Alexandria, VA

Alexandria City Public Schools has some big projects on its plate, but at a School Board meeting last Thursday, many of the smaller projects discussed could have a big impact on the schools.

The meeting discussed the top priorities for non-capacity improvements next year. While several schools are slated for sweeping modernization projects over the next ten years, the Capital Improvement Program upgrades could provide some stop-gap improvements in the meantime.

Francis C. Hammond Middle School was one of those schools that was not on the list for modernization and capacity upgrades, but staff said an assessment of school facilities unequivocally deemed it “the worst school.”

“They were very concerned that it’s not in the ten year CIP,” staff said at the meeting. “Items we have on here [will be] bringing that up to par in the upcoming years.”

There are $4.9 million dollars in upgrades planned for the school in the CIP, with a recurring theme of trying to mitigate flooding and leakage prevalent throughout the school.

  • Building envelope repair: cafeteria window replacement and mitigation for flooding in the stairwell and gym
  • Flooring repair or replacement: replacement of the auxiliary gym floor
  • HVAC repair or replacement: replacement of HVAC systems that have reached the end of their life-cycle
  • Plumbing and restroom upgrades: reconstruction of second-floor toilets and refinishing those on the first floor
  • Renovations and reconfigurations: this item includes several projects around the school, mainly centered around preventing flooding
  • Roof repair or replacement: adds a new roof to the D-Wing of the school
  • Site hardscape repair or replacement: regrading of the courtyard and adding new pipes
  • Stormwater management: maintenance work around the school

The courtyard regrading was seen as particularly crucial at the school. According to staff, the roof drains directly down into the courtyard and the pipes don’t have the capacity to drain the water quickly enough, meaning water pools there and leaks down into the cafeteria below.

“There’s a chance for a community pool there,” one of the school board members quipped. “We need another one.”

Stormwater management was also noted by staff as a problem at Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School. The CIP allocated $566,741 for renovations to the gym and upgrades for the parking garage. Staff said leaky pipes in the parking garage pour water down onto cars and led one staff member to note that it frequently looks like “it’s raining inside Ferdinand T. Day.”

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 25, in ACPS headquarters (1340 Braddock Place) and final adoption is scheduled for Dec. 19.

Photo via Facebook

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Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) officials have laid out their ten-year plan to modernize the schools, and the work has already started on easing the sticker-shock that comes with it.

At a meeting on Thursday, Nov. 7, Superintendent Gregory Hutchings walked the School Board through the Capital Improvement Program (CIP). The CIP includes plans to spend $530 million over the next ten years on capital improvement projects, primarily focused on modernization and additions for schools.

That number also includes $127 million for assorted non-capacity projects, like replacing old facilities and upgrades to existing facilities.

The CIP lays out six modernization and capacity projects, with total budgets and projected completion dates.

  • High School Project: $158 million, scheduled to be completed 2025
  • Douglas MacArthur: $69 million, scheduled to be completed 2023
  • Transportation Facility: $7 million, scheduled to be completed 2025
  • George Mason: $68 million, scheduled to be completed 2027
  • Cora Kelly: $38 million, scheduled to be completed 2029
  • Matthew Maury: $6 million, scheduled to be completed 2033

The CIP also includes funding for a new school to address enrollment growth, budgeted for $57 million and slated to be completed in 2031.

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings noted that while the Matthew Maury Elementary School modernization has been in talks for years, this CIP is the first time it’s made an appearance in the schedule of upgrades.

The CIP is also front-loaded with some sizable costs, Hutchings noted, with $173 million in the budget this year for the expansion of T.C. Williams High School and the new Douglas MacArthur project.

“It’s a big number, $173 million dollars,” Hutchings admitted. “We’re working on two major capacity projects this year and the next several years. We’ve talked, and expressed this with our community, that those numbers were going to be high — that the ask was going to be bigger.”

This year, Priority 1 projects — those identified as critical by both an assessment of facilities and confirmed by ACPS staff — are budgeted for $25 million, bringing this year’s total CIP request to $198.8 million.

A School Board work session is scheduled for tomorrow (Thursday) to continue discussions on the CIP. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 25, at the ACPS central office (1340 Braddock Place). Approval of the CIP is scheduled for Dec. 19.

“We’re going to be quite busy over the next ten years,” Hutchings said. “It’s a significant amount of money, but as we talk about wanting to be the premier school division… this is what it’s going to cost us as a community, but I think that our young people are worth every cent.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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The community engagement process for a new Douglas MacArthur Elementary School project has kicked off.

The new, more modern Douglas MacArthur Elementary School (1101 Janneys Lane) is scheduled to open in January 2023. Students will start using swing space in the former Patrick Henry Elementary School after the current, 1940s-era MacArthur Elementary is demolished in June 2020. The new project has a total budget of $56.6 million.

The manager of the project spoke at a meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 29. One of the recurring topics from people in attendance was greater community use for the building, including “space inside for community use” and a suggestion that “the school needs to feel like a community asset.”

The commentary comes as the City Council and School Board have been engaged in a long-running discussion over how much space in school projects should be used for non-school purposes, like administrative offices or affordable housing. The discussions have grown more urgent over the years as the city begins running out of space to locate new projects.

A timeline at the Tuesday meeting showed the school’s concept design finishing up at the end of the month, with the rest of the design phase running from December 2019 to the end of 2020. Construction of the new project is scheduled to start in September 2020 and finish November 2022.

Some parents at the meeting expressed confusion that other school projects had been finished in one year, or slightly over, and wanted to know why construction for MacArthur was expected to take nearly two years. Staff explained that the extra time accounted for working through the city approval process with some time allotted for demolition at the start of the project.

Another community discussion, intended to help shape the ultimate design of the school, is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 9, from 9 a.m.-noon at the MacArthur Elementary library.

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Several Alexandria community members spoke out against Alexandria City Public Schools’ active shooter drill training during a school safety forum yesterday (Wednesday).

Despite a rainy evening and a World Series final, several dozen community members attended the meeting at T.C. Williams High School Minnie Howard Campus. City officials, including ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. and Alexandria City Police Chief Michael Brown, gave presentations and answered public questions.

“[Gun violence] is our reality,” said Hutchings. “We need to make sure we are providing as safe of an environment for our kids as possible.”

In order to prepare students for an active shooter situation, ACPS uses the ALiCE method, which stands for:

  • Alert
  • Lockdown
  • Inform
  • Counter (Distract)
  • Evacuate

According to Jamie Bartlett, the director of ACPS Security and Safety Services, ALiCE is an effective, situational-based option for active threats. However, several community members spoke out in opposition to the “Counter” step.

When practicing “Counter,” students are directed to throw objects at a shooter, to provide a distraction so they can evacuate.

Bartlett stressed only students in the third grade and up are taught the distraction method. However, one audience member shouted that her five-year-old child came home saying their teacher taught them to throw things at shooters.

“I had a third-grader who said they were going to throw pencils at the intruder,” said another audience member. “This seems like it’s not effective at all. You have to do something unless you can say ‘That was the goal, for my third grader to throw pencils at a shooter.'”

Superintendent Hutchings said the school committee that handles such drills will meet soon to discuss the feedback.

“We will act on this,” Hutchings said. “As we go through the curriculum every year, it’s open to interpretation.”

Hutchings added, however, that training for violent incidents in school is an sad reality of modern life.

“It’s unfortunate that some young people who say ‘Have a great day, and I’ll see you when I get home,’ don’t come home,” he said. “We need to make sure we are providing as safe of an environment for our kids as possible. We can do everything in our power to make sure it is safe.”

“Let us continue to have an open mind,” Hutchings said.

All ACPS staff members must take an online course on ALiCE, as well as complete four hours of practical exercise.

In addition to discussing active shooter precautions, ACPS mental health specialist Faiza Jackson spoke about school resources like psychologists, social workers, nurses, and counselors, which are available for students who need help. Such resources are also available during and after active shooter drills.

Jackson also pointed to preventative measures in place at ACPS, like a program that flags student searches for self-harm-related keywords on school-issued laptops to administrators.

The evening meeting was organized by ACPS, Alexandria PTA, and Parents for Safe Alexandria Schools.

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School officials are trying to ensure that early plans to expand T.C. Williams High School don’t result in increasing the inequities the plan was designed to thwart.

On Sept. 26, the School Board voted not to build a second high school, but to transform T.C. Williams High School as a campus with an expanded Minnie Howard satellite location a few blocks away. As the schools move into the earliest phases of developing what that expansion looks like, School Board members and school officials at a meeting last week expressed concerns that the current plan to add new facilities to Minnie Howard campus could result in students receiving unequal access to better educational opportunities — one of the chief criticisms of the two high school plan.

“We’re looking at the space first and foremost, then we can look at [whether] we need to make an upgrade in some of the labs that we have at King Street,” said Superintendent Gregory Hutchings Jr. “If we have science at two of the buildings and one lab can do one thing and the other can’t, that’s a problem with inequities in terms of kids taking the same courses.”

The discussion was prompted by Michelle Rief, a School Board member, who noted that plans for the campus high school indicated that some students could fully complete their graduation requirements in one building or the other. Rief pointed out that having students fully attend one location or the other sounded a lot like two separate high schools.

“The description of two high schools was two campuses with options at both,” Rief said. “I’ve heard this idea that everyone would access both buildings… Are students going to have the option of fulfilling all graduation options in one building or will students have the option to access both buildings?”

Staff noted that the relationship between the existing T.C. Williams building and the expanded satellite campus at Minnie Howard was still a question being internally discussed. Several times, the problem of planning building space and devising how the curriculum fit into those spaces was described as a classic chicken or the egg dilemma.

Terri Mozingo, chief academic officer for Alexandria City Public Schools, said staff had to work through how the split campus would function in terms of where certain classes would be located, but that this was difficult without knowing exactly what layout the buildings would be taking. The layouts of the expansion are, in turn, shaped by the academic requirements.

“We don’t want to get too far into the concept design of the site but we have to test some of the things coming out of the priorities and the relationship with Minnie Howard,” said Mozingo. “By the spring, we can come together with the educational program framework. It won’t be the details, but will be the themes, and how that details the type of space.”

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(Updated 10/31/19) Alexandria City Public Schools are moving forward with plans to use Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space with some new aspects that aim to ease concerns about traffic

By September 2020, ACPS plans to have to schools open on the lot where the former Patrick Henry Elementary School currently sits (4643 Taney Lane). The plan use the former Patrick Henry building for Douglas MacArthur students while the Douglas MacArthur school is under construction, with the new temporary school called Douglas MacArthur on Taney Avenue. The school will remain there until the new Douglas MacArthur opens in 2023.

The plans have controversial in the past, with some nearby residents expressing concerns about the new levels of traffic the schools would bring to the nearby two-lane Latham Street, and Peacock and Polk Avenues.

“It was adversarial before the vote, but after everyone has shown up to these meetings trying to find solutions and figure out how best to make this work,” staff said at a meeting last Thursday. “I think it’s been helpful and a lot of that collaboration is happening.”

The project will include staggered start times for the two schools, with the Douglas MacArthur School opening and closing a half-hour after Patrick Henry Elementary to safely allow bus traffic from one school to exit before the other arrives. ACPS currently faces a bus driver shortage, as noted by almost daily warnings on the school system’s website, staff said the schools will ultimately have to look for additional contractors.

School staff also recommended a two-way circulation system at the school’s single, central loop. Parents dropping off or picking up children at Patrick Henry would travel counter-clockwise at the outer level of the circle while pick-up or drop-off for Douglas MacArthur would run clockwise at the inner ring of the circle.

Approval for the use of the existing Patrick Henry facility as swing space, while construction is underway on the new facility, is scheduled to go before the City Council for approval next month. The Douglas MacArthur design kickoff meeting is planned for tomorrow (Tuesday) at 6 p.m. at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School (1101 Janneys Lane).

Image via Alexandria City Public Schools

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Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchings Jr. was recognized with a leadership award from a non-profit promoting healthy living conditions for children in the D.C. area.

Hutchings was awarded the Tom Cookerly Exceptional School Superintendent Leadership Award 2019 earlier this month by the National Center for Children and Families, citing his “his success as an outstanding leader in education and as an advocate, role model and mentor for minority youth in schools,” according to a press release.

The award comes near the end of what’s been a good couple months for Hutchings, who oversaw all ACPS schools becoming fully accredited for the first time in 20 years and successfully urged the School Board to stick with a single high school. As superintendent, Hutchings has also been at the forefront of a push to address inequalities within the school system.

Hutchings has been superintendent for a little over a year, starting in July 2018, and was a class of 1995 graduate from T.C. Williams High School.

“It is a great honor to receive this award and see recognition for the work ACPS has undertaken to close achievement gaps,” Hutchings said in the press release. “We continue to strive for equity for all our students. It is a long road but our goal is for each child to experience success regardless of their life circumstances.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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(Updated at 1:20 p.m.) Alexandria firefighters responded to T.C. Williams High School around lunchtime today (Thursday) after a fire alarm sounded.

School staff members reported a smell of electrical something burning in the school around the time the alarm sounded. The school was evacuated, with many students bringing their lunches outside to eat on the lawn.

As of 12:45 p.m. Alexandria firefighters are still on scene investigating. As of 1 p.m., students were expected to be let back into the building “imminently,” despite reports that power was out in parts of the building.

Vernon Miles contributed to this report

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It’s no secret that there is a lack of equity in Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) and school staff are working to identify where staff and students say disparities are the most prevalent.

While the school system recently celebrated all ACPS schools being fully accredited, the announcement noted that achievement gaps continue to exist “particularly in math and English among Hispanic students, black students, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.” Test scores over recent years have shown a narrowing gap among different groups but with room to improve.

Concerns about racial and socioeconomic hurdles in the school system were not just raised by disgruntled parents and students during the discussion over whether to split T.C. Williams High School, but by administrators like Principal Peter Balas and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings.

An audit report prepared by education consultant KickUp for last Thursday’s (Oct. 10) School Board meeting reported on an equity audit — a scheduled check-in following equity reforms initiated in 2017. The results of the survey seemed mixed, with students and staff praising many of the equity efforts but also pointing to several areas where more work needs to be done.

The audit said that of staff surveyed, 63% said they saw a noticeable relationship between student demographics and rigorous classes, while only 26% of students said it seemed like students were being placed in classes or groups based on race.

While the audit said that 80% of students surveyed said they believe their teachers help prepare them for to overcome education challenges, it said that “students at T.C. Williams Minnie Howard responded more negatively to a number of items in this category, relative to other schools.”

Students at T.C. ranked their school lower than other schools on items like “my teachers talk about things that are important to me” and “school is a place that helps me imagine my future.”

Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed at T.C. Williams High School indicated that it seemed like students were placed in classes and groups based on race, with nearly 60 percent of students at the Chance for Change alternative program saying they felt classes were grouped by race.

Concerns about the disparities in the school system were also present among school staff.

“While 79% of staff across the district agreed with the statement ‘efforts are made to foster respect between students from different backgrounds and identities,’ only 54.6% disagreed with the negative statement: ‘There are tensions in the school between students with different backgrounds and identities.'”

Concerns about equity were higher among staff in some schools. At Jefferson-Houston, a school that was plagued for years with accreditation issues, only 35.8 percent of staff said they believed students were being prepared to function as a member of a diverse society. Less than half the staff at the school responded positively to questions about physical integration at the school.

Nearly 60 percent of students agreed that there are tensions between students with different backgrounds and identities throughout the school system.

“Race is often an elephant in the room but is rarely addressed,” said Cheryl Robinson, Cultural Competency Coordinator for ACPS. “We’ve not had the conversations we need to have with our staff in order to help them think about and develop the skill and the will to want to do something different… We spend a fair amount of time talking about institutional racism and structural racism and how they are related to implicit bias because if you don’t name that, you can pretty much cancel Christmas.”

A second equity audit is planned for spring 2020 to check on progress over time.

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A community meeting is scheduled next week to address some of the planned improvements to the Parker-Gray Stadium at T.C. Williams High School.

The meeting is set to take place on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 6:30 p.m. in T.C. Williams High School (3330 King Street).

The most talked-about item has been the plan to add lights to the stadium, allowing nighttime games but drawing the ire of residents next door to the stadium who say the addition of lights violates a promise made years ago.

Plans for stadium lights were ultimately approved by a divided City Council. There were efforts made to mitigate the impact of the proposed lights on the nearby residences, but opposition to the lights remained — a lawsuit from nearby residents regarding the lights is still pending.

There’s more to the stadium improvements than just lights. According to Alexandria City Public Schools, plans for the stadium include:

  • The addition of an eighth lane on the track
  • Replacement of the artificial turf
  • The addition of restrooms
  • A new concession stand
  • A ticket booth
  • Replacement of the scoreboard and placement on the other end of the field
  • Egress safety lighting
  • A new press box to replace the condemned one on the other side of the field to improve the quality of lighting for images and video for media.
  • Field lighting
  • An upgraded the sound system to comply with the City of Alexandria’s Noise Ordinance, enhance the quality of the sound, disperse the sound via multiple speakers and direct it away from houses along the fence line.

The schools have made changes to the design of the improvements to move restrooms and concessions away from the neighborhood.

The Tuesday meeting is expected to focus on community input on future fencing to surround the perimeter of the stadium.

A tentative timeline on the ACPS website says construction on the track should begin sometime this month, with construction of the lights expected in April 2020. The whole project is tentatively planned to be completed by August 2020.

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The School Board has shot down a plan to add a second high school in Alexandria and is sticking with — as several members of the audience chanted throughout the night — “One T.C.

After a long debate at its Sept. 26 meeting that dredged up Alexandria’s history of segregation in schools and the ongoing achievement gap, the School Board voted 6-3 in favor of expanding the current high school into a “campus.”

The new proposal calls for the expansion of the Minnie Howard (3801 W. Braddock Road) site — currently a satellite school a few blocks west of T.C. Williams High School currently used as a facility for 9th grade students. Designs for the campus and what types of programs would be located across the different buildings remain to be determined.

With the approval of the campus-style high school, Superintendent Gregory Hutchings Jr. said the planning process for the design is about to start. In addition to determining the physical location and layout of the new buildings, Hutchings said the school district will look at the high school curriculum and determine which programs could best utilize separate buildings across the campus.

The design phase of the project is scheduled to run from 2020-2021.

“Now we will reconvene the educational design team and add additional members to that team to look at educational programming now that we have a model,” Hutchings said. “We have to start beginning the design phase and look at educational specifications to look at what these specs will be for the building.”

Keeping Alexandria’s high schoolers united in one school was the choice favored by several T.C. Williams students at the meeting, as well as Hutchings and T.C. Williams Principal Peter Balas.

“Urge you to cast your vote for one high school,” Balas, a former social studies teacher at the school, said in an impassioned plea during the public comment portion of the meeting. “T.C. is the heart of the city.

“I strongly encourage you to support our diversity as one of our greatest strengths,” he continued. “Our Titans experience diversity greater than anywhere else in this country. Two high schools lead us down a path of divisive battles [with] inequity between the two schools and leaving certain groups facing increasing disenfranchisement. These inequities will become deeper over time. Separation may be in our school’s name, but you can oppose it by voting to keep us together.”

Balas and Hutchings were also direct with their frustrations with current inequity within the schools and their struggles to try to eliminate that. Hutchings echoed the concerns of other parents and School Board members when he said he was worried multiple high schools would exacerbate those problems. Particularly, Hutchings noted, with the proposal for split high schools specializing in arts or science and technology.

“When you have more than one high school, whether it is reality or perception, someone is going to say ‘they’re getting more than I’m getting, they’re better than I am, they’re getting more options than I’m getting,'” Hutchings said. “It is inevitable that we’re not going to be able to offer those same courses. I want us to be honest about that. We are going to limit the options some of those students have.”

A contingent of students from Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS), both T.C. students and some in lower grades, spoke at the meeting against a separated high school system. Lorraine Johnson, a student at T.C., said that students involved in the early stages of the decision-making were focused on a collective good of the schools in a way that she didn’t see from parents.

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