By Sarah Paez
alexandrianews.org

Peter Balas, new T.C. Williams principal (courtesy photo)

Sitting behind his desk in his sparsely decorated office, newly appointed T. C. Williams High School Principal Peter Balas sipped his water. Having recently taken charge of the sole public high school in Alexandria, Balas had had a busy morning packed with meetings and people in to see him. Yet he settled into his chair with an inviting smile and told alexandrianews.org: “I loved high school.”

Balas is no stranger to T. C. Williams. He served as an Executive Associate Principal for two of his five-year tenure, beginning when the new building opened in 2007. He then served as the principal of Mount Vernon Community School for five years, earning him Alexandria City Public Schools Principal of the Year in April 2017.

Now, the 15-year ACPS veteran has big plans for Virginia’s largest high school. He has taken on six new administrators, which is just under half his 14-person team. Balas said, “T. C. was built [opening in 2007] for the idea of smaller learning communities” to effectively impact areas of attendance, discipline, academics and social and emotional well-being. Citing this idea, Balas paired each administrator or “dean” with two counselors in charge of an evenly distributed number of students in grades 10-12, smaller learning environments effectively. He aims to have each “academy” reflect the larger population of T. C. Moreover, he tried to honor close student-counselor relationships by allowing some students to stay with a previously assigned counselor.

Balas stressed that the International Academy, which serves some 800 English Language Learners grades 9-12, “is meant to be a system of support” for both students and parents who are new to the country. The academy’s goal was to cut the time it takes students to learn English in half, though the students’ differing learning abilities and backgrounds have proved a challenge to this goal. Balas appointed two administrators - one dean and one coordinator - to the International Academy and converted one administrative position into a Teacher Support Advisor or data coach. According to Balas, Internationals Network for Public Schools considers T. C.’s International Academy a model school for its achievement despite a very diverse population nearly double that of stand-alone international academies.

The Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program, which is now in its fourth year, is on the Program of Studies for the 2017-2018 school year. Incoming ninth graders can apply starting Feb. 24, 2018. Balas and ACPS are deciding whether STEM will be a curriculum track for qualified students or function as a separate program similar to the Academy of Finance.

At the second meeting of the Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force, ACPS Chief Financial Officer Mike Herbstman used enrollment and birthrate data to show that T. C. would be at capacity by FY 2019. According to Balas, T. C. has large numbers of room sharing due to capacity issues. In the wake of this challenge, Balas said, “We are getting six re-locatables [re-locatable buildings]” that will be located between the garage and the main building. He hopes they will be ready by the first day of school. At the moment, there are no plans to split T. C. into two high schools, but Balas looks forward to being part of the conversation. He wants the best decision for the kids in the City.

In 2016, T. C. lost its full accreditation status. “I am going to work every ounce of my energy to make [accreditation] happen,” Balas said. Balas and his administration have seen the SOL scores and decided improving mathematics scores and increasing graduation rates will be focus areas for the upcoming year. In general, he said, math and English continue to be problem areas that need focus.

Balas plans to use strategies he acquired during his tenure as principal at MVCS. Regarding that period, Balas said, “It was such a wonderful experience.” He said the collaborative efforts of the MVCS staff taught him how to effectively run an elementary school and transform it. Running MVCS, he said, “made me a much stronger leader.” He now feels he has a full understanding of the K-12 continuum and “would love to collaborate” with elementary school educators in the long-term.

Balas plans to bring the Master Schedule, an effective teacher collaboration strategy from MVCS, to T. C. The Master Schedule creates collaborative planning time for teachers in the same subject areas to develop common teaching strategies and learning assessments. Common assessments allow for better data collection and more accurate solutions to problems. “Matching minutes to our priorities,” Balas said, will be part of his multi-year effort.

Balas hopes to improve the high school experience for all students. He “would love to” re-open the Roof Garden, a popular lunch-spot hang out and interactive learning space, after he puts in tables and adds administrative supervision. Given the right direction and expectations, he believes students will once again be able to enjoy the privileges of the Roof Garden.

His face lit up when he started talking about his plans for Homecoming. “I want [the students] to be able to come to a school that they absolutely love coming to … and for us to prepare them for what comes after,” he said.

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