(Updated 8/24) A group of adventurers slowly entered a dimly lit tavern with a locked cage at the center of the room. The commoners of the town, including the party cleric’s brother, were locked in that cage.
As the group filed in, suddenly from out of the shadows, things began to crawl forward. As the group of children at the Alexandria Library listened eagerly to Dungeon Master Aly Ahn describe what was lurking in the shadows, one of them hopefully suggested “Kittens?”
The table erupted in laughter and Ahn said it was one of her favorite moments in an ongoing Dungeons and Dragons campaign occurring monthly at the Alexandria Library.
For those out of the loop, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a popular tabletop roleplaying game where a dungeon master weaves a narrative and a group of players embodies various fantasy archetypes on a quest.
Ahn, who is used to working with children in after-school programs, set up the Alexandria Library’s D&D campaigns. The program’s turned into such a success that Ahn said more volunteer dungeon masters are needed to keep up with the demand from local kids.
The campaigns have their roots in Ahn’s work in an after-school program during Covid.
“When students went back to school and it was still virtual, my program was able to accommodate children whose parents could have them at home for virtual schooling,” Ahn said. “When 2:30 comes around, the kids needed something to do. We were trying to be mindful of close contact and I thought: oh, I can teach them how to play Dungeons and Dragons.”
Ahn said her older brother tried to teach her the game when she was a child, but she really fell in love with the game when she started playing with friends in 2019. In early 2022, some of the quarantine campaigns fizzled out, and Ahn said she felt the itch to play again. She reached out to the library and started a campaign for local kids in June 2022.
The campaign was originally aimed at pre-teen players, but ended up mostly with players between eight and ten years old.
Ahn said running a D&D campaign for children is different than running a campaign for adults. She started off with modules written specifically for younger players and avoids saying things like a character or creature dies.
The campaign has been popular enough that Ahn’s enlisted the help of other volunteers to help run other campaigns to keep the group sizes more manageable. Fewer players per campaign means each player gets more time to shine.
“It’s difficult to keep them invested and [keep their attention],” Ahn said. “That’s why we’re constantly looking for new volunteers. This past weekend, we had 12 kids, which is a lot. There was only one time when I, by myself, had to run a 12-person table. Now with three [dungeon masters] we have four or five kids per table.”
Most of the adventures have been episodic “one-shots” but now that the players have a more firm grasp on the game, Ahn is starting to work in the backstories of the characters to build an overarching campaign to help the children practice roleplaying.
Ahn said one of the crowning moments of her work with the Alexandria Library Dungeons and Dragons campaign was when one of the players started to run their own game with their parents and some of the others in the group.
In general, Ahn said the game has been great for teaching children teamwork, outside-the-box problem-solving, and letting them take chances in a safe environment:
Liam O’Brien from Critical Role once said there was a moment in the [campaign] where it struck him that the [dungeon master] wasn’t there to be their enemy, he was there to turn them into heroes. That’s something that stuck with me. That’s something I can do with the kids as well. I want them to practice looking out for each other, working together as a team, and learning how they can contribute and how they can help others around them.
Ahn said Dungeons and Dragons, the current 5th edition in particular, is built so that no one player can do everything.
“Wizards can literally reshape history and can mold things the way they want things to be, but they can’t cast cure wounds — you’ll need a ranger or cleric or alchemist for that,” Ahn said. “It’s designed for teamwork. Kids will say ‘I’m a wizard, why can’t I do this?’ and it’s because one person can’t do everything.”
The next session is Saturday, Sept. 16, from 1-4 p.m. at the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library (717 Queen Street). Ahn said the campaign can use all the dungeon masters it can get and the best way for people to get involved is to reach out to their library’s volunteer coordinator.
Photo via Alexandria Library/Facebook
School is back in session, and this year Alexandria City Public Schools wants to make sure kids go to class.
That was the message from outside George Mason Elementary School (2601 Cameron Mills Road) this morning, where Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt and School Board Chair Michelle Rief joined teachers and staff in welcoming back students. Kay-Wyatt said her priorities this year are on improving the welcoming culture within ACPS, academic achievement and absenteeism.
Kay-Wyatt said she didn’t get much sleep the night before school started.
“We really want to focus on making sure that all of our family and our students are welcome into our schools,” Kay-Wyatt said. “We’re also going to be focused on instructional practices and academic achievement. And then my third priority for the year is around absenteeism, and really focusing to get strategies and initiatives in place to make sure that our students are in school within school on time, so they can engage in all that we have to offer them.”
More than 15,000 ACPS students got up early for school today. In the wake of the pandemic, chronic absenteeism increased exponentially over the last several years within the school system.
It’s also the first school day for new George Mason Principal Christopher Finan.
“Our staff has been working very, very hard to get ready for this day,” Finan said. “Our teachers, our instructional assistants, our custodians, our cafeteria staff, our front office staff, everybody has been working very hard. I’m happy to say we are ready to go and excited to have students and staff back inside of our building. This year at George Mason we are focusing on our teams, leveraging all of the passionate, dedicated and skilled individuals, our staff, our families, our community members to ensure that we support student success across the board.”
Rief asked that parents reach out to the School Board as it embarks on next year’s budget.
“We welcome your input as your School Board,” Rief said. “We have a very full agenda this year and we want to hear from our parents.”
Salma Faqirzaava wants to be an attorney, but that future was impossible in Afghanistan. Now she’s back in school and learning English in Alexandria.
Eight months ago, Salma and her parents moved to Alexandria, where she enrolled in Alexandria City High School, finding herself navigating the busy hallways of the second largest high school in Virginia.
“I knew zero English when I arrived,” Salma said through an interpreter. “When I first came I didn’t know the alphabet. Now I think I’ve learned 60% of how to read and write, but I still have a problem speaking it.”
The 16-year-old hadn’t been to school in two years. The Taliban shut down girls schools following the 2021 U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan, and Alexandria received hundreds of families as refugees.
On Saturday, Salma and nearly 70 Afghan children were recognized for participating in a summer reading program. Three times a week throughout the summer, the kids attend reading classes at William Ramsay Recreation Center (5650 Sanger Avenue).
The program is led by Northern Virginia Resettling Afghan Families Together (NOVA RAFT), a nonprofit that supports the refugees with furniture, groceries and other basic needs.
“A substantial group of Afghan students at the high school are years behind,” said NOVA RAFT co-founder Dan Altman. “Initially they were incapable of comprehending what was going on around them, basically. Some of the teenage girls here were pulled out of school when they were in fifth grade in Afghanistan.”
Altman said that most of the 70 kids in the program had a second grade reading level or lower, and that their growth has been quick. The reading class was part of an ongoing educational, cultural, and psychosocial program that started eight months ago.
Altman said he needs volunteer tutors.
“We need more volunteers who will work directly with the kids,” Altman said. “We provide all the training and everything else. That would be huge to be able to get some more volunteers.”
The recognition ceremony at the recreation center was attended by a roomful of Afghan refugees, as well as Alexandria City Council Member Alyia Gaskins, Council Member Canek Aguirre and School Board Member Abdel Elnoubi.
“Of course, keep learning English, but don’t forget about your language, culture and history,” Aguirre told the families. “They are not only important to you, but also to this country. Your perspectives that you bring is what is so beautiful about the diversity of the United States. And to all the young kids, most of the jobs that I got were because I could speak another language.”
Salma says she wants to be an attorney to help families with legal issues like hers. She said she misses her siblings still in Afghanistan, and that even though she can cook the same food here it tastes different.
“I want to study the law,” she said. “I like that the schools are open here and everyone can study whatever they want.”
(Updated 8/11) After years in development, City and Alexandria City Public Schools leaders will cut the ribbon of the refurbished Douglas MacArthur Elementary School next Friday (August 18).
The project took three years of planning and two years of construction, and the 154,000-square-foot school at 1101 Janneys Lane will open for the first day of classes on August 21.
During the last two years, MacArthur students used the old Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space. The new school has an 840-student capacity and ACPS projects the student population to stay at around 775 students over the course of the next decade.
MacArthur’s three-level “Forest” plan sets the school back from Janneys Lane, putting classrooms at the rear of the building and providing a view of nearby Forest Park. The $75 million project was initially planned to wrap in January, and construction delays elicited criticism from Vice Mayor Amy Jackson.
Jackson has one child who graduated from MacArthur in the swing space and another who will attend the refurbished school.
“I was concerned that construction wasn’t getting off the ground fast enough,” Jackson told ALXnow. “My children wanted to see the school one more time before they started, but I realized that we could still get on the property. So I took a video, as much as it caused angst with the community and school board, but when I’m asking staff several times and can’t get an answer, I took it to the public and sure enough the ball then got rolling the fencing was put up on the perimeter and they got the ball rolling.”
The event includes a brief tour and will be held from 9:30 to 10:15 am. Remarks will be made by Mayor Justin Wilson, School Board Chair Michelle Rief, ACPS Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt, ACPS Chief Operating Officer Alicia Hart and MacArthur Principal Penny Hairston.
ACPS will share the event on Facebook Live.
More than 700 new backpacks will be handed out on Saturday afternoon at John Adams Elementary School (5651 Rayburn Avenue).
Alexandria law firm Blaszkow Legal, PLLC, is sponsoring the giveaway, which includes other school items and will be held from noon to 2 p.m.
“The driving force behind this project was a desire to help the local community at a time when many may truly need it,” said Blaszkow Legal CEO Joseph Blaszkow. “Many families are still recovering from the pandemic. We are striving to help take the edge off, so they can get the new school year off to a great start.”
Earlier this year, Blaszkow Legal was presented with Volunteer Alexandria’s Business of the Year award.
There were a number of backpack and supplies giveaways last month, and Shiloh Baptist Church’s upcoming back-to-school giveaway on Saturday has reached capacity. That event includes free boys haircuts, food and school supplies.
(Updated 3 p.m.) Alexandria’s teen pregnancy rate is falling, although Hispanic girls are disproportionately high, according to new data presented by the city.
The numbers are on the rise for Hispanic girls, with 22.4 pregnancies for every 1,000 female ages 15 to 17 reported in 2021, according to the Alexandria Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancy (ACAP), part of the Department of Community & Human Services. That’s an 8% increase from the previous year, but still below the 26 pregnancies per 1,000 females reported in 2020.
In its 2021 – 2023 Report Card on Sex Ed for All, ACAP says its programs are working and the campaign is working on installing condom dispensers at “various community sites where disproportionately impacted groups reside, work and attend school.” ACAP is also developing a plan for condom distribution, as well as the launch of the Wrap Up Alexandria condom distribution by 2025.
ACAP says it has fully implemented the El Camino sexual health program with Black and Latino youth.
“Sex education can occur at all grade levels with information that is age- and culturally appropriate,” ACAP reported.
Citywide, the teen pregnancy rate fell substantially between 2010 and 2021, according to ACAP. The program is a collaboration between Alexandria City Public Schools, the city’s Department of Community and Human Service, the Alexandria Health Department and a number of community partners.
In the meantime, ACPS is ignoring the Virginia Department of Education’s recommended restrictions against transgender students.
Kids start learning about sex at an early age in Alexandria.
According to ACAP:
In elementary school, sex ed covers foundational building blocks around things like consent and boundary setting with friends, understanding our bodies, and the beautiful diversity in the ways people form and have families.
In middle school, sex ed addresses relevant issues such as puberty, healthy peer relationships and anti-bullying, and media literacy skills to support kids in developing a healthy body image.
In high school, sex ed covers everything from birth control and safer sex, to sexual decision making and communication skills, to understanding how society and culture shape our ideas about sex, gender, and race, and how we can work towards more equitable communities.
Tonight, residents can meet the two final candidates for the principal position at Mount Vernon Community School (2601 Commonwealth Avenue) on Zoom.
After tonight’s meet-and-greet, the finalists to lead the Del Ray school will interview with Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt on Thursday and the new principal is expected to be hired by the School Board in a special meeting on Thursday, July 20.
The candidates, whose identities aren’t yet public, will meet with community stakeholders on Zoom from 6:30 p.m. to 8:15 p.m.
“We expect to have a new principal in place before the start of the new school year,” Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt wrote in a June 26 letter.
Kay-Wyatt said that the process is being run by former Alexandria City High School Principal John Porter and Rene Pachal, the acting executive director of ACPS human resources.
“Ultimately, the selected principal will be a school leader who can provide excellent educational, social, and personal outcomes for students, staff, parents, and the community,” Pachal wrote.
An ACPS community survey on the MVCS principal position is also open until Wednesday.
The salary for the principal position is between $118,000 and $181,000. More details from the MVCS principal job listing are below.
Where’s Waldo? Kids and parents with eagle eyes can spot him this month in 25 Alexandria businesses.
After you find Waldo at 10 businesses, spotters can collect prizes at Hooray for Books (1555 King Street) in Old Town. Collectors with at least 20 stamps on a passport (found at any participating business) can claim a Waldo temporary tattoo and store coupon.
The annual promotion will end with a grand celebration and prize drawing for a set of Waldo books at the store on July 31 at 4 p.m.
Find Waldo at these businesses:
- Alexandria Visitor Center (221 King Street)
- AR Workshop Alexandria (1212 King Street)
- Beeliner Diner (3648 King Street)
- The BEST Gift Shop (112 S. Patrick Street)
- Conte’s Bike Shop (1100 King Street)
- The Company of Books (2200 Mount Vernon Avenue)
- The Dog Park (705 King Street)
- fibre space (1319 King Street)
- Fresh Baguette (1101 King Street)
- Gold Works (1400 King Street)
- Happy Place (105 S. Union Street)
- Hooray for Books (1555 King Street)
- King Street Souvenirs (217 King Street)
- Lavender Moon Cupcakery (116 S. Royal Street)
- Pacers Running (1301 King Street)
- Penny Post (1201 King Street)
- Red Barn Mercantile (1117 King Street)
- Rocket Fizz (1701 Centre Plaza)
- Stitch Sew Shop (1219 King Street)
- Ten Thousand Villages (915 King Street)
- Today’s Cargo (1102 King Street)
- Turkish Coffee Lady (1201 King Street)
- The UPS Store (107 West Street)
- Uptowner Cafe (1609 King Street)
- Whistle Stop Hobbies (1719 Centre Plaza)
Virginia’s junior U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine was in Alexandria today to discuss early childhood education and said that the current debt ceiling fight in Washington should be wrapped up by the June 1 deadline.
Kaine and his staff took a field trip of sorts today, starting with a roundtable discussion in Arlington on the fentanyl crisis, followed by a tour of the Campagna Early Learning Center (5140 Fillmore Avenue) in Alexandria and ending with a meeting with women leaders in Falls Church.
Campagna Center CEO Tammy Mann applauded federal funding boosts for Head Start programs and said that employee retention is one of her biggest problems. Campagna offers both yearly early Head Start and Head Start programs for children up to five years old.
“I think there just needs to be an incredible focus on understanding compensation,” Mann said. “It is insufficient, and all of the work that is being done to generate resources to support that area would be hugely helpful… I think, as the [fiscal year 2024 federal budget] negotiations are happening, just continuing to educate members of Congress on the cost of care. It’s far outstretched the ability of most people to pay for it, and we need a national solution.”
Kaine sits on the Senate’s Health, Labor, Education & Pensions Committee, and said he’s working on a bill with Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) that would increase funding for Head Start programs and provide families with rebates so that they do not pay more than 8% of their salaries on childcare.
“If I was having this meeting in Floyd, Virginia, I would hear that exact thing,” he said. “Patty and I have a bill, that is a very big bill, that is more than just increasing the Child Care Development Block route or increasing the funding to Head Start, it would guarantee that no parent would have to pay more than 8% of their income for child care. If anybody was at a center, and it was more than that, then they could get a rebate back.”
Mann said that she is continually understaffed.
“It’s difficult competing with other sectors for talent,” she said. “Our teachers get recruited away to the public school system… The Head Start program is constantly having to reset and retrain, and that takes a lot of time. And then the kids are they’re getting used to the teacher they really liked, and now there’s that turnover so that better salary means better continuity.”
Kaine said that the budget deal being hammered out in Washington will make it hard to pass his bill, although he said that he will continue to push for its eventual passage.
“I’ll be honest, I’m a little bit nervous today because of this debate that’s going on about what’s the budget deal that gets the House (of Representatives) to agree to do what we should always do, which is raise the debt ceiling,” Kaine said. “It sounds like there’s gonna be a set budgetary cap for defense spending, and then a different budget with a cap for non-defense items. And that will be a two-year deal, so we’ll raise the debt to debt ceiling for two years.”
Kaine said he advised his colleagues in Congress to raise the debt ceiling while Democrats had control of the Senate and House between 2020 and 2022.
“I really tried to urge my colleagues in November and December to do it, before the House majority became Republican,” Kaine said. “Here we are on waiting to see what gets announced. I think I have a fairly good sense of it… I think what will happen is a debt deal will be announced today or over the weekend. The Senate will then go and put that deal together next week.”
Earlier this year, ACPS approved new security measures including metal detectors and handheld wand devices. The security measures were in response to several security issues at the school in recent years. Earlier this year, a teacher at ACHS’ Minnie Howard Campus seized a handgun from a student.
But the installation of new security measures at ACHS and the school district’s two middle schools led to long lines to get into the building.
new achievement unlocked: longer to get into achs than to get though tsa pic.twitter.com/Af5pADXvbd
— ilona (@5qu1rtl3) May 15, 2023
In a statement, ACPS leadership said the school district saw similar lines with student IDs last fall, but that the process will get more refined with time.
According to Alicia Hart, ACPS Chief of Facilities & Operations:
We sent a communication to staff and families yesterday regarding some adjustments to the screening process that we will be implementing to minimize wait time. As we anticipated, with any new process, adjustments and revamping may take place as we refine the process. As an example, we had a similar experience with lines when we launched the student ID process this past fall. Within a few weeks, the process improved and the length of time to get through the ID process diminished.
Below is the message sent to the ACHS community:
Greetings ACPS Middle and High School Staff and Families,
We shared last week that Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) was officially launching the weapons screening pilot program at Alexandria City High School (ACHS) – King Street campus on Mon., May 15, 2023. In today’s launch, we were able to screen most students (not including late arrivals) within a 75-minute timeframe. As we anticipated, with any new process, adjustments and revamping may take place as we refine the process. As an example, we had a similar experience with lines when we launched the student ID process this past fall. Within a few weeks, the process improved and the length of time to get through the ID process diminished.
Today’s weapons screening launch provided additional insight into the process and how to make the screening process more efficient for the remainder of the rollout. Please see the insights below:
In addition to Chromebooks/laptops, it was discovered that a small percentage of eyeglass cases (lined with metal), certain umbrellas and large three-ring binders may cause the system to falsely alert. To this end, we asked students to have these items outside of their belongings prior to walking through the system
Cell phones, coins, ear pods, spiral notebooks, keys, wallets, lunch containers, etc. do not need to be removed. Students can keep these items on their person as they walk through the equipment
We will have bus drivers remind students to remove the requested items from their belongings prior to exiting the bus to the extent possible. This should help in reducing lines
We are also asking administrators to remind students, via SEAL lessons and announcements, of the process
At the onset of introducing this pilot program, we noted that students would not have to remove items from their personal belongings. However, as we learned that certain components within select items may create false alerts, we decided to proactively ask for those items to be removed. The intent in doing so is to minimize students having to go through the secondary search process for items that we know are not weapons.
We would like to thank all of the students for their patience and grace this morning as we introduced this process. We would also like to thank families for your understanding as we continue to work through the process and logistics of this system. Lastly, we would like to thank staff for supporting the screening process today. The end goal is a smooth, seamless process for students while reducing the likelihood of weapons in our facilities.
We will provide more updates if we discover additional adjustments are necessary as we continue the roll out this week.Sincerely,
Dr. Alicia Hart
Chief of Facilities & Operations