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Building for the Future

Alexandria and Arlington Schools Eye New Construction, Prepare for New Challenges

By Elaine Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page VA14

When the new school year begins Tuesday, officials in Alexandria and Arlington will be focused on securing funding and breaking ground for two new high schools, the challenges they face in meeting state and federal academic standards, and implementing programs that address the needs of their economically and ethnically diverse student populations.

After years of planning, Alexandria will break ground this winter for construction of a new T.C. Williams High School. The state-of-the-art, $87.9 million facility -- the most ambitious and expensive public building project ever undertaken by the city -- is expected to be completed in 2007.

From left, new Alexandria teachers Andre Wright, Candace Lawton, Marie Jones and Rashida Johnson talk about their plans. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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"This is pretty dramatic," said Mary "Mollie" Danforth, vice chairman of the Alexandria School Board. "It's the beginning of something that will take a number of years to come to fruition. We are all looking forward to the construction of T.C. Williams."

In Arlington County, school officials are optimistic that voters will approve a $78 million bond referendum in November to fund construction of a new Washington-Lee High School, the oldest of the county's three high schools.

"There's a track record here of people valuing education," said Frank K. Wilson, a member of the Arlington School Board. "I believe we'll get the bond, but by no means are we taking it for granted that it's a given."

Because land is scarce in both jurisdictions, the high schools will be rebuilt on their current sites. Construction will take place in phases as sections of each building are razed and reconstructed, officials said.

Students at T.C. Williams will move into trailers when construction gets underway. A $1.7 million laptop initiative will give nearly 2,000 students at T.C. Williams and Minnie Howard School laptops that they can take home, offsetting the costs for housing T.C. students in trailers, Alexandria Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry said.

"We won't have to wire all of those trailers," Perry said. "The students will be able to move the computers with them, and the laptops are much more space efficient."

Officials said the laptop program, which was launched last year at Minnie Howard, has been a success.

"This is going to bridge the digital divide," Danforth said. "This will get all of our kids ready for college and the working world as well."

Alexandria's 18 public schools serve nearly 11,000 students who come from 85 countries and speak 63 languages. One of the challenges facing the school system is ensuring that all its students pass Virginia's Standards of Learning exams and meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Perry said.

"The prevalent belief is that every one of those children will and can succeed," Perry said. "We celebrate our diversity, we don't use it as an excuse."

However, before school begins next week, Alexandria school officials must accommodate parents who want to transfer their children out of schools that failed to meet the federal benchmarks, as they are entitled to under the law.

The goal of the federal law is for all U.S. students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. In the meantime, schools are required to meet progressively higher targets -- SOL results for Virginia schools -- each year as they seek the goal. Schools that fail to make enough progress for two consecutive years are required to create a plan for improvement, and Title I schools -- those that receive federal funds based on poverty rates -- also must allow students to transfer. School systems must pay the transportation costs for transfer students.

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