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.
"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.
Preliminary results released Aug. 19 show that nine Alexandria schools -- including four Title I schools -- failed to make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years. Perry said the district has budgeted $450,000 to cover transportation costs, including pay for more drivers and buses to transport those students who opt to move to new schools. The Title I schools that must offer the transfer option are John Adams, Jefferson-Houston, Maury and Patrick Henry elementary schools. The other schools that failed to meet the benchmarks are George Washington and Francis C. Hammond middle schools, Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy and T.C. Williams High School. The fifth school, Cora Kelly Elementary, is a Title I school, but because this is the first year that it failed to make its target, it does not have to offer the transfer option to parents.
In Arlington, 10 of 30 county schools failed to meet the annual benchmarks, according to preliminary results: Gunston and Jefferson middle schools, Washington-Lee and Wakefield high schools and Title I schools Abingdon, Barcroft, Barrett, Carlin Springs, Hoffman-Boston and Randolph elementary schools. Parents of students at the Title I schools will be notified of their options, and the school system has budgeted $358,000 for transportation for those who choose to transfer, officials said.
Last year, Alexandria's Maury Elementary was the only local school required to offer the transfer option, and 14 percent of its students chose to do so. This year is Maury's third year on the list, which means that it must also offer its students free tutoring.
Overall, at least 15 Northern Virginia schools must give their students the option of transferring to other schools, according to the preliminary data.
Perry has already taken steps to improve Maury, including transferring in Lucretia Jackson, the school's new principal.
This year, Samuel W. Tucker Elementary became the first Alexandria school to switch to a year-round calendar; its students returned to school in July. And a pilot pre-kindergarten program was expanded to 12 elementary schools.
"Our major projects this year are about educational change -- the way we teach, the way we learn," Perry said. "We're breaking some of the molds that we've learned in traditional ways."
Perry might also have to contend with continued fallout from her conviction on a drunken driving charge in April. The incident has drawn criticism from some parents who believe Perry should have been removed from the post. It also prompted one parent to launch a petition drive to have School Board member Melissa W. Luby removed from her post. Luby was a passenger in the car Perry was driving the night of her arrest. Luby, who was being driven home after the two had spent an evening at an Alexandria restaurant, has said that she did not believe that Perry was intoxicated when they left.
Perry declined to comment on the issue, but Danforth said that the board "is ready to move on past that issue and concentrate on the issues that we face with our children."
In Arlington, school officials will be revamping the system's long-term strategic plan, Superintendent Robert G. Smith said. In the past, the focus has been primarily on two goals: raising achievement for all students and closing the achievement gap between white and minority students in the 19,000-student system.
Smith said that based on results of a customer satisfaction survey last spring and focus groups, school officials have added more goals to the strategic plan. The new goals include teaching cultural competence in which students would be prepared to "live and work in an international world by building on the variety of experiences and diversity available to them"; preparing "each graduate to make choices and experience success in post-secondary education, work or other pursuits"; and ensuring that each school is "a place where every student wants to be and feels encouraged, supported and challenged."
The expanded goals will be discussed at a public hearing next Thursday, and the School Board will act on the revised plan at its Sept. 21 meeting, Smith said. He added that educators will work with parents, faculty and students throughout the year to come up with ways to implement the plan.
"These are goals that deal with the quality of school life, and that goes beyond the issue of student achievement and gets them ready for the next step in life," Smith said.
Other projects on the agenda for Arlington schools this year include implementing an advanced reading curriculum for sixth-graders and continuing to work on closing the achievement gap, Smith said.
"I hope for continued improvements in student learning and clear advancement in the quality of instruction," Smith said. "We will continue to work on issues related to teaching for meaning. We'll account for test scores but we're certainly going to go beyond what is tested."