Alexandria, VA

What a busy week in Alexandria.

Our top story this week was on Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Old Town shop fibre space on March 3. It was Harris’ first official visit outside of the White House since she was inaugurated, and she spoke about the American Rescue Plan with shop owner Danielle Romanetti.

Alexandria City Public Schools reopened for hybrid instruction this week, the first time since all school facilities were shut down on March 13. The school system reportedly welcomed back 1,200 special needs students in kindergarten through fifth grade. ACPS will open on March 9 for special education students, and then fully reopen its doors to hybrid learning for students on March 16.

On the coronavirus front, the number  of deaths due to the virus has climbed to 123, and cases are at 10,404 since the first case was reported on March 11, 2020. Mayor Justin Wilson says the city is doing well keeping the numbers down, although with a vaccine waiting list exceeding 45,000 and 3,000 vaccine doses being given out weekly, distribution will continue to be slow.

More than 550 people responded to this week’s poll on the proposed new names for T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary School. About 60% of respondents said they were happy with Alexandria High School, but not with Naomi Brooks Elementary School; 25% said they liked both names; 8% didn’t like either name; and 6% didn’t like the high school name and were happy with the elementary school name.

In case you missed them, here are some other important stories:

Here are our most-read posts this week:

  1. Just In: Vice President Visits Old Town Shop Fibre Space
  2. Alexandria Wants Feedback on Building Spray Park in Del Ray
  3. El Chapo’s Wife to be Isolated in Alexandria Jail for One Month Per COVID-19 Distancing Rules
  4. Consultant Proposes Replacing Community Shelter with Mixed-Use Development
  5. Alexandria Advocacy Facebook Group Parodied in New Blog
  6. Superintendent Proposes New Names for T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary
  7. Patrick Moran, Son of Former Congressman Jim Moran, is Running for City Council
  8. ACPS Reopens its Doors and Evaluating Grading System for Traumatized Students
  9. Man Arrested for High-Speed Vehicle Race on I-495
  10. Meronne Teklu Enters City Council Race
  11. Neighborhood Spotlight: Old Town is the New Town

Have a safe weekend!

Photo via Peter Velz/Twitter 

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A conversation over School Resource Officers (SROs) in Alexandria City Public Schools got heated on Wednesday night, as School Board members asked City Council to respect their decision renewing the bi-annual memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the police department.

City Councilman Canek Aguirre brought up the subject at Wednesday’s joint budget meeting with the School Board.

“I was a little bit disappointed in how this Board chose to proceed with the SRO MOU,” Aguirre said at the meeting. “You don’t have to be (housed) in the building, frankly, to be able to show up during lunch or arrival or dismissal, which (is when) officers are engaging the students most, which is arrival, lunch, and dismissal. I think that we can create schedules for these officers where they still have an opportunity to show up during some of these times.”

School Board Chair Meagan Alderton asked that Council respect its recent 6-3 decision approving the SROs, with some modifications for them including receiving racial diversity training.

“My request and hope would be that out of respect for the discussions that we have had as a School Board, and for the process that we went through, even as a matter of trust to give us time to do what we said we would like to do, that you would not take away that resource at this time,” Alderton said. “I don’t think it would be a productive way to address the issue that I think we all want to address.”

According to the MOU, SROs have the authority to stop and “question students who may have information about criminal activity” on or off school property. If a student is being interviewed by an SRO school, a principal or their designee is required to be contacted immediately.

In October, parents, students and community advocacy representatives railed against SROs, and said they foster an inappropriate culture of prejudice against non-white students.

School Board Vice Chair Veronica Nolan asked that City Council stay in its lane.

“I’m just frankly baffled that we’re even having a discussion that we have identified through our school division leaders, that this is a resource that our students depend on, whether it be through soccer or life experiences or having relationships, and that we’re considering taking resources from the very kids that we plan to champion… I don’t understand it,” Nolan said. “I’m really concerned that we’re staying in our lanes, that we’re respecting the school board vote, and that we’re not stealing resources away that have been identified by the school leaders who really know the day-to-day work. I’m very concerned to hear that you’re considering taking away resources that we as a school board, we as school leaders, the students themselves and the teachers on the ground (say that) is something we need and want and helps us.”

City Councilman John Taylor Chapman said that, as a line item in the city’s budget, SROs fall within the purview of Council. The program is funded in the police department’s budget, and Chapman said that after the board’s renewal of the MOU that he was asked to eliminate funding for the ACPS program by members of the community.

“I’m very shocked to see that being questioned here,” Chapman said. “We are technically one half of this MOU, and by signing the MOU with our department we can have a say so on it through our city manager. I kind of find it odd that that’s being even questioned, especially if folks know the role of City Council and know the role of School Board.”

Chapman continued, “I just wanted to make sure that folks walk away from this meeting with that clarity, because it should not be something that we’re going to sit here and question what council’s role is and tell us we’re not in our lane, because we are in our lane.”

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Alexandria City Councilwoman Amy Jackson argued with members of the School Board and Alexandria City Public Schools staff at a budget meeting last night (Wednesday) over construction of the new Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

Jackson, who is running for reelection, lambasted the school system earlier this week on Facebook with a one minute video. In the video, Jackson stands outside MacArthur wearing a face mask with the words “Your Vote Matters” printed on it, raises her left hand questioningly and then says: “March 1, 2021. Almost a year and no construction has started at MacArthur. When is it going to happen?”

Jackson wrote that the project is a ticking clock for the community, that Council was told demolition would start last month, and then made impassioned comments at Wednesday night’s joint City Council/School Board meeting on the budget. She said it’s up to the school board and ACPS to field concerns from the community on social media, and that she’s tired of answering their questions on the issue.

“My issue is the communication,” Jackson said. “That’s it. That’s my issue, the communication because whatever your answer is, it cannot be any worse than not hearing anything at all.”

While the project is in development, MacArthur students are using the old Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space.

School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said she did not appreciate Jackson’s comments, and said that she does not engage on social media because it is not the “real world”.

“Maybe we all need to reconsider how we behave as elected officials on social media,” Alderton said. “You all have direct channels to the School Board. You have access that other people do not have. Use that, as opposed to blasting our staff and our School Board on social media. I don’t find it appropriate, and I don’t find it fair.”

Alderton continued, “Unfortunately, this was a budget session about the combined funds budget, which is focused on social, emotional and academic learning. And we had to deal with this. That’s a problem for me.”

ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., said despite delays over easement concerns with Dominion Energy, that construction is on schedule to open the school in Jan. 2023. Fence panels were erected this week at the property, and ACPS staff will have its pre-construction meeting with the city on Friday. Additionally, asbestos abatement at MacArthur starts next week, and clearing the building is a process that can take weeks before demolition can happen.

Hutchings also said that ACPS communicated project updates to the MacArthur community in a Jan. 26 school advisory group meeting, and on Feb. 11 in a school-wide newsletter.

“When we talk about being on time, we’re talking about the delivery of the new school,” Hutchings said. “That is the main concern that we had from the school’s point of view. And that’s been the main concern of the community thus far. With all the work that we’ve done with having our swing space at the old Patrick Henry location, we know we have to be out of that space for students to arrive in January of 2023.”

A member of the advisory committee, however, told ALXnow that it has not met with ACPS since late last year and that the Jan. 26 meeting did not happen. Still, the representative said that the group was aware of the 2023 completion date.

“We’ve been provided many dates throughout this process,” the member told us. “The advisory group requested updates via email multiple times over the last six months and those requests went unanswered for weeks or longer.”

The member continued, “And since the school email update was drafted by a principal, not the central office, it was only distributed to parents who receive school communications. It did not go to those signed up for ACPS updates related to this project or to the advisory group who was simultaneously requesting updates.”

School Board member Ramee Gentry said it was important to keep misinformation from being spread.

“The other issue I have and I think we have to be cautious of is spreading misinformation as (elected officials),” Gentry said. “The information that was shared (by Jackson) was not accurate.”

School Board Vice Chair Veronica Nolan said that Facebook is a tool used by upper middle class residents, and that it fosters inequity.

“One third of our students’ parents do not speak English, and 63% of our parents are from low income backgrounds,” Nolan said. “Should I as an elected be jumping every time an upper middle class person wants to speak? Am I supposed to be a slave to the tool? Instead I want everyone to have access, and that is (through) public hearings, transparent meetings that are recorded such as this one, the website, newsletters (and) the ACPS blast.”

Photo via Amy Jackson/Facebook

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Nine-year-old Luis Aleman had a hard time learning at home, and was happy to be back at Mount Vernon Community School on Tuesday.

It was a far from ordinary school day for the fourth grader, with plexiglass screens at desks that are spread apart, kids distancing from each other, and even walking a socially distant mile for recess instead of playing on the monkey bars.

Aleman said learning at home was tough with two siblings, and that he was glad to go back to school and see his teachers in person.

“It was tough,” Aleman told ALXnow. “When you have siblings, it’s tough, because they mess around with you.”

On Tuesday, Aleman joined about 1,200 special needs students in kindergarten through fifth grade in going back to Alexandria City Public Schools, marking the first time that in-person public instruction has been allowed since March 13, 2020.

“Now, every desk is six feet apart, and we have to be six feet apart, and we have to wash our hands every time we touch,” Aleman said.

About 60% of ACPS staff have been able to go back to school for in-person learning, although not all of them have been vaccinated.

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. could not confirm the number of staffers who have been completely vaccinated, but said that vaccination is not a prerequisite to go back to work. He recently got his second vaccine dose, and said that the side effects temporarily left him with flu-like symptoms.

“We’re back. I’m glad that we finally got to this part, honestly,” Hutchings said outside MVCS on Tuesday. “I want to thank our team for all their hard work that they’ve done over the past year to prepare for this moment. And, it’s showtime.”

MVCS Principal Liza Burrell-Aldana said that the school can handle unforeseen emergencies.

“We have a 63% of our staff who are returning hybrid,” Burrell-Aldana said. “If we have to an emergency happen, we need supervision last minute, we’re gonna just go in there and do what we do.”

Hutchings said that ACPS is evaluating grading practices for students who may have been traumatized by the pandemic.

“We have a grading committee that is looking at our grading practices, which need to be revamped,” Hutchings said. “This has been a traumatic experience for kids, and we have to take that into account.”

ACPS will open on March 9 for special education students, and then fully reopen its doors to hybrid learning for students on March 16.

Hutchings said that the school system will continue to monitor the situation in individual schools to determine if they will stay open. In the meantime, he said that it looks like students will go back to in-person schooling for two days a week for the rest of the year.

“We will be working through each individual school, monitoring how many cases, and when you get to a spread that’s more than two within a building and following what the guidance from the Alexandra Health Department and looking at our contact tracing to determine if we need to remain open or closed, but we’re going to use those metrics just like we were using before we opened our doors,” Hutchings said.

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Some parents and teachers are facing uncertainty and lingering questions in the days and weeks before ACPS returns to in-person school on March 16.

While ACPS has regularly put out newsletters on the plan for reopening, some in the community are still unsure if their teachers will be back in the classrooms or whether teachers who have been unable to secure a vaccine amid a hectic rollout will be forced to return.

“It’s been absolutely wild at the school right now,” a teacher at one of Alexandria’s middle schools told ALXnow. “We were told early in the pandemic that no one is going to be forced back. There was a back to school survey and they told families it was non-binding. We were told that if you have a medical issue, no one is being forced back to school. They did a sharp turn a few weeks ago: that we’d be back in the buildings March 1.”

While teachers are currently able to get the vaccine on paper, city leadership acknowledged that the process has been slow-going as doses trickle into the city from the state. The teacher said some faculty have faced difficulty getting the vaccine, or have gotten the first dose but are expected to go back to work before they get the second dose.

An ACPS spokesperson said the city is trying to get teachers vaccines, but considers them voluntary.

“The vaccination is voluntary and not required for staff to work in schools,” ACPS said. “All ACPS staff who sign up for the vaccination are designated as priority 1B. The AHD continues to schedule as many staff as possible for vaccinations depending on vaccine logistics.”

The teacher told ALXnow that they are required to submit a doctor’s notes if they are concerned about health conditions putting them at risk if they return to work, but that several have had notes rejected. An ACPS spokesperson said the organization would not comment on the process for health conditions as a “personnel matter” but that staff are encouraged to reach out to an HR representative for assistance. The teacher said that many in school faculty have tried contacting HR, but their calls go unanswered.

“We’re told ‘that’s an HR question’ but they won’t pick up the phone,” a teacher said. “I make calls, but they won’t call back and won’t respond to requests for calls. It’s anonymous people at HR making decisions for who is going back. I want to believe they’re well intentioned, but everybody is pretty confused.” Read More

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As Congress deliberates approval of a $1.9 trillion stimulus package, Alexandria is trying to figure out how it will spend its share.

Alexandria is anticipating $26 million to $34 million, depending on the final plan. The $1.9 trillion stimulus proposal includes $350 billion for local governments.

“Our pleas for Washington to come to the table with some significant local government expenses have apparently nearly been answered,” Mayor Justin Wilson said at City Council’s legislative meeting on Tuesday. “

Last year, the city received $27.5 million in federal funds that were allocated to the state government. This time, the federal funds would go directly allocation to localities, and would be available in May at the earliest.

City Manager Mark Jinks presented a preliminary proposal to Council on how the funds should be spent. It resembled the city’s 2020 Coordinated Community Recovery Plan, which focused on food insecurity, rental eviction prevention and small business grants. Jinks said that the city has been waiting for federal funding since last May, when the U.S. Senate sat on Heroes Act funding after it passed through the House of Representatives.

“We want to get your feedback, let you know where we are, and we’ll come back in probably the beginning of April when we know what the appropriations are,” Jinks said. “What we don’t know is how long do we have to spend the money. If we have three or four years to spend
it, then that’d be a different spending strategy, then if like the last bill said, you had to spend it in 12 months, which we did.”

Alexandria’s consumption tax receipts, including sales, restaurant and lodging revenue generated about $65 million per year, according to Visit Alexandria CEO Patricia Washington.

“This year we’re forecasting to be down $13 million before recovering halfway back up to $58 million in FY22,” Washington said.

Kate Garvey, the director of the city’s Department of Community and Human Services, wants to continue the supporting eviction protection efforts, as well as the city’s food assistance program with ALIVE!.

“It depends a lot on the amount of money that comes to us,” City Councilwoman Del Pepper said.

Wilson said that the city should use the funds to make structural investments for lasting changes.

“Instead of funding childcare, let’s get a childcare facility,” he said, and asked that city boards and commissions fill out a survey on how they think the funds should be spent. “Let’s build capacity that is our going to outlast just recovery of this year, and help us in the future.”

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Alexandria’s Bridgette Adu-Wadier has a soft spot in her heart for Black female investigative journalists.

At the top of the 17-year-old’s list of favorites are Gwen Ifill, Yamiche Alcindor and Ida B Wells, and this fall she will get her chance to study journalism at Northwestern University.

“We need young people to be investigating, and to be curious, and to be challenging,” Adu-Wadier told ALXnow.

Adu-Wadier, who is an editor for the T.C. Williams High School newspaper Theogony, was recently named one of 1,464 students (out of 18,500 applicants) around the country to be awarded the QuestBridge National College Match Scholarship. She was also recently honored as one of the country’s up-and-coming storytellers by PBS.

A first generation daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, she’s the eldest of four kids, and, while born in New York, has spent most of her life in Alexandria. She attended John Adams Elementary School and Francis C. Hammond Middle School.

ALXnow: How did you get the scholarship? Did you write a good essay? 

Adu-Wadier: I do believe I wrote a really good essay, I spent a lot of time. Just trying to make it reflect me and my personal journey and how I developed my writing and how I blossomed as a writer. I talked a lot about how I started out doing a lot of creative writing and writing short stories and how I kind of wanted to tell stories and write about things that I observed in the world and elevate the voices of my generation.

It’s a four year scholarship, which I’m really excited about. It covers tuition, it covers room and board, transportation, my textbooks and my living expenses. Questbridge is just a really comprehensive scholarship and I’m really grateful to have that, especially given that, in school, I can just focus on my degree.

ALXnow: What inspired you to be a journalist? 

Adu-Wadier: It’s really been inspiring to see so many journalists challenge modern institutions throughout (the last) four years… In my view, this is kind of a reiteration of the Watergate era in many ways, especially given a lot of the 2018 impeachment trial proceedings and a lot of the journalism that was coming out about the transparency of the federal government.

I did a lot of work for my school TV media program, and I would interview students on video as well, and it was just really eye opening seeing that my generation notices a lot of things and they take on a lot of what’s going on a lot more than adults understand. The peers I’ve interviewed are just really frustrated that adults don’t get that they’re not too young to understand and have a voice on a lot of issues that are going on, and to be curious and to want to investigate. We need young people to be investigating and to be curious and to be challenging.

ALXnow: What’s it been like doing all of your reporting and schoolwork and applications from home during the pandemic?

Adu-Wadier: I’ve had story deadlines on the same day as my college applications and that was a big mess. There’s been a lot of things that have been interesting that I’ve had to adapt to, and, having a noisy house and trying to do interviews from my closet since it’s the only quiet place.

ALXnow: What kind of stories do you envision yourself telling down the road?

Adu-Wadier: I really like doing stories on education to report on. People don’t really invest that much in public education, and I have that personal experience in public education and the policies and legislation passed, as well as talking to students about their high school and college admissions experiences. A lot of those stories are really under told.

Soon, I’ll be reporting on college administrators and what they’re doing, and I’m really excited to do that. Another thing that I’m really really excited to report on is just civil rights… And just seeing how societal inequities affect different racial demographics, especially regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and how Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately impacted by exposure to the virus. That’s really fascinating.

ALXnow: Which journalists do you admire? 

Adu-Wadier: I really appreciate Gwen Ifill and Yamiche Alcindor for everything that they’re doing, and especially on the ocean how she keeps her head out, especially with everything that she went through with the Trump administration and her trying to just do her job and what happened with her. Also, Gwen Ifil,… She comes from a similar background as me in that she was starting off with local newspapers and she experienced a lot of challenges and racism, and then she went on to host Washington Week and co-anchor PBS NewsHour and work with Judy Woodruff. I really really appreciate those two.

I also really look up to Ida B. Wells in how she really challenged institutions and launched this crusade against lynching and how she very much risked her life in doing so.

Overall, I just have a really soft spot for Black female journalists in general, so those are my top three. I also really really like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and I try to emulate them and how rigorous and relentless they were and their investigative pieces of Watergate. And, you know, I love All The President’s Men. I read the book, and I watched the movie and I just think it’s admirable what they did and just what they took on and the risks that they were taking and challenging directly.

Photo via ACPS

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Fall sports are back at ACPS starting next week.

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings made the announcement official at a School Board meeting last Thursday, but said that students and parents shouldn’t expect it to look like it used to.

“Fall season of athletics will begin on February 15, just so that everybody is aware,” Hutchings said. “We will be following CDC guidelines, so it won’t look exactly the same as it used to.”

Fall sports starting Monday, Feb. 15, include:

  • Cheerleading
  • Cross country
  • Field hockey
  • Football
  • Golf
  • Volleyball

Hutchings clarified later that precautions include masks and limiting spectators at sporting events after School Board member Margaret Lorber expressed concerns about jumping into reopening with an activity that requires physical contact and students breathing on each other.

“Students will have to wear masks at all times for the sports being played, it’s not optional,” Hutchings said, “and we’re not going to be able to have spectators at all of the events.”

Hutchings said next week will mark the beginning of the fall sports season after ACPS canceled plans for winter sports in November.

“We withdrew from participating in winter sports, which I still stand behind, but as you saw with community health metrics now we’re not at the highest risk level,” Hutchings said. “We never intended to not be a part of the fall sports season.”

Practicing begins as ACPS begins phasing students into in-person classes, starting with K-5 special education programs and English learner programs in early March. Hutchings said initially, only students whose families selected the hybrid option on a survey sent to parents will attend school in-person. Throughout March, ACPS will begin to transition the rest of the hybrid students into the schools in phases.

The T.C. Williams High School Football Boosters expressed enthusiasm about the planned opening on Facebook.

“If you haven’t heard the football season is on!” the group said. “Practice starts Monday and then a shortened 8 game season will begin Monday night February 22.”

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Congressman John Lewis and 1972 Titan Petey Jones are just a few names that have made the latest cut in the rename process for T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary School.

The semifinalist names for the schools have been selected, and ACPS has launched another set of polls to further slim down the selection. The polls close on Feb. 19 and the top three names from each poll will be presented to the School Board for final consideration on March 4. There will be a public hearing on March 18, and then the Board will vote on the names on April 8.

T.C. Williams High School is the biggest public high school in Virginia, and is named after former ACPS Superintendent Thomas Chambliss Williams, who was an avowed segregationist. Matthew Maury Elementary School is named after an oceanographer and Confederate leader.

The official names will be implemented on July 1, and ACPS estimates that it will cost $325,000 to rename T.C. and more than $5,000 to rename Maury.

Semifinalist replacement names for T.C. Williams High School:

Semifinalist replacement names for Matthew Maury Elementary School:

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What a news-filled week in Alexandria.

Things got off to a snowy start on Monday and Tuesday, as the city was under a winter weather advisory.

Our top post was a poll regarding the proposed Heritage Development in Old Town. Nearly 1,500 people voted, and 52% don’t have a problem with it. The development was approved unanimously by the Planning Commission and now goes to City Council for consideration.

One of the most important stories of the week was the decision announced Thursday to resume in-person classes at Alexandria City Public Schools on March 16.

On the coronavirus front, there has been an additional death since Monday’s weekly COVID-19 update. The death toll from the virus now stands at 105, and the number of cases is 9,630. That’s more than 500 cases since Monday. The city’s seven-day moving average is now at 41.1 cases, which is down 14 cases since Monday. Additionally, there are more than 30,000 city residents on the waiting list to get the vaccine.

This week, Alexandria Police mourned the loss of parking enforcement officer Edward Bonds to COVID-19. This is the department’s first death due to complications from the virus.

In case you missed them, here are some important stories from the week:

  1. Alexandria Boxer Troy Isley Goes Pro With Big Fight Next Week
  2. Psychologist Lauren Fisher Elected Del Ray Business Association President
  3. Overhaul of Eisenhower Baseball Field Up to Bat at Planning Commission
  4. From Layoff to Liquorice: West End Business Owner Creates Candy Store Amid Pandemic
  5. Just In: James Lewis Files Paperwork to Enter City Council Race

Here are our top stories this week in Alexandria:

  1. Poll: What Do You Think of the Proposed Heritage Development in Old Town
  2. New West End Residential Development Headed to Planning Commission
  3. Heritage Project Now Goes to City Council After Unanimous Planning Commission Approval
  4. BREAKING: Councilman Mo Seifeldein Running for Alexandria Mayor, Hatch Act Conflict in Question
  5. Poll: Should the City’s Taylor Run Stream Restoration Project Go Forward?
  6. Revamped ‘ESP’ on King Street Ditches Old Ownership and Controversies
  7. Stream Restoration in Alexandria Attracts a Deluge of Controversy
  8. ACPS: Community is Generally Opposed to Affordable Housing at T.C. Expansion
  9. Just In: ‘QAnon Shaman’ from Capitol Siege Transferred to Alexandria Jail
  10. Weather Alert: Up to Eight Inches of Snow Expected in Alexandria
  11. Photos: The Regal Potomac Yard Movie Theater is Being Torn Down

Have a safe weekend!

Image via City of Alexandria

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