Alexandria, VA

For Alexandria City Public Schools students this year, summer school is not exactly optional.

ACPS announced last week that students will be expected to participate in a summer learning program to compensate for time lost in classrooms in the latter half of the 2019-2020 academic year. Parents who do not want their children to participate will be required to submit a form explaining why they want to opt-out of the summer program.

“Academic loss during COVID-19 is real,” the school division said in its website. “This year, it has the potential to be combined with summer learning loss. It is important that we as a school division do everything within our power to ensure students’ learning needs are being met, especially during these unprecedented times. Therefore, to minimize summer learning loss, we are offering summer learning and enrichment for all students.”

All students are expected to participate and most classes, except a handful of programs at T.C. Williams High School, will be free.

The summer school will take place from July 6-31, with classes Monday-Thursday. Pre-K through eighth-grade classes will be held from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. while high school classes will be held from 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

Individual summer program guidelines are available for:

According to the website:

The goal of summer learning is to engage, enrich, and prepare students for the anticipation of September 2020 and is based on the following principles:

  • Engaging content paced to afford students the opportunity to self-monitor and receive feedback and coaching. Feedback and coaching are essential for student success in the virtual context.
  • Preparation for the next grade level for all rising sixth grade students and secondary students through boost/prep course.
  • Pre-K through fourth grade students will continue using learning kits and Chromebooks with an additional feature of virtual check-in or phone support for our pre-K through second grade students.
  • Feedback and grading are essential to Summer 2020. Students will receive feedback and coaching or grades for credit-bearing courses that will go on transcripts.

Photo via ACPS/Facebook

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The George Washington Middle School Parent Teacher Association is donating $9,000 to Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) to help restore the exterior grounds of the school.

A memo regarding the donation said last December a community member approached ACPS about starting a fundraiser to help restore some of the outdoor learning space at the school. The GW PTA donated a total of $9,000 on May 13. Any donations above $2,500 must be approved the School Board, which is scheduled to review the donation at tomorrow’s meeting.

“The donation will support the well-being of students and staff at George Washington Middle School by providing a restored outdoor space that can be used for learning, instruction and other educational purposes,” staff said in the memo. “The donation has no identified undesirable, unacceptable, or hidden costs. It will serve all students, staff and community of George Washington Middle School.”

If the donation is approved, the memo states that the ACPS Operations Department will work through the next steps needed to restore the school’s outdoor learning space.

Like the rest of ACPS, GW is currently closed for the remainder of the school year.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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With schools being closed for the duration of the school year and Alexandria still in lockdown until the end of May, Alexandria City Public Schools highlighted the annual faculty awards in an online post celebrating the support staff, teacher, and principal of the year.

ACPS announced the winners on Monday, May 18.

  • Andrew (William) Sharpe: 2020 Support Staffer of the Year
  • Ashley Sandoval: 2020 Teacher of the Year
  • PreeAnn Johnson: 2020 Principal of the Year

ACPS also released some fun facts about the ACPS award recipients.

Sharpe is not only a building engineer at T.C. Williams High School Minnie Howard Campus and an employee for 36 years, he is also a class of ’78 Titan who holds the school record for longest kickoff return for a 96-yarder set in 1978.

Sandoval, a physical education teacher at Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology, arranged for swimming lessons for every fourth grade student in her school.

Johnson, principal of James K. Polk Elementary School, has worked in Alexandria schools for 35 years and led the school to winning the Let’s Move Active Schools National Award.

ACPS highlighted Sharpe in a post on Monday and Sandoval in a post today (Wednesday), with an upcoming message that will honor Johnson on Friday.

The schools also recognized and celebrated National Merit Scholar Leah Nickelsburg. Nickelsburg, a senior at T.C., was awarded $2,500 by the academic organization that recognizes excellence in students across the U.S.

ACPS also announced more plans for graduation on Saturday, June 13. A virtual ceremony will be streamed starting at 9:30 a.m. on ACPS TV Channel 71, Facebook Live and the ACPS website.

“While our school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have upended our traditional ending to a school year, we have been hard at work trying to plan the most meaningful and special ways to recognize you while also being responsible to ensure our duties to prevent the spread of any disease and ensure public safety and health,” said T.C. Principal Peter Balas.

The keynote address is scheduled to be given by world champion sprinter Noah Lyles, a 2016 T.C. graduate who is part of the US Olympic team that was originally scheduled to compete in Olympics in Tokyo, Japan this summer.

Photo via @CKelemPE/Twitter

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While T.C. Williams High School students aren’t gathering in-person to celebrate graduation, local celebrations are being held including a special lighting of the George Washington Masonic Temple.

“On Saturday, June 13, 2020, we encourage all residents of the most wonderful City of Alexandria to light up their homes in red, white and blue to support the graduating Class of 2020 from T.C. Williams High School,” Principal Peter Balas said in a newsletter. “I am excited to announce that the George Washington Masonic Temple will be illuminated in red, white and blue on June 13 in recognition of our graduates. Let’s light up the whole city!”

ACPS has a website set up for a virtual graduation event that day — featuring a comically outdated dab — but there are few other details so far.

Balas said locals should try to light their homes up red, white and blue to honor graduates on June 13. Those who participate are also encouraged to share their pictures with Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) via @ACPSk12 on Twitter using the #TCW2020 hashtag, or post on the ACPS Facebook page.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Alexandria City Public Schools reiterated in a School Board meeting last Friday (May 15) that the upcoming school year won’t start before Labor Day (Sept. 7) but the next school year likely will.

In a memo to the board, Chief Human Resources Officer Stephen Wilkins said that Calendar Committee recommended the 2021-2022 school year start at on Aug. 28. School officials warned, however, that this could change depending on the long-term impact of COVID-19.

“We may be revisiting the 2021-2022 calendar again,” Hutchings said. “It may look completely different than what we have presented… With everything that’s happening with the pandemic, calendars for this year and next year could look different.”

The school district said earlier that the state legislature’s change to the requirement that schools start after Labor Day — colloquially known as the King’s Dominion Rule — came too late to give families enough time to plan for the schedule change in the 2020-2021 school year.

While officials said Alexandria is not alone in pushing back plans to start before Labor Day until the 2021-2022 school year, the school system shouldn’t fall behind other jurisdictions moving to a pre-Labor Day start to ensure that Alexandria students have as much academic time as students in other regional jurisdictions.

“We reviewed the calendars for our region,” Wilkins said. “Many jurisdictions have a pre-Labor Day start. Our concern was to align our calendars with our neighbors.”

The School Board is scheduled to vote on the calendar recommendation in one of its meetings later this month.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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(Updated 5/17) T.C. Williams High School seniors in the class of 2020 may not have their chance to walk across the stage, but a small group of seniors are working to make sure their classmates still get a moment of public celebration.

The Instagram page tctitans_seniors has profiled 92 seniors in the school so far, sharing a picture with their post-graduation plans and other small bits of information about them.

Senior Haydee Patterson said he started the page with Amiya Chisolm when a friend, Rebekah Lamarre, shared the idea with them — having seen it elsewhere on social media for another local high school.

“Amiya and I executed the idea,” Patterson said. “With making the page, we’re hoping for every senior to have a chance to share their post-secondary plans and the outcome/feedback so far has been amazing and I’m glad we did something like this.”

Posts include photos of students hanging out with friends, at band practice, or gathering after sporting events. Some include students sharing their favorite memories from their time at T.C., like football games.

“Myself and Haydee Patterson immediately felt the need to not only post our senior classmates secondary plans, but to also have the option for them to share their favorite memories!” Chisolm said. “Our goal is to have all of our class celebrated where everyone can see at anytime! What better platform is there than Instagram?”

Chisolm said the project has also helped students stay in touch through the end of the school year, and added the obligatory reference to the 2000 sports film about the school.

“The page has also transformed into immediate outreach and a way to easily communicate senior year updates,” Chisolm said. “We now have over 500 followers and over 100 people sending over their information! We want to make sure everyone remembers the Titans!”

Photo via T.C. Titan Seniors/Instagram

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Faced with a $7.4 million reduction in funding from the city and $4 million lost from the state, Alexandria City Public Schools is faced with dire cuts that will keep staffing levels but leave teachers with reduced pay.

“We are facing a global pandemic, but that does not change our priorities,” Superintendent Gregory Hutchings said at a virtual meeting on Friday. “We are staying true to actual budget priorities that were approved by the board as we make these revisions.”

The largest cuts come from the $5.5 million elimination of the annual step increase, which City Manager Mark Jinks implied would be necessary in his budget presentation to the City Council.

Two of the other major cuts are a general reduction in non-personnel expenditures for $1.8 million and the elimination of new positions for $1.4 million.

The non-personnel expenditures represent a 5% cut across the board, with principals and chiefs assigned to make those cuts within their schools and departments.

Hutchings said that 29.8 fulltime employees were planned to be hired in the budget initially, which was reduced to 13.7 in the new budget.

“Our goal is to not have a reduction in force,” Hutchings said. “Right now, we’re not recommending having a reduction in force. That’s a huge benefit for us. Some school divisions are having those discussions right now.”

Hutchings warned, though, that this could change if the economic downturn continues.

“I don’t want to say we will never have a reduction in force,” Hutchings said. “Realistically, if this economy continues to have a downturn… that’s going to be a very tough decision that we may have to make in the next few months.”

The reductions in the budget will also have an impact on pay for teachers. While salaries aren’t planning to be cut or enhanced, Hutchings said increasing health premiums means employees will see a decrease in take-home pay.

For a teacher who has a master’s degree and United Healthcare — which Hutchings said is the majority of teachers in the school system — take-home pay will decrease by $213 over the next year.

“[We’re] making decisions in the best interest of staff members and students,” Hutchings said. “We are proposing something that is preventing people from losing their jobs due to COVID-19.”

On the capital project side, the budget includes the deferral of the T.C. Williams High School renovation, though the 2024 opening date is still included in the project.

The budget is planned to be discussed throughout May, with final adoption scheduled for Friday, June 5.

Top photo by Jay Westcott, graph via ACPS

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In a video posted yesterday, Alexandria Superintendent Gregory Hutchings described the school’s approach to educating students at home and how those plans have evolved and will evolve throughout the pandemic.

“Our continuity of learning plan is how we teach and learn from home,” Hutchings said. “It ensures all our students are learning while we’re at home. The plan was initially meant to take us through spring break, but as you know… [Gov. Northam] decided all schools will remain closed through the academic year.”

Hutchings said the school is currently in the middle of what he called Continuity of Learning Plan 2.0, a plan that includes both synchronous — video classes between teachers and students — and asynchronous education — lessons students can pursue on a timeline that works for individual families.

“There are a lot of younger students are involved with [asynchronous learning],” Hutchings said. “They might check in with the teacher, it might be one-on-one, or might see a lesson on TV or online at a time convenient for the family. That’s important because all of our schedules are different.”

Hutchings said his own family was no different, saying he was trying to find a time to record the video in a house full of family members using zoom for various meetings and lessons at all hours of the day.

Moving forward, Hutchings said Plan 3.0 focuses on summer academic support.

“We’re going to be sharing that with staff and families on May 22,” Hutchings said, so families can have a better understanding of what summer will look like for students.”

The final (for now) version of the continuity of learning plan — 4.0 — is about preparing for reopening schools for the next academic year.

“More information on that will be coming soon,” Hutchings said. “We’ll be releasing that at the end of June, on June 26. That will provide and opportunity for family and staff to understand the multiple plans for opening schools in the fall. There may be multiple scenarios.”

Hutchings said the other question he hears a lot is whether students will be penalized for not completing their assignments from home.

“If students don’t do the assignments will they be held back?” Hutchings said. “Students won’t be penalized, but students grades 6-12 will have the opportunity to improve their grade if they do their assignments.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Alexandria City Public Schools has added two more mobile pop-up breakfast and lunch distribution locations for “grab and go” meals for children over the age of two.

The new locations are The Fields of Alexandria at 4309 Duke Street and Bennington Crossing Apartment Homes at 441 North Armistead Street.

The school system is also asking families to fill out a survey on its operations during the COVID-19 shutdown.

“It’s been almost two months since we closed our school buildings in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19 and adhere to our Governor’s stay-at-home order. Today, we want to hear from you to help us assess how we continue to serve and meet your needs through our COVID-19 situation,” ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings wrote in an early morning email on Wednesday. “We are asking that you please take two to three minutes to complete our quick Pulse survey. We will be administering these surveys every three weeks from now through the remainder of the academic year.”

Hutchings added, “The results will be used to help us assess whether we are meeting your expectations as well as how we can continue to support you. The anonymous information you provide to us will directly impact the way we provide each of you with the necessary support during these unprecedented times.”

Food distribution at all the ACPS locations has also been limited to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to encourage social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic that has shuttered the school system for the rest of the academic year.

Parents and students can pick up two days worth of meals, which consist of a cold breakfast and lunch, including fresh fruits and vegetables, salads and sandwiches.

Registration is not required to receive meals, according to ACPS.

ACPS is distributing food at the following locations:

  • William Ramsay Elementary School, 5700 Sanger Avenue, from 9 a.m. to noon
  • Francis C. Hammond Middle School, 4646 Seminary Road, from 9 a.m. to noon
  • Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology, 3600 Commonwealth Avenue, from 9 a.m. to noon
  • Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 IB School, 1501 Cameron Street, from 9 a.m. to noon
  • T.C. Williams High School, 3330 King Street, from 9 a.m. to noon
  • Mason Apartments at South Reynolds Street, from 10:45 to 11:15 a.m.
  • Brent Place Apartments at 375 South Reynolds Street, from 11:20 to 11:50 a.m.
  • Ruby Tucker Family Center at 322 Tancil Court, from 10:45 to 11:15 a.m.
  • Community Lodgings at 607 Notabene Drive, from 10:45 to 11:15 a.m.
  • Old Towne West Apartments (parking lot) at 500 South Alfred Street, from 11:20 to 11:50 a.m.
  • Corner of Florence Drive and Four Mile Road, from 10:45 to 11:15 a.m.
  • The Fields of Alexandria at 4309 Duke Street, from 10:45 to 11:15 a.m.
  • Bennington Crossing Apartment Homes at 441 North Armistead Street, from 11:30 a.m. to noon

Staff photo by James Cullum

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The Scholarship Fund of Alexandria recently awarded $505,000 in first-year college scholarships to 181 T.C. High School seniors.

Although the annual Scholarship Fund Spring Gala was canceled due to COVID-19, just like the remainder of the school year, students were notified by email that they received the awards. The top prize of $40,000, however, was presented to T.C. senior Foziya Mohammed via Zoom by scholarship sponsors U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and his family.

“It was wonderful because she (Mohammed) was going to start at Northern Virginia Community College because she got some money from schools but she didn’t get enough make up the difference, and this scholarship made up the difference so that she can start at a four year school,” Beth Lovain, executive director of the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria, told ALXnow.

The Scholarship Fund has awarded more than $16 million in college scholarships to more than 4,750 students since 1986, and the annual gala raises upward of $400,000 every year. As the numbers of students at T.C. increase every year, the number of scholarships also increases — especially since two-thirds of Alexandria’s high schoolers are living at or below the poverty level.

The nonprofit still has to award its renewal scholarships, which are for students who are in college and need additional assistance. The amount given is an open number, although Lovain anticipates awarding $625,000 in renewal scholarships, which would put the organization at over $1 million in awards this year. The deadline to apply is July 15.

Lovain said that the organization will continue its silent auction online. The event is usually held at the spring gala.

“We are doing fundraising, because we had to cancel our Gala. And that is the single biggest pot of money to fund our scholarships, and without it we face a hardship,” she said. “So, we’re really trying to get the word out that the students still have the same needs as they always had, or more now.”

What does it feel like to get a SURPRISE ZOOM CALL from U.S. Senator Mark Warner, Lisa Collis, and daughters Gillian,…

Posted by Scholarship Fund of Alexandria on Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Photo via Scholarship Fund of Alexandria/Facebook

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Gabriel Pineda thought his Eagle Scout project was going to be easy, until he got to George Mason Elementary School and saw that the old ma of the United States painted on the blacktop that he remembered was completely gone.

At first, the 17-year-old wanted to do a touch-up project on the map he played on as a young boy, but it was removed when the playground was resurfaced a couple of years ago. Instead, Pineda decided to completely repaint the entire 35-foot square map from scratch.

“(W)hen I was there I always liked the map. It was colorful, it was bright and fun to play on,” Pineda said. “We also learned where the states are, so I decided I wanted to put it back onto the blacktop for the kids, so that they could have that as well.”

Pineda, who plans to study marine biology this fall at Ferrum College, got the approval of his Scout troop and then met with George Mason Elementary Principal Brian Orrenmaa, who jumped at the opportunity and helped convince the school PTA to pay for the stencil.

“I think any elementary school has a goal of having a lasting impact with their students,” Orrenmaa said. “I was very thankful for him willing to help, so I approved it fairly quickly.”

The new map will also be geographically correct. Its predecessor inaccurately located Alaska and Hawaii in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pineda lives down the street form the school and plans to have the map finished by the end of the month. He is now getting help from a half dozen or so of his co-Scouts and his family, all of whom are wearing protective face masks and plastic gloves. He’s also installing a six-foot-tall ruler near the playground at the school so that students can measure their heights.

So far the primer has been laid, and the map will be painted in non-toxic concrete and patio paint in red, blue, green, purple and orange.

“When I’m home from college on a break or something I can still go and see it (and say), ‘Hey, I did that,'” Pineda said. “Once this whole pandemic is over I can go to the playground and see the kids playing on something I did.”

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A couple weeks ago, Jesse Mazur stopped his car outside George Washington Middle School and thought about how quickly things changed.

It’s a disorienting feeling for the 44-year-old principal who has — one way or another — been in schools most of his life, and inside the hallways are completely empty. Since March 13, Mazur and his staff have had to adapt to a new normal of remotely teaching more than 1,500 students for the remainder of the year.

“I stopped, and my wife asked me what I was doing and I just felt the need to stop and just look at it,” Mazur told ALXnow. “I’ve been going to school for 18 years of my life as a professional, and, of course, 15 years of my life as an actual student. It’s very disorienting to not be in my office.”

Mazur added, “I’ve missed the camaraderie with my team and I miss teaching and learning. I miss walking through the door of the building and seeing the students. Believe it or not, I miss lunch duty. It’s a really tough transition but what’s sustaining me personally is knowing that we rolled out a good product in terms of getting kids and teachers online, but also recognizing that there’s still opportunities to improve.”

At first, GW eighth grader Yahney-Marie Sangare was excited that school was initially closed until after spring break. Ten days later, on March 23, Governor Northam closed all schools in the state for the remainder of the year, and Sangare felt crestfallen at not being able to graduate from the eighth grade with her friends. Now she spends about four hours a day doing online learning.

“I think it was deeper than just not being in school,” the 12-year-old Sangare said. “It’s just something that challenges your perception of reality. Sometimes you wake up and you just feel like life isn’t really real and it feels like you’re never really going to get the chance to live normally again. And the prospect that things are going to change after this is over is both beautiful and terrifying.”

All students at GW received Chromebooks and instructional packets to take home, and Mazur and his staff combed through school records to reach out to families without the necessary equipment or internet access. Additionally, about 48% of students receive free and reduced lunch, and the synchronous teaching ensures that teachers maintain continual relationships with their kids throughout the shutdown.

“Yes, it’s important, of course, to get the kids engaged in their education, but we also realize for some that the education is the least of their concerns and the least of their worries,” Mazur said. “We just exhausted our internal database of phone numbers and called and called emergency emergency contacts. We did everything we could to try to track down these students and find out what is happening in their lives and how we can support them.”

Mazur conducts a weekly staff meeting every Friday, and is currently working out of the basement of his home, while his wife, a teacher at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School, teaches upstairs. They’re also the parents of a T.C. Williams High School senior and a GW eighth grader.

“It’s very, very unusual to stare at his computer screen all day, and my eyes are suffering,” Mazur said. “I love the energy of a schoolhouse. One of my favorite things to do is to go into gym class and compete with these kids while I’m there.”

Sangare said that she is concerned about the future of the country.

“The president’s actions of cutting funding to the World Health Organization is scary,” she said. “Especially for my generation, we are being affected by these choices. I think that this time to stand together and really look and reflect on our country, how we can help other countries and take what they’re doing right and what they’re doing. And we cannot be targeting anyone any minority group, anything like that. This is the time that we stand together, and we stand up for each other, especially for those who don’t have the resources like we do.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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