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Alexandria City Public Schools Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt says her budget will help address some of the long-term effects of the pandemic.

Kay-Wyatt’s theme for the budget is to “reset, restart and refocus” the school system, and she says employee retention is crucial.

“We hope the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is in our rearview mirror,” Kay-Wyatt told the School Board. “But the challenges that it has left behind clearly need to be addressed.”

On Thursday, Kay-Wyatt presented her $359.9 million fiscal year 2024 combined funds budget proposal, and 85% of it is geared toward paying the salaries of more than 2,600 ACPS employees. Kay-Wyatt is proposing a 2.6% step increase and 2.5% market rate adjustment for eligible ACPS employees, as well as increased funding for Social and Emotional Learning programming (SEAL) for every student to regroup students coping with learning loss and other pandemic-related issues.

“We do know some of our challenges, of course, have been staff burnout,” Kay-Wyatt said. “We hear that from our staff, we hear that from our organization, and we are definitely focused on that as well.”

Kay-Wyatt continued, “That is a big challenge that we will continue to shine a spotlight on. The national teacher and bus driver shortage and the highly competitive salaries that are offered in the D.C. Metro Area have to be addressed so that we can provide our students with a quality education. We must also work to address the many forms of trauma that our students face.”

The budget is a 4% increase over last year’s approved budget, and includes funding to develop an official ACPS plan and policy for collective bargaining with employees.

Systemwide, ACPS enrollment is projected to increase modestly from 15,732 students at the end of the current school year to 15,847 students at the beginning of the next school year in August 2023. Enrollment peaked at more than 16,000 students at the tail-end of the 2020-2021 school year — during the height of the pandemic — resulting in ACPS losing 474 students (3%).

ACPS will conduct a public hearing on the proposed budget on Jan. 19. The School Board is expected to pass it (with revisions) on Feb. 16, and then go to City Council for deliberation until it passes the city’s budget in early May.

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About 58% of Alexandria City Public Schools students feel safe in school, with bullying, gang activity and selling/using drugs topping a new list of concerns.

Consequently, ACPS is considering enhancing the role of its school resource officers to not only serve as law enforcement but as teachers and informal counselors.

Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt will use the report by Hanover Research and recommendations from an advisory group to present a plan next month. The plan will focus on a reimagined partnership with the ACPS and the Alexandria Police Department’s school resource officer program.

The new arrangement has been months in the making — including 18 discussion group meetings — and will go into effect at the end of this school year in June.

Hanover is recommending the “triad” concept; a method of policing backed by the National Association of School Resource Officers where SROs serve as law enforcers, teachers, and informal counselors.

“In effective SRO programs, SROs fulfill educational and counseling functions in addition to providing law enforcement services,” Hanover said. “Discussion group participants suggest that intimidation and opposition to SROs can be overcome through community-building activities such as classroom visits or athletic events.”

SROs have been a contentious issue in Alexandria. The officers were defunded by the City Council in last year’s budget, and ACPS spent the first few months of the 2021-2022 school year without them. They were returned after ACPS pleaded to Council for their return after multiple incidents with weapons in schools.

“I feel safe from outside threats,” a Black student at Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard campus said in a report. “But within our hallways, we have a lot of fights that break out randomly throughout the day, and I just don’t want to be caught up in that.”

There were 46 students arrested and 68 injured in the 2021-2022 school year, with 194 incidents that provoked a police response, according to an ACPS safety report.

The school system is using the 2021-2022 school year as a baseline for future improvement.

This school year began with new safety protocols, like a new identification requirement for students and staff at Alexandria City High School, staggered dismissal times, and designated entrances for students and staff at schools.

Hanover’s student safety survey of 5,200 students, staff, parents and community members found that just 35% of community members feel that the school system provides a safe environment, versus 75% of parents and 72% of ACPS staff.

“Students also identify drug use as a major concern and express substantial discomfort with drug sales and use in bathrooms,” the report said. “Staff express concern about a perceived lack of follow-up actions to address student violence.”

Between October and November, Hanover Research conducted 18 focus groups with 142 participants, in addition to garnering feedback from more than 5,200 people in the survey.

“Most non-staff members don’t even know how to contact the SROs at the schools,” Marriam Ewaida of Hanover Research told the Board. “The ones that have interacted with the SROs actually have largely positive perceptions with their interactions, but some of them…  describe the SROs as being sometimes intimidating or distance in their limited interactions. Most respondents did not see the SRO as an informal mentor or educator.”

The survey also found that:

  • ACPS has problems with violence or theft — 47% of students agree, 63% from the community, 38% from ACPS staff, and 37% of parents
  • ACPS has a cyberbullying/bullying problem — 39% of students agree, 73% from the community, 46% of staff, and 34% of parents
  • ACPS has a gang presence problem — 32% of students agree, 57% from the community, 31% from ACPS staff, and 31% of parents
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ACPS interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt speaks at an event for Noah and Josephus Lyles at Market Square, October 10, 2022. (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria City Public Schools is looking for community input on its national search for a new superintendent. The school system wants to hire the superintendent by the end of March and for them to start work on July 1, 2023.

The online feedback form is s intended for families and staff, and is available in English, Spanish, Amharic, Arabic and Dari until Dec. 21.

“We are excited about our search for a permanent superintendent for ACPS and want to encourage all internal and external stakeholders to please share their input to help inform this search,” said Board Chair Meagan L. Alderton. “It is important for the School Board to hear from community members as we consider the needs of our school division and the characteristics of the next superintendent to lead ACPS in the future.”

ACPS hired Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt after the resignation of Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. in June. Kay-Wyatt has not indicated whether she will apply for the permanent position.

Recruiting firm McPherson & Jacobson is identifying and screening candidates.

The superintendent’s job description is below.

The candidate must have the background, skills, and abilities essential for excellence in educational leadership to include high expectations, being data driven and maintaining a culture of accountability throughout the division. Experience as a superintendent or in a central office leadership position in a diverse, suburban/urban district to include classroom teaching experience is required.  Doctorate and Virginia Superintendent certification – or eligibility for it – are required as is a preference for living in the city of Alexandria.  The Board is seeking a candidate with the following desired characteristics:

  1. An educational leader with a proven track record of leading teams to implement equitable practices that result in improved academic achievement in a suburban/urban school division.
  2. A leader with experience in the successful development and implementation of a division-wide strategic plan with the understanding that the current plan must continue to be implemented with fidelity through 2025.
  3. A leader who builds consensus through collaboration resulting in trust and mutual respect throughout the division and the broader community.
  4. A steward of public resources with expertise in budget development, the ability to foster positive relationships with the city government officials and experience in carrying out capital projects.
  5. An effective communicator whose vision can be translated into practical terms for all stakeholders in the division and the broader community.
  6. A leader with the ability to identify staff’s potential and build capacity throughout the organization.
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Empty desks at Alexandria City High School (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria City Public Schools is in the initial stages of organizing a collective bargaining effort for thousands of its employees.

The school system has more than 2,400 employees and pays $11.6 million in salaries, with funds approved by the City Council. That means that any agreement reached between ACPS staffers and the school system will have to be approved by Council.

“In this case, you’re going to be negotiating a collective bargaining agreement for about 80% of your costs,” Mayor Justin Wilson said at a joint City Council/School Board Subcommittee meeting on Monday (Nov. 28).

Wilson continued, “Without some special structure put together, you’re going to be doing so without coordination with the entity that is going to pay those bills. So, I think we need to figure out how we hold hands and put together a process where we can all do this together somehow.”

The news comes shortly after the city and police department came to a collective bargaining agreement. As part of that agreement, which was nearly a year in the making, police officers will get significant salary raises, as well as bonuses for longevity and specialized skills.

Education Association of Alexandria President Dawn Lucas says that her organization is ready to get to work.

“We are ready and willing to work closely during this process,” Lucas told the School Board on Nov. 10. “We believe that having strong collective bargaining will make us more competitive than other school divisions when it comes to retaining and recruiting the very best educators and staff.”

In the meantime, the school system is proposing a 2.64% step increase and 2.5% market rate adjustment for all staff in the upcoming fiscal year 2024 budget. Healthcare costs are also projected to increase 8% and dental care costs will increase 2%.

Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt told Wilson that she will work closely with City Manager Jim Parajon’s office in creating a collective bargaining structure. No timeline has yet been presented.

“We will keep you informed as we are educating our staff on what it’s going to look at , as well as a timeline,” Kay-Wyatt said.

City Council adopted its collective bargaining ordinance last year.

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Alexandria City Public Schools leaders will be on-hand tonight (October 26) to discuss school safety.

The conversation starts at 6:30 p.m. at George Washington Middle School (1005 Mount Vernon Avenue), and speakers on the panel include interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt, ACPS Director of Safety and Security Services John Contreras, and Director of School Social Work Faiza Jackson.

The event is hosted by ACPS, the Alexandria Council of PTAs, and Parents for Safe Alexandria Schools, and will be held in the school auditorium. Event organizers caution that the subject matter is “child-sensitive.”

The other panelists are Alexandria Police Officer Richard Sandoval, Alexandria City Gang Prevention Community Task Force Member Mike Mackey, Everytown for Gun Safety’s Be SMART Secure Gun Storage Program Member Andy Corso, and Alex Carrol of the city’s Department of Transportation & Environmental Services.

School safety has been a major issue within ACPS since full in-person schooling resumed at the beginning of the last school year. There were 46 students arrested and 68 injured in the 2021-2022 school year, with 194 incidents that provoked a police response, according to an ACPS safety report.

The school system’s partnership with the Alexandria Police Department also came under intense scrutiny, and a new plan on school resource officers (stationed at Alexandria City High School and the middle schools) will be unveiled to the School Board by mid-December.

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Updated at 5:55 p.m. The Alexandria School Board on Friday (October 20) received a recommendation to extend its agreement with the Alexandria Police Department to provide school resource officers at the city’s high school and middle schools until  the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

The School Board will vote on the matter at its upcoming meeting on Thursday, November 10.

The memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the school system and police department was set to expire at the end of this month. By mid-December, the School Board will also receive interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt recommendations on the reimagined partnership. Those recommendations will have been guided by the School Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) Advisory Group.

“The SLEP advisory group may recommend changes to the MOU as part of their overall recommendations to the School Board in December 2022/January 2023,” Alicia Hart, the ACPS chief of facilities and operations, wrote in a memo to the School Board. “To this end, we are recommending extending the current MOU with APD through the end of June 2023. This extension will allow time to account for any potential recommendations that may come from the SLEP advisory group process as well as completion of the public comment process related to the review of the MOU.”

School safety has been a major focus within ACPS since full in-person schooling resumed at the beginning of the last school year.

ACPS began the 2021-2022 school year without school resource officers, after they were defunded by the City Council in last year’s budget. The first few months of the school year were punctuated by incidents with weapons in schools, prompting School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and then-Superintendent Gregory Hutchings to successfully plead to Council for SROs to return in October 2021.

Two months later, two SROs at Alexandria City High School’s King Street campus were put on administrative leave after being accused of having inappropriate sexual conversations with a former student. The school ended up not having SROs stationed at the King Street campus for the remainder of the school year.

There were 46 students arrested and 68 injured last school year, and 194 incidents that provoked a police response, according to an ACPS safety report.

Police Chief Don Hayes says that police are needed to contend with crews of violent kids within the school system, and Kay-Wyatt said that she will work collaboratively with the police to keep schools safe.

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Alexandria leaders agree that the city either needs to expand its aging middle schools or completely build a new one.

There are now 15,700 students within Alexandria City Public Schools, and roughy 2,000 more students are expected by 2024. That puts the city in a tricky position, as 10 ACPS schools are more than 70 years old and need continual maintenance, and a surge in elementary school kids means that Alexandria needs more middle school space.

The need for a new school was outlined in a joint facilities update between City Council and the School Board on Wednesday, October 12.

“We’ve got to be creative here with how we do things,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “We can meet the needs of enrollment in our schools with properties we own today.”

A new middle school isn’t budgeted in the city’s 10-year fiscal year 2023-2032 Capital Improvement Program Budget. Three school replacements are currently funded: the Alexandria City High School (ACHS) Minnie Howard campus, George Mason Elementary School and Cora Kelly School.

The CIP also includes more than $12 million for the renovation of an office building at 1703 N. Beauregard Street for development by 2030. The space could be used as swing space for another school under construction or as a new 600-student-capacity school.

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson is in favor of converting the Nannie J. Lee Memorial Recreation Center (1108 Jefferson Street) into a new middle school. Other options include looking into the availability of land on Eisenhower East or at Simpson Field near Potomac Yard.

The discussion was prompted by a new Joint Facilities Master Plan Roadmap, presented by City Manager Jim Parajon. The roadmap prioritizes city renovation projects based on the condition of public buildings. City Hall, for instance, got an F rating for being “functionally obsolete.”

The roadmap is intended to be a guidance document for Council and the Board, filling in the blanks on potential developments.

A potential new use for the land at George Washington Middle School. (Via City of Alexandria)

The room of local lawmakers erupted in relief and laughter when City Manager Jim Parajon reiterated that the roadmap document is merely a guide.

“Just to be really clear, those illustrations that you saw, they are illustrations,” Parajon said. “It gives us some understanding of how a development or redevelopment could occur, or a renovation could occur.”

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City leaders are arranging to meet Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares next month in response to an effort to curb violence within Alexandria City Public Schools.

The discussion with Mayor Justin Wilson, School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt was initiated in August, when Miyares sent a letter offering the support of his office.

The meeting is tentatively planned for early November, according to sources.

Miyares wrote that he was prompted by numerous violent incidents, especially the murder of Alexandria City High School Student Luis Hernandez Mejia in the Bradlee Shopping Center parking lot in May.

“Given the high level of violence and disruption that has taken place, I urge you to work more closely with local law enforcement, the Virginia State Police, and the local Commonwealth Attorney as partners in preventing and reporting violent criminal behavior in, and around, our schools,” Miyares wrote in the letter. “I realize the City of Alexandria’s elected officials have not always supported the concept of SROs (school resource officers). However, I’m glad that SROs have been reinstated at some of your schools, and I encourage you to strengthen your commitment to these dedicated men and women, and to proactively reject arguments against their presence in the City’s schools.”

There were 46 students arrested and 68 injured last school year, and 194 incidents that provoked a police response, according to a new safety report detailing arrest and security incidents.

Wilson and Alderton responded by inviting Miyares to Alexandria, and in his own letter outlined a number of ways Richmond can help.

In December, the School Board will also receive the interim Superintendent’s recommendation on the partnership between ACPS and the police department.

In the meantime, the city and governor’s office remain at odds over Governor Glenn Youngkin’s proposed new policies restricting transgender bathroom and pronoun use. Wilson has said that the city will likely enter into litigation against the restrictions.

Wilson said that the transgender policy issues will likely not be discussed with Miyares.

“I cannot imagine the transgender inclusion policies will be part of the discussion,” Wilson told ALXnow. “But you never know.”

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World champion sprinters Noah and Josephus Lyles were born and raised in Alexandria, and now they’ve got the key to the city.

Last weekend, the brothers were inducted into the Alexandria City Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame, and on Monday night (October 10) they got a little extra. At a ceremony at Market Square, the pair were presented with the key and a commendation by Mayor Justin Wilson.

Noah, who won the bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics, has been hailed for frankly discussing battles with mental health.

“The reason we’re here is not just your athletic pursuits, but what you have done using your platform that you have as an athlete to speak out on mental illness and make sure you raise awareness of that,” Wilson said. “We know that that advocacy that advocacy is not not just important, that advocacy saves lives.”

The 25-year-old is a 2016 graduate of T.C. Williams High School (now Alexandria City High School), and 24-year-old Josephus graduated in 2017. Following the Olympics, Noah ran the third-fastest 200m in history at the World Championships in July, clocking in at 19.31 seconds. Josephus also broke a personal record by running the 200m in less than 20 seconds on the U.S. National team. The brothers now live and train in Clermont, Florida.

After receiving the awards, Noah said he was surprised that talking about mental health would have an impact. Since he was a child, he and his brother have gone to family therapy, and have been open about their mental health challenges.

Noah said that he sees two therapists “quite often.”

“I truthfully did not realize how much of the impact I had on everybody when it came to mental health,” Noah said. “Until I came back from the Olympics, and everybody was talking about it. Even at the world championships this year, I had the honor to talking to the Second Gentleman of the United States, and we talked about mental health, and I was shocked, because my first thought is like, ‘Me? Why do you want to talk to me?’ I mean, I know I’m fast, but fast only gets you so far.”

Lyles continued, “And he’s said, ‘Well, you’re the only male that talks about mental health openly in a international level.’ And I thought to myself, ‘What? No, there’s, um, well, there’s… I never thought of that before. I never thought of my moment of, you know, being vulnerable as being so heroic.”

The brothers, who have a sports foundation, were also praised for giving ACPS more than $100,000 in Adidas sports attire to local high school athletic teams, including Alexandria City High School.

“It’s always a wonderful feeling when Alexandria City public school students work hard and realize success in their endeavors,” said School Board Chair Meagan Alderton. “One of their biggest achievements has been how they’ve developed as young men outside of sports. They have the character that will stand the test of time. We need more of that in this world.”

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Melanie Kay-Wyatt says that she lives by one word — impact.

With just a month under her belt as interim superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, she’s got a mountain of responsibility to contend with, including managing the first days of the 2022-2023 school year, developing the school system’s upcoming budget, and forging relationships with city leaders.

“My faith keeps me strong, keeps me grounded,” Kay-Wyatt told ALXnow. “But every day the word that I say to myself is impact, impact, impact. What impact am I going to have on someone else, or what impact are they going to have on me?”

Kay-Wyatt-s new office in ACPS Central Office is sparsely decorated. The walls are completely bare, and there are a few small framed photos of her family and her oath of office as interim superintendent. She says that her predecessor, Gregory Hutchings, Jr., gave her lots of advice before his last day at the end of August.

“He said to be passionate, continue to be who I am,” Kay-Wyatt said.

All this comes as the school system continues with a teacher and bus driver shortage, lagging standardized testing scores, and safety issues. A recent safety report shows that there were 46 students arrested and 68 injured last school year, and the school system is now using the 2021-2022 school year as a baseline for future improvement.

Kay-Wyatt said she approaches her workload with passion.

“Let me tell you what the work is like,” she said. “If you see it as a work of being something to control, it’s not a passion, right? And this is a passion for me. That’s what I do, that’s why I’m here — to have an impact. Please know that any educator that comes into any building every day, does not see it as controlling or doing something. It’s about having an impact in making a difference, and that is very different than going to a job where you’re just clocking in hours. The work that we do has impact. It changes lives. It changes families.”

Kay-Wyatt is also tasked with delivering the School Board her recommendation on the future relationship between ACPS and the Alexandria Police Department’s contentious school resource officer program. The SROs — police officers assigned to the city’s high school and middle school campuses — were defunded between August and October 2021, and were brought back by City Council after numerous violent incidents with weapons in schools.

“My position is to do what I need to do to keep our schools and campuses safe,” she said when asked her position on policing in schools. “I’m building a partnership and making connections since I’m the new superintendent, to make sure that I have connections with the city manager, with the police chief and then we will work collaboratively to keep our school safe.”

Kay-Wyatt was hired last summer as the ACPS chief of human resources. She will have the interim superintendent position for at least this school year or until a permanent superintendent is chosen in a national search. It’s still too early to say whether she will throw her hat in the ring for the permanent position, she said.

“That’s a personal decision I’ll make when the time is right to answer all of that,” Kay-Wyatt said.

A native of Landover, Maryland, Kay-Wyatt has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Mary Washington College, a master’s degree in education from Old Dominion University, a master’s in educational leadership from University of Mary Washington and a doctorate in educational leadership from Virginia Commonwealth University. She previously worked in human resources in Spotsylvania Public Schools, and as a principal, assistant principal and special education teacher at Fredericksburg City Public Schools.

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