Alexandria, VA

Sara Abbas was momentarily speechless.

Earlier this month, officials with the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria faked her out on a scheduled Zoom interview.

After she answered a few basic questions, they announced that she just won the first-ever $40,000 Titans In Tech Scholarship. The next thing she knew the call was joined by Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., T.C Williams principal Peter Balas, SFA Director Beth Lovain and her mentor Brett Sirois, a 2007 Titan alum and creator of the scholarship.

It was a surprising moment, and that’s when Abbas stood up and walked away from the camera to tell her family the good news.

“I was so shocked,” Abbas told ALXnow. “They’d already made their decision.”

Hutchings received the scholarship when he attended T.C. in 1995.

“Sara, this scholarship helped pave the way for my success and I know it will do that for you,” Hutchings said. “As a woman and a person of color entering the computer science world and looking to help students of color who follow behind you, I can see that you are on the way to change the world, that you are going to make a difference.”

Balas said that the scholarship will be a game-changer for Abbas.

“This scholarship is going to be a game-changer for you and your family,” he said. “And I can see that you are going to be a game-changer, too.”

There has been a 25% increase in applications for Scholarship Fund of Alexandria awards, and $525,000 is being given out to 180 seniors this year at its 35th anniversary spring gala on April 24. The Scholarship Fund has awarded $16.5 million to nearly 5,000 Alexandria students over the last 35 years.

“As a TC Alum and Alexandria native, I wanted to find a way to give back to the community that helped me get to where I am today,” Sirois said. “This scholarship was created to help a student like Sara jumpstart their career in technology and I’m happy to play a small part in her future success. Sara has worked so hard to get so far already, I have no doubt that the sky is the limit for her.”

Abbas will study computer science at Virginia Tech this fall. She said she wants to help children learn coding.

“I’m really honored to have been awarded the Titans In Tech scholarship,” Abbas said. “It’s very meaningful, not only financially but emotionally as well because it strengthened my belief in myself. There’s no doubt that we’ll be able to accomplish my professional goals.”

In her scholarship essay, she wrote about the digital divide between the haves and have nots in society.

“I was writing how the link between technology and power, and how we need to care about making communities a more equitable place, and need to make computer science education available to everyone, since students of color are disadvantaged youth,” she said. “I’m really hoping to work in the middle schools in the surrounding Blacksburg area.”

Photo via Scholarship Fund of Alexandria

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Alexandria City Public Schools will shift to three-foot distancing in classrooms on Monday, April 26, Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. told the School Board on Tuesday night.

The change will be implemented five weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed their guidance for classrooms from six to three feet. Between now and April 26, principals will be making adjustments to the change, while keeping the six-foot distancing in place in the cafeteria and during lunch.

The school system will also be bringing back 3,000 more students to two days a week of hybrid instruction over the next couple of weeks. That will make about 8,000 students back in school out of the 16,000 student population.

“We were already, kind of, prepared to pivot (to three-foot distancing),” Hutchings told the Board in a virtual retreat. “We were really just trying to focus on the most recent pivot we were doing prior to spring break, which was bringing back additional students on April 20, and additional students on April 27.”

Hutchings will provide the Board with an update on the distancing change on Thursday, April 22. He also said that the school system is preparing for four-day-per-week summer school and five days a week of in-person instruction starting this fall.

Last week, the School Board approved the distancing change, reversing a since-deleted statement on ACPS Express that the school system is “maintaining six feet of physical distancing throughout the remainder of the school year.”

Hutchings was heavily criticized last week for not advising the Board on a decision to keep all students at home to study virtually a full week after spring break, in addition to the distancing message, which was made without Board advisement.

I’m going to be honest,” School Board Member Ramee Gentry said in last Thursday’s meeting. “In my five years on the School Board, this is probably the most frustrated I’ve ever been. I feel there is a real disconnect in the communications and a real breakdown in the process… We have heard a lot of frustration from the community, and I quite frankly share that frustration.”

Member Chris Suarez said last week that he was “blindsided” by the extension of virtual an extra week after spring break.

“To come back from spring break and see this announcement and frankly be blindsided by it, you know, it was very concerning from a procedural standpoint,” he said.

Meanwhile, neighboring jurisdictions like Fairfax County Public Schools recently expanded to four days a week for in-person instruction and Falls Church recently returned to five days a week.

School Board Member Margaret Lorber said that it was unrealistic for ACPS to quickly adapt to three-feet distancing, and criticized the media for coverage.

“I knew we had not made a decision as a Board to stick with the six feet until the end of the year,” Lorber said. “However, I knew that there were a lot of teachers who were hesitant to even move from virtual to in-school for those a lot of questioning on our staff, still a lot to discern about safety issues about just the work, the fact that they had put so much into creating a virtual system.”

Lorber continued, “I think we have to be aware, the press loves to pick up on sensational language, so I guess that’s my point. And I wish we could have all kept our language, you know, a little less sensational so they wouldn’t have such a story.”

Hutchings said that the superintendent job is a lonely one, and that he was very grateful and values the personal relationships he has with School Board members.

“This is probably one of the loneliest jobs out there right now,” Hutchings said of his position. “It’s a pretty lonely place, but I never genuinely feel alone because I know I do have nine other people (the Board)… that I could call on when needed, in that we can talk through our challenges, so I just appreciate that.”

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With little discussion, the Alexandria School Board last Thursday unanimously approved the “Pinwheel” concept at the T.C. Williams High School Minnie Howard campus.

The decision over the High School Project took two-and-a-half years in the making, and the $149.5 million Pinwheel was chosen over two other concepts.

Construction on the five-story facility is scheduled to begin in June 2022 and be finished by September 2024, during which time construction will occur on open space at the school. That means that students will have to do physical activities off-site, and staff and construction workers may have to park elsewhere.

“ACPS will explore nearby properties that are likely to have parking vacancies during school operating and construction hours,” ACPS said in a staff report. “During construction the athletic fields and courts will be displaced and will need to be accommodated off-site. ACPS is to explore holding physical education classes at the King Street Campus, Chinquapin Park and alternate locations.”

The Pinwheel is so named since it organizes “learning neighborhoods” and future athletic facilities in orbit around the heart of the school. It also includes a plan for an aquatics facility that is currently unfunded. Additionally, there will be no affordable housing co-located at Minnie Howard, since the Board voted against it in February.

The school will hold at least 1,600 students and continue as a satellite campus for T.C. Williams High School, which will be renamed Alexandria City High School on July 1.

“Community use of, and access to the building will be supported through the creation of community access zones that will allow portions of it to be safely used during and outside of school hours,” notes a 200-page report submitted to the Board. “These resources may include the gyms, the ‘Forum’, the Library/Learning Commons, an aquatics center, and other services that may be provided by the Alexandria Health Department and Department of Community and Human Services.”

The project will now continue into another design phase until construction begins in June 2022.

Images via ACPS

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It was a historic week in Alexandria. Here are some of the highlights.

President Joe Biden visited the Neighborhood Health COVID-19 vaccine site at Virginia Theological Seminary on Tuesday, just before announcing that the date for adults to get access to the vaccine has been moved to April 19.

The Alexandria School Board, on Thursday night, voted to change the name of T.C. Williams High School to Alexandria City High School.

The School Board also voted unanimously to reduce the distancing requirement in ACPS schools from six feet to three feet, all the while community support is growing to expand in-person instruction to more than the current two days a week. Summer school is currently planned to begin in July and will be four days a week, and ACPS is planning on reopening to five days a week at the beginning of the next school year.

Our top story was on the T.C. Williams Titans junior varsity football team walking off the field after an incident with the Robinson Rams on Monday night. Robinson Rams players allegedly spit at and made a racial slur against T.C. players. The incident has prompted Fairfax County Public Schools to announce a “stand-down” meeting for all athletic teams and coaches to discuss “appropriate behaviors required to play sports in FCPS.”

Additionally, six Alexandria Police officers were placed on administrative duties after a chase suspect died while in custody. Police responded to a call for shots fired in the 800 block of North Patrick Street, and multiple buildings and vehicles were struck. The driver of the vehicle crashed on Interstate 295, and then jumped over an overpass barrier and fell more than 20 feet and was tased by police, arrested and later died.

Important Stories

Top Stories

  1. JUST IN: T.C. Williams JV football team walks off field after alleged racial slur, spitting incident
  2. BREAKING: Shots fired in Old Town leads to chase that ends in D.C.
  3. JUST IN: President Biden set to visit Alexandria vaccination site Tuesday
  4. National Park Service announces George Washington Parkway to go on a diet
  5. Neighborhood Health vaccinating thousands at sites in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax County
  6. JUST IN: Woman arrested after fight on King Street Metro station platform
  7. UPDATE: $8,500 reported stolen in terrifying West End robbery
  8. JUST IN: President Biden visits COVID-19 vaccine site at Virginia Theological Seminary
  9. COVID-19 update: Alexandria moves into vaccination phase 1C
  10. JUST IN: Six Alexandria Police officers put on administrative duties after chase suspect dies
  11. Fairfax County man arrested for three burglaries, released three days later

Have a safe weekend!

Photo via T.C. Williams Football Boosters/Facebook

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In a unanimous decision Thursday night, the Alexandria School Board went against the recommendation of Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. and changed distancing in schools from six feet to three feet.

School Board members were unhappy that, also on Thursday, Alexandria City Public Schools posted that the school system “is maintaining six feet of physical distancing throughout the remainder of the school year.”

The statement has since been deleted.

I’m going to be honest,” School Board Member Ramee Gentry said. “In my five years on the School Board this is probably the most frustrated I’ve ever been. I feel there has been a real disconnect in the communications and a real breakdown in the process that’s happened over the last two days. We have heard a lot of frustration from the community, and I quite frankly share that frustration.”

Hutchings said he will meet with staff early next week on when the new distancing guidelines will happen. He also said that staff have been figuring out how to make the changes since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed their guidance to three feet last month. He told the Board that there was a celebratory discussion with staff after the CDC guidance came out on March 19.

“A couple of weeks ago when we received the updated CDC guidelines, we shared this information with our transition team… and we were having a really celebratory discussion about it because we were excited about the fact that three feet will allow us to bring more students into our schools,” Hutchings said. “We are committed to bringing back as many students as we can. Three feet is going to allow us to do that.”

Board Member Michelle Rief made the motion to change the distancing. She said ACPS mistakenly took the six-foot position without the Board’s approval.

I make a motion that ACPs transition to three feet of physical distancing between desks to the greatest extent possible for the remainder of the current school year,” she said. “I am committed to returning as many students as possible to in-person learning this school year.”

Hutchings and School Board Chair Meagan Alderton have also been criticized for sending their children to private schools in the city that have three-foot distancing requirements.

“I want more kids in school as soon as possible,” Alderton said.

Mayor Justin Wilson wants ACPS to fully reopen, and Hutchings said that ACPS is planning on four days a week of in-person summer school instruction and then fully reopening in the fall.

ACPS staff have had an opportunity to get vaccinated. In January, Governor Ralph Northam visited T.C. Williams High School to see ACPS staff get their first round of inoculations. As previously reported, around half of the school staff were uncomfortable returning to work when surveyed last fall, and Hutchings has been concerned with capacity and staffing issues.

Board Member Christopher Suarez said that he was blindsided by the ACPS announcement, in addition to Hutchings’ decision to keep ACPS all-virtual for a week following spring break.

“My concerns started when the announcement was made right before spring break, that we were going to extend virtual an extra week after the break and there was no discussion with the board about that,” Suarez said. “To come back from spring break and see this announcement and frankly be blindsided by it, you know, it was very concerning from a procedural standpoint.”

About 5,000 students went back to two days a week of in-person instruction last month, and Hutchings said that 3,000 more students will go back over the next couple of weeks.

The OPEN ACPS group, which is made up of hundreds of residents, commended the Board on its decision. The group is now asking the Board to weigh Hutchings’ decisions during the pandemic when his contract with the school system comes up for review this December.

“OPEN ACPS is grateful to the Board members who demanded answers and accountability from this Superintendent during last night’s meeting,” the group said in a statement. “In addition, OPEN ACPS urges the Board to continue holding the Superintendent accountable as ACPS moves to adopt the 3 feet distancing metric. We hope that this will not be another opportunity for Dr. Hutchings to use meetings, committees, and ‘buy in’ as a means to delay policy changes that he cannot or will not enact.”

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“Alexandria City High School” on Thursday night was unanimously chosen as the new name for T.C. Williams High School. The Alexandria School Board voted for the name change for the city’s only public high school, and the effort took more than a year in the making.

“It’s a big deal and it will mean a lot for our future use,” School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said. “Sometimes it’s good for us to think about the power in reclaiming a name, in changing the name to mean something — other than what we’ve always used it for.”

The new name will be effective at the start of the 2021-22 School Year on July 1, 2021. Additionally, the Board changed the name of Matthew Maury Elementary School to Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School.

School Board Member Ramee Gentry made the motion for “Alexandria City High School”. It was approved unanimously.

I understand both sides of this,” Board member Jacinta Greene said.We have over 50,000 graduates that are very endeared by the name, by the initials T.C. And we have current students that still love being a T.C. Titan…. But not in the name of Thomas Chambliss. It will not mean that anymore.”

T.C. Williams High School is the largest high school in Virginia. It is known around the world for the 2000 movie Remember the Titans, which focused on its 1971 state championship-winning varsity football team that found greatness by working through racial adversity.

T.C. is named after Thomas Chambliss Williams, the superintendent of ACPS for 30 years. He required that all Black students wanting admission to previously all-white schools to go through an application process. Only 75 Black students (about 3%) were allowed to transfer to formerly white schools by the time Williams announced his retirement in 1962, and that was three years after the city officially desegregated schools.

“I had butterflies in my stomach all day just thinking about how long and emotional this journey has been,” said Lorraine Johnson, a student representative on the board. “We can’t forget about our elementary school and middle school students who are coming up before you know it. It’s going to be your time to shine in this high school of endless possibilities, and when it happens, take advantage of every opportunity.”

Gentry did not want the T.C. in another proposal — The City of Alexandria High School.

“You will always be a T.C. Williams High School graduate, and you can wear that with pride,” Gentry said. “But this is the beginning of a new period in history.”

Principal Peter Balas said that “A.C. Titans” is not far from T.C. Titans.

I’m a little concerned about a move to preserve the letters T and C in the name in some way, without having the engagement of our students,” Balas said.

Residents have tried in vain for decades to get the name changed, and many said that the process this time around should have been handled faster.

Photo via ACPS/Facebook

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Mayor Justin Wilson says that money is no object and that he wants the Alexandria City Public Schools system to fully reopen to in-person instruction as soon as possible.

However, ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. says that in-person instruction won’t be expanded past two days a week at least for the remainder of this school year.

“We need to get our kids back in school full time,” Wilson told ALXnow. “Money will be no object, facilities will be no object. We will make sure that we get our kids back in school, and that that is what I’ve said from the beginning of this effort.”

Hutchings has come under fire for keeping ACPS all-virtual for a week following spring break. Some residents say that the school system is broken and that they are considering moving from the city.

Meanwhile, neighboring jurisdictions are opening up their school systems. Fairfax County Public Schools recently expanded to four days a week for in-person instruction and Falls Church recently returned to five days a week.

ACPS states on its website that it is planning on five-day-a-week in-person instruction this fall. As of the week of March 16, 2021, the school system reported more than 4,000 in-person students two days a week — a quarter of its 16,000-strong student population. Three days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced the recommended distancing in schools from six feet to three feet.

“We are reviewing the revised CDC guidelines to determine how these impact our school division, as our reopening team continues to plan for the 2021-22 school year,” Hutchings wrote parents this week in an email. “We do not plan to adjust the current hybrid learning schedule before the end of the school year, at this time.”

Additionally, Hutchings and School Board Chair Meagan Alderton have been criticized for sending their children to private schools in the city that have three-foot distancing requirements, while the standard at ACPS is six feet. Alderton and Hutchings did not respond to questions on the subject.

ACPS will expand the number of students on April 20, Hutchings said, adding that students are organized via a “instructional prioritization matrix.”

“We expect to begin welcoming more students to in-person learning starting on April 20, and will soon share more information with families of the students who will be able to join the hybrid program later this month,” Hutchings wrote parents.

One parent said he is considering moving from the city.

“The latest email from the Superintendent laid bare the harsh reality that we do not have the will in our community or school leadership to do what is right for our public school kids,” the parent said. “It’s shocking that in a city concerned with equity, we have a different set of standards for those whose children attend public school.”

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(Updated at 1:45 p.m.) Alexandria City Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools are investigating allegations that members of the Robinson Rams junior varsity football team spit at and made a racial slur against T.C. Williams High School football players in a game on Monday, April 5.

“Yes, I am aware of these reports,” Mayor Justin Wilson told ALXnow. “It is horrifying that our students were the victims of this abuse and assault. I have been in contact with the School Board Chair, Vice Chair and Superintendent about this incident. I have also connected with my counterpart in Fairfax County, Jeff McKay. I believe it is being investigated by both school systems and I hope it will be addressed promptly.”

The game was played at James W Robinson, Jr. Secondary School, and the Rams won 20-6, although T.C. players reportedly walked off the field in protest before the end of the fourth quarter.

ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. said that he is working with Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Scott Brabrand and his team to “collaborate with the leadership of the Virginia High School League (VHSL) to address this issue and support our students.”

“I want everyone to know that we are taking this matter seriously and have been in communication with our students and coaching staff who were involved or who witnessed the incident,” Hutchings said in an email.

Hutchings continued, “These events in our schools continue to shine a light on the importance of our antiracism work at ACPS and across the nation and the need for an open dialogue about how this impacts our students and their social, emotional and academic learning. To that end, once we have developed next steps with VHSL, we will share additional communications with the ACPS community.”

The incident is the second of its kind in Fairfax County Public Schools in recent days. On March 5, members of the Marshall High School Varsity Football Team allegedly spat at and made racial slurs against their Wakefield High School opponents.

FCPS released the following statement to ALXnow:

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is aware of a number of allegations regarding the use of racially charged language and racial slurs in the past few weeks.

Our school division embraces diversity and strongly condemns hate speech and offensive, hateful language or racial intolerance of any kind on the sports fields, in school buildings or anywhere on or off school premises. We will hold anyone found to have used such language while representing any of our schools accountable for their words and actions.

FCPS will investigate any incidents thoroughly and will be taking swift and appropriate action if deemed necessary. Per Virginia High School League (VHSL) rules, players heard using such language will be ejected and suspended for additional game(s). Unsportsmanlike conduct will result in an immediate review of the game by officials and coaches.

The primary responsibilities of schools are to foster an open, respectful and inclusive learning environment for all students. We recognize that we have much work to do in our schools and will continue to strive to promote equity, sportsmanship, respect, and fair play on and off the field.

FCPS will be holding a “stand-down” meeting for all athletic teams and coaches to begin this important conversation to support student-athletes in demonstrating appropriate behaviors required to play sports in FCPS. This is not about one team versus another; it is about our responsibilities to one another as members of a community. We will do the work to come together in fair treatment and take necessary actions to ensure these efforts support inclusion both in the classrooms as well as across our athletic programs. We value each and every student and staff member, and we are committed to doing the work to ensure all are treated in this regard.

T.C. Williams High School Principal Peter Balas emailed students about the incident. He wrote that Titan Athletics Director, James Parker, and he met with the student athletes and coaches of both the varsity and junior varsity football teams. He also said that T.C. has contacted the Robinson athletics staff.

“These discussions were in response to allegations of inappropriate interactions between athletes on opposing teams at Monday night’s junior varsity football game,” Balas wrote. “Specifically, we were collecting information and statements to learn more about what happened regarding the allegations that one of our students was spat on during the game and called a racial slur.”

Balas continued, “Please rest assured that we will continue to work with our staff and students regarding this situation and that we will make sure our students are supported and protected. The work that we have been doing in our school division on becoming an anti-racist school division means that we must confront these issues head-on and be unapologetic in addressing matters around racism and racial equity.”

Photos via T.C. Williams Football Boosters/Facebook

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In an effort of minimize COVID-19, Alexandria City Public Schools will reopen for in-person classes one full week after Spring Break, which runs from April 5-9.

ACPS announced on Thursday (March 25) that all students will go back to virtual learning until in-person classes resume on Tuesday, April 13. The announcement also said that community transmission for the week ending March 20, 2021 has increased to a “high level from last week’s substantial level.”

“After review of current community health metrics and our desire to limit a potential community spread within our school buildings, we have decided to continue to follow our proactive approach of prioritizing health and safety, and transition to virtual learning for all students for the week after Spring Break, April 5-9,” ACPS said in a release.

ACPS continued, “With members of our school community potentially traveling outside of the National Capital Region, transitioning temporarily to virtual learning is a precautionary step to protect against COVID-19 transmission in our school buildings after Spring Break.”

The move angered a number of parents.

“This is an absolute joke,” one parent wrote in the Open ACPS Facebook group. “The fact that this was a unilateral decision on (Superintendent Gregory) Hutchings’ part, not raised at the most recent school board meeting, and out of step with other jurisdictions is just asinine.”

ACPS also said that it is working to expand its hybrid learning to accommodate more students starting on April 20.

“We understand and share the desire of many families to welcome back our students who would like to be part of hybrid learning,” ACPS said. “More information will be shared soon with families of the students who will be able to join the hybrid program according to an instructional prioritization matrix.”

ACPS is also asking anyone who travels to self-quarantine to get a COVID-19 test after returning and then self-quarantine for a week. Those who choose not to get a test are advised to quarantine for 10 days.

“Our success in keeping school buildings open and safe depends on all students, families and staff being extra vigilant about implementing mitigating measures and following the health guidelines,” ACPS said.

Photo via T.C. Williams Minnie Howard Campus/Facebook

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Alexandria City Public Schools plan on opening for five-day instruction this fall, Superintendent gregory Hutchings, Jr. reported to the School Board on Thursday night.

Hutchings said that the transition back to in-person hybrid instruction on March 2, March 9 and March 16, has been “seamless,” and that the Board will receive a logistical update in April.

“We’re planning to come back to five days a week,” Hutchings told the Board. “We’re looking at the CDC guidelines that, hopefully, will allow us to do that with no guidelines. We’re also working to plan for five days a week, if we have three-foot social distancing and if we have six feet social distancing (as well as no restrictions).”

Today (Friday), the CDC shortened its distancing guidelines for kids in schools with face masks to three feet, a move that the school system anticipated.

Hutchings said that the school system will continue hybrid instruction next fall.

“We also understand that some of our families are still going to want in the fall their children to be a part of some type of virtual experience,” he said. “They still may not be comfortable, or may not be able for their children to return back into an in-person learning setting, and we are planning to develop our virtual curriculumvery different from the curriculum that we currently have in place, but a true virtual curriculum for students who may not return into our school buildings so that we can still provide a rigorous and engaging virtual learning experience.”

Some parents want in-person instruction five days a week starting now.

“We are thrilled our kinder student us back in school, even though it is only two days a week,” said Bill Blackburn, whose son attends Mount Vernon Community School in Del Ray. “My son’s only complaint was not being able to talk while eating lunch. All things considered, things went well for us and we hope to see more kids and more teachers back in person sooner rather than later.”

Governor Ralph Northam was in Alexandria in January to see some ACPS staff get their first round of inoculations. As previously reported, around half of the school staff were uncomfortable returning to work when surveyed last fall, and Hutchings has been concerned with capacity and staffing issues.

ACPS will also open a poll on March 22 to see how many staffers have been vaccinated. The employees will have the following choices:

  • Choose not to disclose vaccination status
  • Declining vaccination
  • Waiting for first vaccination appointment
  • Received first dose, waiting to receive second dose
  • Completely vaccinated
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