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Getting from Here to There: The Future of ACHS in Two Large Buildings
The coming decisions about how students (and possibly teachers) will move between Alexandria City High School's King Street campus and the new Minnie Howard campus.
Coming Soon: One High School in Two Large Buildings
Alexandria City High School (ACHS) students are expected to attend classes at the new Minnie Howard building when it opens for the 2024-2025 school year. Some Minnie Howard 9th graders now take elective courses at the King Street campus. Traveling to and from the new Minnie Howard building and the King Street campus will not be easy. The schools are on either side of one of the busiest and most complex intersections in Northern Virginia where King Street, North Quaker Lane and West Braddock Road meet.
The contractor has started work at the Minnie Howard campus which brings these questions into focus: What will the arrangements be for the potential increased travel demand by students and staff for trips between the two buildings? Second, will the need for students (and possibly teachers) to move between the two buildings compel an adjustment to ACPS’ plan to have the 4,000+ ACHS students attend classes at both campuses?
Why the Travel Demand Between the King Street and Minnie Howard Campuses May Increase Over Current Levels
The King Street building (460,000 square feet) and the new Minnie Howard building (almost 350,000 square feet) are large schools. Alexandria’s dense environment, the lack of publicly owned land and enrollment increases compelled the King Street building to be substantially larger than its predecessor. The same will be true of the new five-story Minnie Howard building—it will be substantially larger than the existing school. Here are the site plan and elevations for the new Minnie Howard campus:
The educational plan for Minnie Howard, as described in ACPS’ High School Project materials, specifies that all ACHS students will attend classes in both buildings. The answers to the Frequently Asked Questions state:
ACPS will be completely integrating 9th graders with 10th-12th graders. The ACPS Grade Level Report commissioned by the School Board in 2016 recommended against the split model that ACPS uses with 9th graders taking most of their classes at the separate Minnie Howard campus.
Yes, the concept is that every student would take their science and math classes at the Minnie Howard campus. Currently, Alexandria City High School students travel back and forth between the two campuses; a similar approach and process can be used … at Minnie Howard.
The plan is for the King Street and Minnie Howard campuses to offer courses in different content areas to students grades 9-12.
As of May 10, there were 3,370 students at King Street and 1,025 students at Minnie Howard. ACPS faces a significant planning task to coordinate travel between the two large schools. The city’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES) is also involved in planning related to the expanded Minnie Howard. The new and larger Minnie Howard, and the proposed content-based organization of the schools, suggest that during the school day more students, and possibly staff, will travel between the schools than is currently the case.
Decisions for ACPS and ACHS
How Should the Master Schedule be Configured? The current ACHS master schedule assigns students to different classes on alternating days known as Red and Blue Days. If a student has Red Day or Blue Day classes at King Street and Minnie Howard, he or she will need to move from one campus to the other. The Frequently Asked Questions responses say:
In the Connected High School Network transportation needs during the school day will be minimized through scheduling.
Yes, it is possible that some students will attend a different campus on a daily basis rather than being transported during the school day.
The preparation of the ACHS master schedule is a complex task. Factors affecting the master schedule include the large number of courses, class period conflicts, space configurations, and the priority ACHS assigns to allowing students flexibility in selecting courses. Minnie Howard’s increased course offerings make it probable that more students will be required to move between the campuses during the school day than is currently the case. However, the magnitude of the increase is currently unknown.
More Busses? One solution is to operate busses more frequently during the school day through the already crowded intersection. Currently, Minnie Howard freshmen ride a bus to the King Street campus for last period elective classes.
Bikes? Biking between the schools may be an option. City Council members have spoken favorably about biking between the schools. At present, bike travel is complicated by the absence of bike lanes and the busy intersection. According to Chris Ziemann, Division Chief of Transportation Planning of the city’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES), biking on the sidewalk is permitted in this area of the city but bikers will have to use the North Quaker Lane and West Braddock Road pedestrian crossings.
Will Students and Staff Have the Option to Walk? The walking distance between the main door of the King Street campus and the east side of the Minnie Howard site where the new building will be is about a mile. The walk takes 12-14 minutes at a moderate pace by the most direct route and requires crossing North Quaker Lane and West Braddock Road. If students and staff have the option to walk, they will need more time between classes than is currently provided.
How Will ACPS Insure Student Safety? Allowing students to bike or walk between campuses raises issues of student safety. On May 24, a student was killed in a melee at Bradlee Shopping Center after school was dismissed on a standardized testing day. This tragedy underscores the safety concerns that may arise when students are off campus during the school day. The comments to the online media reports of this tragic event suggest that some Alexandrians will oppose giving students the option to walk between the schools.
Now Involved in Youth Safety: the City Council and City Agencies
On June 13, Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilor Alyia Gaskins circulated a memorandum proposing that the Council and city agencies take an active role in finding ways to reduce youth violence. The proposal includes a youth safety and violence prevention summit this summer and an initiative to:
Convene a special task force with representatives of the youth-serving agencies (e.g., City and School Staff Group, Youth Services Coordinating Council, etc.) to align the themes from the summit into a multi-year plan of actions.
Develop a framework and protocol for an effective response to youth safety, conflict and violence
Review existing data, programs and policies to better understand what is being done, who is doing it, and impact
Create a citywide, multi-year plan with clear objectives, activities, agency roles and contributions, and performance metrics
If the multi-year plan (or ACPS) concludes that student conflicts and violence can be reduced by eliminating opportunities for these conditions to occur, then unsupervised student travel between the King Street and Minnie Howard campuses seems unlikely.
How the ACHS Master Schedule, Inter-Campus Transportation and the Educational Plan Connect
The logistics of class schedules and transportation between the two campuses may also compel a rethinking of the ACHS educational plan. If allowing students to walk or bike between the schools is deemed too risky, then configuring student schedules so that students spend all day on one campus or the other becomes essential. This may be unworkable—too many students may have schedules that require them to be in both buildings on the same day, thus driving the demand for campus-to-campus travel to an impractical level.
If this happens, ACPS may have to develop other plans. One alternative might be to have each campus house two grades, for example, grades 9 and 10 in one building and grades 11 and 12 in the other.
Coming Up: Walk Audits for the King Street and Minnie Howard Campuses
In a January 19, 2022 memorandum to the Transportation Commission, T&ES said:
Additionally, no comprehensive safety assessment has been performed for the City’s middle schools and high school campuses. While improvements have been completed on an ad hoc basis near these schools, a set of clear recommendations would provide staff a blueprint from which to improve safety for all ACPS students.
According to Ziemann and Megan Oleynik, Urban Planner III, of T&ES, this will change because in April 2022 T&ES received a Transportation Land-Use Connections Grant of up to $60,000 from the Metropolitan Washington of Governments (COG) to support the city’s Safe Routes to School program. The grant will be used to conduct walk audits at ACHS, the middle schools, and Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School.
A walk audit records travel patterns to and from schools—the ways students arrive at school and where they come from. The outcome of the walk audit will be recommendations to improve safe arrivals and departures. A consultant will be selected by COG this summer and the walk audits for the secondary schools will begin in the spring of 2023. Ziemann said ACPS will be involved in the walk audit. He said:
I think everyone recognizes that there will be more trips between the high schools so we are planning proactively for that. When it comes back to us, the question is what are the numbers? How much higher, how many students exactly?”
Ziemann’s question—“What are the numbers?”— crystallizes the issue: Will the current educational plan for the new Minnie Howard campus and the King Street campus create a demand for transportation between the two campuses that is so large that the plan will have to be rethought?
The School Board resolved the debate about a second high school in Alexandria by voting for a single high school in a “connected high school network.” The new Minnie Howard campus, which will be larger than most high schools, and the King Street campus, are key elements of the network.
The decisions described here do not need to be made next week, but they are inevitable. In the meantime, ACPS is preoccupied (or slowed) by the search for a new Superintendent. It is not too early to start thinking about how to connect the campuses as safely and efficiently as possible and whether it will be feasible to have all ACHS students take classes at both campuses.
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