Alexandria resident Andrew H. Macdonald is a longtime community activist and candidate for the City Council. Here are his thoughts on how to resolve the issue of what to do with T.C. Williams High School. The Alexandria School Board is scheduled to decide which renewal building option to move forward with Dec. 19.
When it comes to T.C. Williams High School, nearly everyone agrees that the proposed renovation can't come soon enough. It's old, it's too small and it needs fixing. But a fair and intelligent solution can't be arrived at in a quick and dirty fashion. Three key groups -- teachers, future students (and their parents) and people who use or live near the park and school -- must draw up a list of must-haves, then meet, compare their lists and derive a feasible compromise.
And there's no doubt that compromise is the answer. Perhaps the students want a cafeteria but will have to give up parking privileges so the teachers can use the saved space for classrooms. Maybe the entire high school will have to go without a football field for three to four years, so the heavy equipment used for the construction won't have to sit on parkland. Whatever the answer, one thing is for sure: The groups who should be part of the compromise haven't had enough say in the process to date.
Based on conversations with several senior teachers at T.C. Williams, it appears that teachers would like to be more involved in the process. Who better to provide guidance about the design of a new school than a teacher in one of the 10th, 11th, or 12th grade core subjects? Several teachers hinted that the school administration had not done enough to make it possible for them to participate in the process until recently, with after-school meetings.
All the teachers I spoke with voiced their support for a new, modern school and the time to provide input into how the school will be designed and used. They want a new school for many reasons, some very basic. Windows don't open, the air conditioning and heating systems are old, the hallways are crowded between classes, classrooms are sometimes too small and the cafeteria can't service everyone.
"We need to show the kids we care about them as individuals," one teacher said.
Although one teacher admitted he didn't think that the size of the school really mattered much, several others disagreed and said that it was important to try to create a small-school feeling in the new facility. Teachers noted that there must be models the city could use.
Another teacher noted that, while a school of a 900 to 1,100 kids would be ideal, it was not feasible to build a second high school in the city given the scarcity of land and its skyrocketing cost. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves as a community why we didn't address this issue before approving so much new development over the last decade. Another teacher suggested that a 10th grade center could be built at Minnie Howard if it were practical.
Residents who live near the school are far more concerned about the impact of light and noise pollution from a new sports stadium. At two recent public meetings, they expressed concerns about the size and location of a proposed parking garage for students and faculty. Seniors and other community members who regularly use the Chinquapin Park Recreation Center fear that further expansion of the school would impinge on their quality of life. People who have spent years tilling the soil in the park's community gardens fear that the proposed relocation of the school to the park will deprive them of a treasured community resource. A few others, like myself, have even questioned the wisdom of building one very large high school, but that may be the only practical solution.
Chinquapin Park is one of the city's most successful and integrated open spaces. Its swimming pool, tennis courts, soccer fields, picnic areas, gardens, nature trails and basketball courts serve thousands of the city's residents and students. Although erecting a new school in the park might be easier on kids and teachers for two to three years, it would be decades before a new park could be built elsewhere. I don't think we need to, nor should we, encroach upon the park in even a limited way. Some parents have indicated that they would like to see the new high school have its own pool and tennis facility.
We can move forward by identifying the top three needs of each group and by deciding what is essential and what isn't. The teachers and students need more classrooms and a modernized building. Not all students need to drive to school. To minimize the impact on the park and neighbors, modernize the school a section at a time. The Alexandria School Board should develop a concrete process to get these three groups to work together, where they can hammer out a compromise solution that will enable a new high school to be built as soon as possible.