By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007
After years of attending classes in a building constructed when school cafeterias were institutional and drab and natural light was an afterthought, students at T.C. Williams High School will be awash in luxury when they return Tuesday.
The new three-story, $98 million school, which went up over the past year, combines environmentally friendly and aesthetically impressive elements, such as a roof garden, a glass-enclosed media center with 28-foot ceilings and a food court that will rival those of malls.
A few miles away, Arlington's new Washington-Lee High School is nearing completion. In January, students at the school will begin a transition into a $95 million building with a vegetated "green" roof, a 10-lane swimming pool and a cyber cafe. Some parts of the old school will remain in use after January while construction is completed on the new building.
T.C. Williams and Washington-Lee will be among the first in the country to apply for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. This summer, T.C. Williams's building won the Virginia Sustainable Building Network's Green Innovation Award for best institutional project.
"There's the trend everywhere for environmentally conscious construction," said Amy Carlini, a spokeswoman for Alexandria schools. "It's the right thing to do, and it's going to save us money, too."
Despite some students' wishes, she said, the old building will not be imploded; workers will begin dismantling it later this year. Students also no longer will be allowed to leave campus for lunch.
At T.C. Williams, which will have room for 2,500 students, the projected enrollment for this year is 1,955, compared with 1,997 last year. In recent years, its enrollment has fluctuated around 2,000. When the school was built in the 1960s, capacity was 1,780, though it was measured differently at the time, with some spaces reconfigured. The new Washington-Lee will have room for 1,600 students, with 1,544 expected to enroll this year, compared with 1,536 last year. The capacity of the old building was 1,468.
For a few hundred students, the first day of the school year was weeks ago. Classes at Alexandria's Mount Vernon Community and Samuel W. Tucker Elementary schools started in late July, and Arlington's Barcroft Elementary School opened the first week of August. The schools operate on modified year-round calendars.
At Mount Vernon, which is a dual-language immersion school, students were greeted by a new principal. Scott Coleman, who was principal of a Seattle elementary school, replaced the retiring Lilia "Lulu" Lopez. Coleman, who speaks English and Spanish, has experience with dual-language programs.
Parents and community members were part of a panel that interviewed him for the job, which Coleman said made him feel welcome. "I feel there's a lot of ownership with me coming into the building, and it's a really wonderful way to come in," he said.
Tucker also has a new principal, Loretta Scott, who was assistant principal there.
This year, Arlington has expanded an after-school foreign language program for elementary students to a third school, Barcroft. Henry and Glebe Elementary schools also offer the program, which started last year.
"The response to the instruction from parents has been good, as well as from the kids," Superintendent Robert G. Smith said.
The district also is expanding the Chinese and Arabic classes it began offering to middle and high school students last year. Smith said he expects enrollment to increase as students graduate to higher levels and new students sign up for classes in the "strategic languages," for which parents had lobbied.
This fall, Arlington will add a program called "Courageous Conversations," in which teachers and administrators participate in group discussions about race. "If we're really going to make a difference with the achievement gap, we really need to confront directly issues of race," Smith said.
"We're talking about it openly, in a safe environment, with some structure," he said. "If [adults] understand better where their students are, they are more likely to reach them."
Arlington also will reconsider school boundaries this year, Smith said. Some schools in the northwest part of the county have become so crowded that they require portable classrooms, he said, adding that others might soon reach that point. Historically, discussions about boundary changes have been contentious because families don't want to change schools.
"It's a wonderful problem that we have when we try to change boundaries," Smith said. "People love their schools."
This Saturday marks the opening day for Arlington's Mongolian School, which offers weekly cultural classes in partnership with the school district. Its other Saturday cultural program, Escuela Bolivia, will open Sept. 15.
In Alexandria, a big question looming this year is whom the School Board will hire to replace Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry. After weeks of heated community debate and tension among board members, the School Board voted 5 to 4 against renewing Perry's contract, which expires in June. The board has put out a request for proposals for a search company, Carlini said.
Alexandria is adding four literacy coaches to work with teachers of children who require special education or English as a Second Language services. At middle schools, the district will begin opening honors language arts and social studies classes to students who previously did not qualify for talented and gifted programs, a change that Carlini said had been requested by students and parents who wanted access to more challenging courses.
Tours of T.C. Williams will be offered in a grand opening for the Alexandria community Oct. 14. Call 703-824-6800.