.C.’s student newspaper, by Griffin Harris and Maria Areyan describes falling enrollment in the International Academy at T.C. and the impact of the current administration’s immigration policies.
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