Five years ago, when Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. left Alexandria’s public schools for a suburban district in Ohio, nearly 3,200 students attended the Northern Virginia city’s only high school. When he returned this summer to lead the city’s schools, the high school had grown by 800 students.
Overcrowding in Alexandria’s schools has forced students into classroom trailers, prompted school redistricting and resulted in the construction of Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School, which is slated to open in the fall. Weeks into his return, Hutchings, 41, finds himself grappling with one of the fast-growing district’s biggest questions: whether to build a second high school.
It’s a fraught question for Alexandria City Public Schools. Some parents, Hutchings said, say T.C. Williams High should remain Alexandria’s only high school. Others have suggested splitting the school into satellite campuses.
The possibilities, Hutchings said, will be narrowed in coming months.
“There’s a sense of urgency in this,” he said. “The community’s been waiting.”
The growth was a surprise even to Hutchings, a T.C. Williams graduate. But it has emerged as one of the most pressing issues the superintendent has encountered as he reacquaints himself with his hometown.
He will lead a school system that is, in some ways, more challenged than other districts in Northern Virginia, a region known for high-performing schools amid some of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs.
More than 62 percent of Alexandria students are considered economically disadvantaged and 40 percent are English learners, according to Virginia Department of Education data. Larger school districts neighboring Alexandria routinely have most, if not all, of their schools fully accredited by the state — a mark of student achievement. Last year, 12 of Alexandria’s 16 schools earned that designation.
Hutchings wants to raise the school system’s profile among other Northern Virginia school districts. He plans to scrutinize achievement gaps — performance disparities between students who face disadvantages and those who don’t.
“Diversity is one of the greatest assets that we have here, but it is also one of our challenges because you have so many unique perspectives and so many students who have unique life experiences and cultural experiences,” Hutchings said in an interview earlier this year.
Part of that challenge, he said, will involve examining inequities. That could include immigrant students learning English who need help adjusting to the United States. Or it could mean students from low-income families who lack access to technology.
This is familiar terrain for Hutchings.
As schools superintendent in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Hutchings said he focused on preparing teachers to educate students from needier backgrounds. His efforts to boost student achievement while he was a principal in Nashville earned him honors from the Tennessee Association of Middle Schools, according to Alexandria schools.
He also leads the governing board of the Minority Student Achievement Network, a national group of school districts working to erase education disparities and achievement gaps. Madeline Hafner, the group’s executive director, said she has worked with Hutchings on issues such as increasing the presence of students of color in advanced studies.
In Shaker Heights, Ohio, Hafner said Hutchings tracked information such as students’ access to band instruments — details that don’t often factor into discussions about a school’s success.
“He keeps his eyes focused on the vision,” Hafner said.
Hutchings will draw a $236,000 base salary. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Old Dominion University and a master’s in educational leadership from George Mason University. He received a doctorate in educational policy, planning and leadership from the College of William & Mary.
He replaces Alvin Crawley, who left the school system in July 2017 to become a professor at George Mason. Lois F. Berlin, the retired Falls Church schools superintendent, served as Alexandria’s interim superintendent.
Before leaving for Ohio, Hutchings led middle school programs in Alexandria and supervised principals and instruction for the district. As a student at T.C. Williams, he was a senior class vice president and belonged to the high school’s track and field team.
School district leaders have heralded Hutchings’s homecoming.
“We are delighted to have a homegrown leader with deep roots in our community,” school board chairwoman Ramee Gentry said shortly after Hutchings was hired in December.
Hutchings’s family has settled into their home in Alexandria’s Old Town neighborhood. And as the start of the school year nears and as Hutchings prepares his first transition team meeting and for community listening sessions, the superintendent said he senses excitement and energy in the school system.
“This is going to be a great ride,” he said.