Alexandria, VA

In a candid discussion on Facebook last night (Thursday), Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson outlined some of the largest impacts COVID-19 could have on Alexandria citizens and the city government.

How the outbreak could impact plans for schools, economics, and the health of the community were the top issues in Wilson’s “living room town hall”.

With $56 million less in preliminary estimates for the budget than was originally planned, Wilson said nothing was off the cutting table.

“Nothing is sacred,” Wilson said. “Nothing is off the table. Nothing is untouchable. We will see impacts to the capital budget and operating budget. One of the bigger projects is the rebuild at MacArthur [Elementary School]. My guess is, given where we are in the project, that would be a project we want to continue to proceed. However, we’re going to have to look at everything. If there’s a school project affected in the near term, probably going to be the rebuild of Minnie Howard.”

Those financial estimates are based in large part on financial estimates for business closures, which Wilson said is only likely to become direr.

“We are going to lose a lot of businesses in our city through this situation,” Wilson said. “The federal CARES Act is helpful, but won’t be enough. For several, revenue has gone down to zero, which makes payroll and paying rent impossible.”

Acknowledging the risk of coming across as callous, Wilson said the city needed to start preparing for how to help the city’s commercial tax base recover.

“We are looking at how we see around the corner,” Wilson said. “We need to prepare for the recovery and how we bring back commerce in our city. We’re going to have a lot of work ahead.”

For now, though, the number of confirmed cases in Alexandria continues to rise, currently sitting at 67 cases.

“The challenge with testing numbers: this is a picture of time,” Wilson said. “Because of the delay in testing and the incubation period, this is reflecting folks who were infected quite a while ago. We’re going to continue to see that before we see things get better. If you believe the models, we’re still several weeks off from the peak.”

Wilson said every expert he’s talked to has said Alexandrians should expect that number to continue going up. The state is putting together new models for the spread of the disease with the University of Virginia, Wilson said, which should be released early next week.

“This is reflecting infections that happened two weeks ago in some cases, because of the incubation and several days of lag in test results,” Wilson said. “We won’t see the impact of social distancing for a while now.”

In the meantime, the health department is interviewing each positive case and doing contact tracing to determine who else those people came in contact with and making sure that they track down and notify those folks, Wilson said.

Those with medical experience can help by volunteering with the Alexandria Medical Reserve Corps. Other organizations throughout Alexandria could also use help, and volunteers able to sign up either at Volunteer Alexandria or on the city website.

On a smaller scale, Wilson said many local residents have been using the stay at home order as a chance to get more gardening done. Wilson warned that yard waste collection has been suspended, meaning if residents want to dispose of those weeds they’ve pulled up they’ll have to do so by composting.

“When we have the ability to restart that we certainly will but right now we’re encouraging people to set up backyard composting to deal with that,” Wilson said.

Wilson also noted that because more people are staying at home, the city is seeing much larger amounts of trash being set out on curbs.

Living Room Town Hall

Posted by Justin Wilson on Thursday, April 2, 2020

Staff photo by James Cullum

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Continuity of leadership will be crucial to the success of the future expansion of T.C. Williams High School’s connected high school network, according to a panel of national experts who spoke to more than 100 parents, educators and staff on Wednesday night.

The Alexandria City Public Schools system has seen much turnover over the last two decades, with six superintendents over the last 20 years and just as many principals at T.C.

“There is not a school district in the country that has succeeded with constant changes in leadership, not one,” said Dr. Pedro A. Noguera, faculty director for the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA. “School board members have the responsibility to support leadership. They need to make sure they ask the right questions, but they need to get out of the way, too, and let them do their job so that the schools can focus on education, not politics.”

Last September, the Alexandria School Board voted to expand T.C. by building on the Minnie Howard campus (3801 W. Braddock Road), which is a satellite school a few blocks west of T.C. The city’s only public high school currently teaches more than 400 courses to about 3,800 students, and it is anticipated there will be 5,000 students at the school by 2025.

Dr. Jonathan Plucker, president of the National Association of Gifted Children, said that there has been too much turnover at ACPS.

“Stable, talented leadership is not just an important issue, it is your key important issue in this district right now,” Plucker said. “So, doing whatever you can to maintain that at the department level, at the building level, at the district level really has to be your focus.”

ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Jr., agreed, and said that the issue is the most important element in the success of not only the high school expansion project, but of the school system overall.

“I think continuity of leadership is the most important ingredient to accomplishing our mission, and it is the one area where we have been lacking,” Hutchings told ALXnow. “If it’s not the superintendent it’s the principal and vice versa. In order for us to attain the goals that we set forth we can’t constantly be starting from scratch.”

Dr. Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center, said that an advantage of the high school network will be that students will be forced to adapt to a more college-like atmosphere with multiple campuses.

“I think one of the biggest advantages of the multi-campus approach you have here is that this is what kids are going to get in post-secondary [education] in many cases, and we know that the hidden crisis in America is the college dropout rate,” Balfanz said. “Fifty percent of kids who go to college don’t make it. One of the reasons they don’t is they don’t have the navigational skills to go from a very sheltered, structured environment to one which is a multi-site campus.”

Dr. Jaime A. Castellano, an authority on the education of Hispanic and Latino students, said that the campus will take students out of their comfort zones.

“It will allow them to apply their critical thinking and problem solving,” Castellano said. “Mommy and daddy aren’t going to be holding their hands their entire lives, right? So, it’s important that those kids get a feeling of independence, a feeling of autonomy by making sure they are responsible and play their role in making sure they have a successful high school experience. A multiple campus district would allow that to happen.”

Hutchings will present the school board with an update on the high school project at its meeting on Thursday, Jan. 9.

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Update at 1:05 p.m. — Police are now investigating another report of gunshots heard along Richmond Highway, near Potomac Yard. Nothing has been found so far.

Update at 12:25 p.m. — The secured building status has been lifted, according to ACPS.

Earlier: T.C. Williams High School on King Street and the Minnie Howard campus have been secured due to a report of numerous gunshots heard in the area.

Both Arlington and Alexandria police are investigating the reported gunshots, which were heard near Columbia Pike in Arlington and the intersection of King Street and Quaker Lane in Alexandria, according to scanner traffic.

Thus far, no evidence of actual gunfire has been found.

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The School Board has shot down a plan to add a second high school in Alexandria and is sticking with — as several members of the audience chanted throughout the night — “One T.C.

After a long debate at its Sept. 26 meeting that dredged up Alexandria’s history of segregation in schools and the ongoing achievement gap, the School Board voted 6-3 in favor of expanding the current high school into a “campus.”

The new proposal calls for the expansion of the Minnie Howard (3801 W. Braddock Road) site — currently a satellite school a few blocks west of T.C. Williams High School currently used as a facility for 9th grade students. Designs for the campus and what types of programs would be located across the different buildings remain to be determined.

With the approval of the campus-style high school, Superintendent Gregory Hutchings Jr. said the planning process for the design is about to start. In addition to determining the physical location and layout of the new buildings, Hutchings said the school district will look at the high school curriculum and determine which programs could best utilize separate buildings across the campus.

The design phase of the project is scheduled to run from 2020-2021.

“Now we will reconvene the educational design team and add additional members to that team to look at educational programming now that we have a model,” Hutchings said. “We have to start beginning the design phase and look at educational specifications to look at what these specs will be for the building.”

Keeping Alexandria’s high schoolers united in one school was the choice favored by several T.C. Williams students at the meeting, as well as Hutchings and T.C. Williams Principal Peter Balas.

“Urge you to cast your vote for one high school,” Balas, a former social studies teacher at the school, said in an impassioned plea during the public comment portion of the meeting. “T.C. is the heart of the city.

“I strongly encourage you to support our diversity as one of our greatest strengths,” he continued. “Our Titans experience diversity greater than anywhere else in this country. Two high schools lead us down a path of divisive battles [with] inequity between the two schools and leaving certain groups facing increasing disenfranchisement. These inequities will become deeper over time. Separation may be in our school’s name, but you can oppose it by voting to keep us together.”

Balas and Hutchings were also direct with their frustrations with current inequity within the schools and their struggles to try to eliminate that. Hutchings echoed the concerns of other parents and School Board members when he said he was worried multiple high schools would exacerbate those problems. Particularly, Hutchings noted, with the proposal for split high schools specializing in arts or science and technology.

“When you have more than one high school, whether it is reality or perception, someone is going to say ‘they’re getting more than I’m getting, they’re better than I am, they’re getting more options than I’m getting,'” Hutchings said. “It is inevitable that we’re not going to be able to offer those same courses. I want us to be honest about that. We are going to limit the options some of those students have.”

A contingent of students from Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS), both T.C. students and some in lower grades, spoke at the meeting against a separated high school system. Lorraine Johnson, a student at T.C., said that students involved in the early stages of the decision-making were focused on a collective good of the schools in a way that she didn’t see from parents.

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