By Sam Wingfield and Griffin Harris
On February 5, a T.C. press release announced that, among other moves, Jessica Hillery would transition from Minnie Howard Lead Administrator to the T.C. Williams Lead Math Administrator and Mark Eisenhour from Director of Student Activities to Minnie Howard Lead Administrator in an effort to improve math scores.
The moves were met with surprise and, in some cases, apprehension, according to Principal Peter Balas and sources familiar with the matter.
Balas decided to reorganize his administrative team after ACPS conducted a mid-year assessment of student performance, which showed “continued improvement needs in mathematics,” according to the press release. Though the school-calculated pass rate for students who took the winter Algebra I SOL increased this year, Balas said he wanted to restore the full-accreditation status T.C. held when Suzanne Maxey was Principal and he was Assistant Principal.
The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) tells subject area-warned schools what must be included in lesson plans. T.C. is partially accredited and warned in mathematics at present and must have a detailed plan for improvement approved by the VDOE, including common assessment development, collaborative lesson planning, and monitoring student performance.
Balas insists that the transition of Hillery to a math-focused position will help this process significantly.
“[T]hese programs… require considerable staff support to implement effectively,” Balas said in the press release. “Hillery adds to this staff support as a former math teacher and the only current administrator with math classroom experience,” he said.
No longer Lead Administrator at Minnie Howard, Hillery now divides her days between Minnie Howard and the King Street campus, reviews more math-related data and meets with teachers during planning periods.
For instance, she now meets “with all the geometry teachers at King Street one period, and all the geometry teachers at Minnie Howard [another] period.” Before the administrative reorganization, math teachers would meet without administrative oversight.
“[Hillery] is helping to direct the work we do within the professional learning communities,” Geometry and AP Statistics teacher Nancy Zeigelbauer said. “She is making sure we meet the state standards with our tests [and] with our reviews.”
Hillery is not bitter about leaving Minnie Howard, but she is “sad that [she] can’t finish what [she] started [at Minnie Howard].”
“I was already getting excited about preparing for the new year now that I’ve got six months under my belt,” she added.
Hillery is “excited about the challenge” of her new position and is “flattered” that the administration chose her to “make it happen.” Balas will decide this summer if Hillery and Eisenhour will retain their respective positions or if they will be reassigned.
Eisenhour, who was chosen because of his administrative experience at Minnie Howard (years ago he hired Balas at Minnie Howard), said he has assumed Hillery’s former duties, which include monitoring “school climate.”
Eisenhour said that he was “not too surprised by the change.” Immediately prior to his position as Director of Student Activities, he was an Academic Principal at T.C. He has served in many different capacities in the school system, including administrative positions at Minnie Howard, Mt. Vernon Elementary School, and the central office.
According to Balas and others, administrators were told of these changes shortly before the end of the first semester. Indirect input from students and staff contributed to Balas’ thought process, but the ultimate decision was made without outside counsel.
“He [Balas] just kind of told me,” Hillery said. “Our greatest need is in math, so we have to focus in that area.”
The changes caused tension and even anger within the administration, said sources close to the issue. Each individual involved was spoken to directly by Balas and Lead Administrator Tammy Ignacio and the reactions, according to Balas, paralleled the “stages of grief.”
With changes as abrupt and difficult as these ones are, it is expected that people are initially “apprehensive,” Balas said.
This administrative overhaul comes at a time when T.C. and ACPS are undergoing a shift in sheer population and in demographics. T.C. has spent the past two years partially-accredited, joining two other ACPS schools. New Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings will start his first year in September 2018 as Balas begins his second. Ferdinand Day Elementary School opens next year, too, as discussions about the need for a second high school continue.
Change has already begun in Alexandria, and T.C.’s mid-year administrative reorganization conveys its urgency.