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Alexandria City High School English teacher Eva Irwin was at a loss for words when her name was called and the packed gymnasium erupted in applause.

This afternoon at a school assembly, Irwin was recognized as a top-tier teacher and surprised with the $25,000 Milken Educator Award.

It’s the first time that an Alexandria City Public Schools teacher has won the award, which has been presented to approximately 3,000 other educators over the past 37 years. There is also no formal nominating process or application that goes into selecting recipients.

“As you can tell, I’m shaking,” Irwin told the audience of students, teachers and administrators. “This is the last thing I ever expected.”

An English teacher with more than 100 11th-grade students, Irwin said that she tries to get her students to feel ownership with their assignments.

“I don’t have any children on my own, so they really are like my kids,” Irwin later told reporters. “I really try with my students to have a lot of collaboration. My teaching style is very student-centered, so I really try to get them to feel like they have ownership over their learning offered a lot of choice and how they can you know, complete assignments based on their best learning modalities.”

Philanthropist Lowell Milken started the awards in 1987 to recognize early-to-mid-career teachers.

“You cannot apply for our award,” Milken told the audience in the ACHS gymnasium. “We find you.”

The event was also attended by Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons, Alexandria School Board Chair Michelle Rief and ACPS Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt.

Milken told Irwin that the funds will help her unleash her potential.

“As we unleash that additional potential, we are expecting even greater things of the future,” he said.

Irwin said that the money will pay for her $23,500 master’s degree in educational and instructional leadership from Virginia Tech.

When asked about how the recipients of the award are chosen, Milken said that the foundation works with state boards of education, and that names surface through other sources to the Milken Family Foundation.

“I’d love to tell you, but it’s a secret,” Milken told ALXnow. “I think that what we can identify with this group of nearly 3,000 is that they’re all strong instructional leaders. They’re also powerful mentors for other teachers and they’re invested in their communities.”


The final touches are being made to Alexandria City High School’s expansion of its Minnie Howard Campus.

The five-story, $174 million high school project is on-budget and on-track for “substantial completion this spring,” according to an Alexandria City Public School staff report that will be presented to the School Board on Thursday.

“Construction of the new Minnie Howard building has been ongoing since the spring of 2022 and is on track to be substantially completed this spring for occupancy in August 2024,” staff wrote.

The 1,600-student school, which nearly doubled in its capacity, will feature an aquatics facility and expanded career and technical education (CTE) lab spaces for “potential new offerings in game design/development, robotics, emergency medical sciences, cyber security, (and) firefighting,” according to ACPS.

Staff also reported that construction the gymnasium and auxiliary gym are complete, that furniture is being moved in and that interior finishing touches are being made.

Next steps for the project include inspection by the Health Department and getting a final occupancy permit.

Construction update on Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard Campus, March 2024 (via ACPS)
The Alexandria School Board discusses collective bargaining in their work session on Thursday, March 14, 2024 (via ACPS)

The Alexandria School Board made significant changes to its proposed collective bargaining agreement resolution with staff on Thursday night.

In a work session that ran until nearly midnight, the Board amended the 17-page draft resolution, which sets the rules for negotiations on a three-year agreement. The draft resolution reveals a slow rollout for the Alexandria City Public Schools bargaining process that will only reach full fruition in future negotiations, with the school system currently focusing on reaching an eventual collective bargaining agreement on six yet-to-be-determined topics with a portion of employees.

The document was heavily criticized last month by the Education Association of Alexandria (EAA) union. EAA was adamantly opposed to the draft recommendation that 30% of licensed staff and support personnel vote to create two separate employee unions, or bargaining units, to represent them.

“We got some things and others we did not,” EAA President Dawn Lucas said. “We are not in agreement with any voter thresholds and don’t want limitations on bargaining topics.”

Last October, EAA sent the Board an employee certification on behalf of licensed teachers. That submission gave the Board 120 days to adopt a framework for the collective bargaining resolution, with a full board action expected on Thursday, March 21. ACPS wants to come to a collective bargaining agreement with staff by the end of the year, School Board Chair Michelle Rief said earlier this year.

School Board Member Abdel Elnoubi got majority support from his colleagues to remove the 30% voting threshold for employees to establish unions for bargaining.

“I don’t think anyone in this town was elected with 30% of the vote, not the mayor and City Council, and not us,” Elnoubi said. “I think it’s a burden that’s unnecessary.”

Board Member Chris Harris said he felt challenged by removing the 30% threshold.

“I’m challenged by this,” he said. “I’m just not sure what the engagement looks like. There could be two people. That could be a handful of people make a decision for an entire business unit. I’m not okay with that.”

The draft document now stipulates that employee unions can be established by a simple majority of staff within their respective employee groups.

The Board added Member Ashley Simpson Baird’s recommendation to increase the number of bargaining topics from four to six, and adding a sunset clause removing all restrictions on the number of topics that can be bargained after the first agreement expires.

Also approved was Vice Chair Kelly Carmichael Booz’s proposal to expand collective bargaining to administrative staff after the first agreement expires.

School Board Member Tim Beaty, a former leader with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, won a recent special election by campaigning on the importance of collective bargaining. He added language that will make the school system pay for the union elections.

“To me, the election is an obligation of the government that’s holding the election,” Beaty said. “We’re not trying to state what the rules are for the election, but we will pay for the election.”

ACPS middle school teacher David Paladin Fernandez is running against Lucas for EAA president. That election is expected to be conducted in May and the results released before July 1.

Fernandez sat through the nearly four hour meeting and walked away hopeful. Changes he’d like to see are management providing mailing lists of staffers to the EAA on a quarterly basis, and adding a “just cause” clause forcing the school system to tell employees why they are being disciplined or fired.

“EAA needs this to pass,” he said. “I like the level of discourse. It’s not something we see often out of the School Board. I’m largely happy.”


Alexandria School Board Members went all-in Wednesday night in asking City Council to fund its budget by approving a massive tax increase.

Mayor Justin Wilson told the Board at a budget work session on Wednesday night that its fiscal year 2025 $384.4 million combined funds budget request would result in a historic tax increase. The Board, in turn, said that the funding could stem the school system’s staffing crisis.

“To be candid, the combination of the operating requests and the capital requests is probably about a 6 cent tax increase, which is not viable,” Wilson said, adding that it would be the largest tax increase since the 5.7 cent tax increase of 2017 raised the average residential property tax bill by more than $300.

The Board’s proposed budget, which was approved last month, surprised Wilson and other Council Members, who said they were left in the dark with its development.

“I’ve heard nothing around a strategic look at how we pay folks,” City Council Member John Taylor Chapman told the Board. “I know many of you personally. I know you care about what you do. I know you are professionals. So, when I say ‘Hey, I expect you to bring a great budget to Council and Council is going to fund it,’ I don’t expect you to be just willy nilly. I expect you to be focused and I think that’s who you are.”

School Board Chair Michelle Rief countered that the Board has been strategic in its thinking, and that she prioritizes the 2% market rate adjustment for staff as the most important addition that needs funding.

“In my opinion, to sort of go out publicly and tell us to fight for the thing that we need and then come here and tell us that we’re we’re asking for too much, I think might be a political strategy on your part,” Rief said.

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson, who is running for mayor, said that the city should raise taxes to fully fund the school system’s budget request.

“I know it’s a sacrifice for all of us,” Jackson said. “I mean, we all live here in the city, and raising taxes would be a sacrifice.”

Jackson was the only Council member to not criticize the school system’s budget during the meeting.

“I just feel like we need to get close to what they’re asking for, if not fully funded,” Jackson said. “I think raising taxes also will mean that hopefully we’re not cutting our services and that our services are remaining at the optimum level for our residents and our businesses, but also making sure that our schools are remaining competitive and keeping our community stronger.”

School Board Member Tammy Ignacio was brought to tears while recounting the stresses that staff and students are experiencing.

“We have got to be able to compete with our surrounding jurisdictions,” Ignacio said. “In my 32 years in education, I have never seen it this bad. I have never seen the level of kids in a classroom without a teacher in front of them.”

City Council will set a maximum tax rate next week, allowing the City Manager to pursue some of the Board’s proposed additions, which include $4.2 million for staffers who did not get step increases in fiscal year 2021 and a $5.4 million (2%) market rate adjustment for all eligible staff.

Council Member Alyia Gaskins, who is running against Jackson in the Democratic mayoral primary, said she is in favor of advertising a higher tax rate to consider the additions.

“We have to deliver a balanced budget that responds to the needs of our community and that means doing right by our teachers and students,” Gaskins said. “If in the end we decide an increase is necessary, then I will be leading the charge to figure out relief for those who cannot keep affording these increases, like seniors on fixed incomes or others who are one tax increase away from not being able to afford to live here.”

School Board Member Abdel Elnoubi, who is running for City Council, said that he’s asking them to make an unpopular decision during an election year.

“It’s your decision to decide whether you want to raise taxes or not,” Elnoubi said. “If you do that, if you decide to raise taxes, I’m 100% with you… Let me just address the elephant in the room. It is an election year and as a School Board Member I’m in a less tough position.”

Four City Council Members are seeking reelection, and two members are running for mayor. Elnoubi and School Board Member Jacinta Greene are also running in the June 18 Democratic City Council primary.

Elnoubi said that from Council’s perspective, the Board gets to take credit for the increased funding while City Council has to deal with the consequences of raising taxes.

“That’s very viable, that is the political reality of things,” Elnoubi said. “What I will tell you is we are doing what we think is right for the school system… I would be derelict in my duty if I don’t ask you for what we need, understanding full well you may not be able to give it to us, which is fine.”

Wilson said that the Board needs to work closer with Council to craft not only this budget, but future budgets.

“It is impossible for us to resolve the gap on both the capital and operating side,” he said. “So we are going to pick a number and to come to some conclusion to our process, and it’s going to be challenging to arrive at that number without some really good input from the School Board as to what that should be.”

School Board Member Tim Beaty said that living in the city is becoming more expensive, and that the additions are focused on teacher retention.

“We were doing what we thought was best in order to keep the quality of what we’ve got,” Beaty said. “I’m frustrated that this leads to this huge difference between what we need and what’s available in the budget.”

City Council will adopt its final budget on May 1.


Alexandria’s annual George Washington Birthday Parade brought the usual pomp and circumstance befitting the country’s first president.

This year’s parade marshals were the recipients of the prestigious Living Legends of Alexandria award. The theme of this year’s parade was “George Washington: Alexandria’s Living Legend.”

A number of political candidates marched (or rode) in the parade, including mayoral candidates Vice Mayor Amy Jackson and Alyia Gaskins, as well as Sheriff Sean Casey and Clerk of Court Greg Parks. City Manager Jim Parajon also marched, as did his counterpart in the school system, Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt. Former Mayor Allison Silberberg also marched in the parade with the “Coalition to Stop the Potomac Yard Arena.”

Alexandria’s next parade is the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Old Town on Saturday, March 2.

ACPS Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt speaks at the ribbon cutting for Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, Aug. 18, 2023 (staff photo by James Cullum)

Two longtime members of the city’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee (BFAAC) resigned earlier this month after severely criticizing the leadership of Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt during a meeting.

BFAAC Vice Chair Kathy Stenzel resigned on Dec. 14 and Board Member Karen Graf resigned on Dec. 16 without providing a reason, according to the city. Graf was chair of the Alexandria School Board in 2013 and 2014, and was a School Board member for six years.

The resignations followed an adhoc Dec. 11 subcommittee meeting, where members were planning an upcoming joint session between city and ACPS staff. In that meeting, Stenzel, Graf and member Laurie McNamara said that Kay-Wyatt is “closed off,” and questioned her leadership style and how effectively ACPS staff work with city staff.

“I was very disappointed when they put her up as superintendent,” said Stenzel, who was on the committee since 2019. ” I think she runs a pretty closed book over at schools. I think it trickles down onto staff, on their comfort with being open on what they’re working on.”

Kay-Wyatt was hired as superintendent in May, after spending nearly a year as interim-superintendent. She was initially hired as the ACPS human resources director in 2021. She took over a post-pandemic school system that was heavily criticized for its poor collaboration with the city, increased safety concerns, teacher and staff retention, as well as learning loss and underperforming standardized test scores.

Kay-Wyatt declined to comment on the subcommittee meeting to ALXnow.

Graf accused Kay-Wyatt of micromanaging communications staff, and said that she was “stunned” last month when she and ACPS Chief Financial Officer Dominic Turner joined City Council’s annual budget retreat on Zoom instead of in person. In that meeting, Kay-Wyatt unveiled the school system’s priorities over the next fiscal year, with one of them being improved collaboration between ACPS and the city.

“I was stunned,” Graf said. “I guess I would be pissed if I was Council, too, because our (School) Board’s used to show up en masse. Definitely all of us were there because we want to show force; that we’re here. We believe in what we’re telling you about the school system.”

In that Nov. 4 meeting, Kay-Wyatt said that her priorities include building partnerships and collaborations with the city.

“We are truly working on building a collaborative energy and a collaborative spirit and relationship with the city moving forward,” Kay-Wyatt said.

McNamara said that criticism levied against Kay-Wyatt is unfair “in a way,” but that ACPS has been tone-deaf by rebranding itself with a new logo while struggling under an avalanche of criticism due to teacher vacancies and collective bargaining issues. She said that the social media comments on the logo change exemplify the issues many see with Kay-Wyatt.

“It is just the essence of tone deafness in this environment,” McNamara said.

Stenzel, Graf and McNamara did not respond to requests for comment.

The next BFAAC meeting is Jan. 16.

Staying cool at Alexandria City High School’s graduation at George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena, June 3, 2023 (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria City High School seniors with a 3.25 cumulative grade point average or higher are now eligible for automatic admission to George Mason University.

The deal for the pilot program between Alexandria City Public Schools and GMU was struck earlier this month, and 428 ACHS seniors have since been informed that they have earned a guaranteed admission to the university. The agreement expires in August 2026.

“There are no applications, application fees, essays and SAT requirements, or recommendations,” Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt told the School Board on Oct. 5.

ACHS Executive Principal Alexander Duncan III said that direct access to college takes away the stress of figuring out a path out of high school.

“ACHS is beyond thrilled that our students are afforded this chance and thankful to GMU for providing it,” Duncan said. “No doubt, this will help as we work to provide equal access to education for all students.”

The school system said that anyone granted automatic admission will get a link to an application that’s 75% complete, with students needing to fill out the remainder.

“This trailblazing opportunity allows many seniors who may not have applied for admission to a four-year university the chance to make a life-changing decision with the confidence of knowing they have already received admissions,” ACHS Director of School Counseling R. Briana Hardaway said. “ACPS and ACHS leadership are thrilled about this pilot program and grateful to be among the initial schools in Northern Virginia who are part of this partnership.”


Alexandria parents are up in arms over a staffing crisis within Alexandria City Public Schools.

Kelly Organek says that her ninth-grade son at Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard campus hasn’t had a geometry teacher since school started in August and that he only recently got a new biology teacher.

“We are in a staffing crisis that is not okay for our children,” Organek testified to the School Board last Thursday night (Oct 5). “Since August 21, my son has had to teach himself biology and geometry. We have no way to know if he’s learning the material.”

ACPS staff also provided an update on staffing woes. The school system currently has 55 central office vacancies, as well as more than 100 licensed and non-licensed school-based positions. Just how many teachers are needed is not clear, and ALXnow is awaiting a more comprehensive breakdown of ACPS staffing needs.

“We’re at a point now where people are just looking for bodies to put in classrooms and that makes me so sad,” said Board Member Meagan Alderton. “I think the people on the ground, the HR (human resources) folks, have got to do the work.”

The ACPS employment page lists dozens of vacant positions, including high school science, math and history teacher jobs.

“We do know that the last couple of years have been very challenging for all of our staff,” Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt said.

Margaret Browne, the ACPS director of recruitment and retention, said she is working on streamlining the onboarding process so that applicants can start work faster. She also said that ACPS advertised positions on radio stations, television, newspapers and online media, and that she and her staff conducted 13 job fairs in-house and traveled to 40 career fairs around the country last school year, including to Puerto Rico.

“I anticipated that we were going to do a large number of events last year and I’m ready to set a new record (for job fairs),” Browne said. “We’ll go down the Eastern Seaboard. This time we are going west and we’ll also do Puerto Rico again.”

The school system is also short 15 bus drivers and is offering an additional 5% raise for drivers over the course of the next three years.

Browne said that ACPS will also focus on marketing to people switching careers within associations and military organizations.

David Paladin Fernandez has been an ACPS 6th and 8th grade general education teacher for eight years. He said that his salary has been frozen half that time, and that due to an impasse over collective bargaining that the school system is running short on special education teachers, bus drivers, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, therapists, audiologists and more positions.

He also brought a red velvet cake to the School Board meeting.

“Our district is facing a staffing crisis like we’ve never seen, and our management would rather spin stories than face the reality that their recruiting and retention efforts are simply not enough,” Fernandez said. “School Board members, tonight you have heard and will hear from a number of Alexandria citizens who have been personally impacted by the decisions ACPS management has made under your watch. These citizens come to you asking, nay demanding that you start holding management accountable because the things that they are saying to the public do not match the actions we see. It’s as ridiculous as offering cake at a School Board meeting.”

Rene Pascal, the acting head of human resources for ACPS, said that teachers should feel incentivized to work for ACPS by paying smaller premiums on their health plans (see graph in above gallery).

Alexandria City High School parent Sarah Schultz said that ACPS is not being transparent on staffing woes.

“We’re asking our children to receive instruction without teachers,” ACPS parent Sarah Schultz told the Board. “We feel strongly that ACPS should not take the stance that online classes are a reasonable substitute for in-person instruction, especially for required courses and question the equity of moving groups of students to online while the rest of the students receive in-person instruction.”

Two ACPS recruitment videos made earlier this year are below.


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.”

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After years in development, Alexandria leaders and students cut a blue ribbon and toured the rebuilt Douglas MacArthur Elementary School today.

“It feels like I’m floating through the school and marveling at each and every new feature that has been brought from design to full construction,” Principal Penny Hairston said at the ribbon cutting. “The only thing that’s missing are all of our students, and they will be here soon to enjoy this modern and welcoming school building.”

There remains work to be done, including the installation of a turf field and a courtyard playground for young kids, but the school will open for the first day of classes on August 21.

It took three years to rebuild the 154,000-square-foot school at 1101 Janneys Lane. MacArthur first opened 80 years ago, and during construction its students used the old Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space. The project was initially planned to wrap in January.

“The 1943 building only had eight classrooms and one common area,” said Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt. “Very different than this new three-story, very innovative space where there’s natural lighting coming into each classroom, there are restrooms accessible to the classrooms that give students more privacy, I think we’ve come a long way.”

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.

“This new school building represents our city’s commitment to educating and empowering all of our students to thrive in this diverse and ever- changing world that we live in,” said School Board Chair Michelle Rief. “I know that this new school building is going to positively impact the lives of children and families in this community for generations to come.”

The new school has an 840-student capacity, and the current student population is at around 650, according to ACPS. Those numbers are expected to change as the School Board will engage in a redistricting process over the next year.

The new school has one set of boys and girls restrooms, and a number of individual restrooms to accommodate gender fluid students — directly going against the recommended policies of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration.

“Amazing things are gonna happen in this building,” said Mayor Justin Wilson. “Kids are going to come out of this building prepared to take on the world, and that is through an investment that we all made as a community.”


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