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Minnie Howard groundbreaking, photo via Canek Aguirre/Twitter

The long-discussed and debated Minnie Howard project — part of adapting Alexandria City High School to handle ever-increasing capacity — finally broke ground yeterday.

City and school officials gathered at the site to mark the beginning of construction on a new Minnie Howard campus. The project is scheduled to be constructed around the current school and open in the 2024-2025 school year.

Capacity at the project is planned to increase to 1,600 students and changed from just 9th-grade students to all high school grades. Some concerns still linger about transportation between the two campuses, which involves crossing the very busy three-way intersection at West Braddock Road, King Street and North Quaker Lane.

School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said the Minnie Howard project is a new standard for Alexandria school development.

“This project isn’t just an example of space for kids,” Alderton said. “We started this project thinking about: what type of educational community do we want our high school to be? This is one small part of a bigger project that is ongoing. When this building opens, we will have a high school that is designed to meet the needs of each and every kid.”

Alderton said future school development will also need to incorporate educational program elements into the school design.

Emily Milton, a student representative on the School Board and a junior at Alexandria City High School, reflected fondly on her experience at Minnie Howard, though like many students Milton’s time at the school was cut short by Covid.

“Both my parents attended T.C. Williams High School,” Milton said. “[My friends and I] were so excited to be high schoolers. I was only at Minnie Howard for half the time I was supposed to, due to Covid, but I still had some of the best months of my life here. We got to attend homecoming, winter formal, and all the sports games as real high school students.”

Photo via Canek Aguirre/Twitter

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Alexandria voted in 2019 to stick with one high school across two campuses, but how exactly students get from one location to the other remains a topic of some consternation.

The City Council was supportive of plans for the Minnie Howard campus of Alexandria City High School presented at the meeting on Saturday — with the Council voting unanimously in favor and Mayor Justin Wilson calling it an example of positive collaboration in an occasionally fraught relationship. But getting students from Minnie Howard to the King Street campus and vice-versa is still a nagging cause for concern.

“This would be an ideal bicycle environment,” said City Council member Sarah Bagley. “Connectivity between the two campuses is an ideal bike trip and an absolutely unideal car trip. Turning the car on and off to go half a mile — we want to do everything we can to induce bike connectivity between the two campuses. We have a large population capable of making that trip between these two parcels.”

City Councilman John Chapman asked city staff about long-term plans for the streets between the two campuses — particularly the busy intersection of West Braddock Road, King Street and North Quaker Lane. Megan Oleynik, an urban planner for the Department Transportation and Environmental Services, said there’s no major infrastructure improvements planned.

“In 2016 and 2017 there were a number of improvements made to signalization and crossing,” Oleynik said. “There were originally considerations for a comprehensive re-do of the intersection, but given the costs and benefits it was determined that smaller improvements were the best way forward.”

As Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) moves forward with development of the school, Oleynik said the city is hoping a walk audit can help with getting more grant funding for additional improvements.

“We’re looking to get some grant money to do a walk audit for these campuses and there might be some smaller improvements to help students walk more safely between the two campuses,” Oleynik said, “but there aren’t any major projects in the pipeline for realignment.”

There are shared lane markings on Braddock Road, Oleynik said, but the Council was divided over whether that was sufficient and the discussion, naturally, included a temporary revisiting of the Seminary Road bike lanes battle

“As someone who had a 9th grader that biked to that school every day and has another that will be doing the same next year, I think we do have an opportunity with that infrastructure,” said Mayor Justin Wilson.

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said that if adding bike lanes are on the table, that conversation should happen before the city widens the sidewalk outside the school and not when the only option is a reduction in travel lanes.

“Seeing the emergency vehicles that use Braddock Road, that does still need to be a two lane road so I’d hate to see one of the lanes taken away for the use of a bike lane because the share roads are there,” Jackson said. “But if we’re going to do that, now would be the opportunity — while we’re putting in wider sidewalks. Saying ‘do we need wider sidewalks or do we use that land as part of a bicycle lane?'”

Jackson said crossing the streets near Alexandria City High School has long been an issue the city needs to do more to address.

“I know it was open campus for lunch when I went to T.C. and I can tell you we were all playing Frogger in the road,” Jackson said, “and that was 35 years ago because we didn’t have a way to get from the school over to the Bradlee Shopping Center to go to the Bagel Bakery or the Roy Rogers, instead of McDonalds.”

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Three years after Alexandria’s School Board voted to stick with one high school, plans are headed to Alexandria’s City Council that could help shed light on what that one high school system looks like.

As a quick refresher: the Minnie Howard campus currently hosts 9th-grade classes but will be expanded to act as a larger satellite campus for Alexandria City High School with a total of 1,600 students.

The current school will remain in operation while the new school is built to the east in areas that are currently athletic fields. Once the new building is constructed, the current Minnie Howard building will be removed and replaced with new athletic and recreational facilities, along with a bus loop and parking.

“The DSUP submission seeks to provide additional classroom space for the growing high school population, as well as community meeting space, public recreation space and address site
circulation for pedestrians and motorists,” a staff report said. “The new five-story high school will be approximately 313,355 square feet and is designed for a capacity of approximately 1,600 students in grades 9th through 12th and 200 faculty.”

The report said the intention is for both campuses to function as one high school, with students in all four grades attending each campus.

“A typical student day will vary depending on course offerings at each campus and student’s course selection,” the report said. “Students may spend full or half days at one campus or travel back and forth. Both the Minnie Howard and King Street campuses will offer some of the same and some varying class options.”

A shuttle service will connect the two campuses, potentially running after each class period. Transportation for staff and teachers between campuses has not yet been determined, the report said.

Recreational fields at the new school will include a synthetic turf — with lighting baked into the approval — and tennis/pickleball courts, basketball/futsal courts and a grass practice area. After some contention, the final designs include two pools in a two-story aquatics facility. The pools at the school and gymnasium will be accessible to the public after school hours and on weekends.

Last April, the City Council approved a pinwheel concept for the school.

“The core of the pinwheel will consist of a three-story atrium topped by a two-story atrium space above,” staff explained in the report. “This will function as the heart of the school and center of circulation between the three wings and between the five different floor levels.”

The school will also have a fairly unique approach to student dining to break up Alexandria City High School’s notorious lunchtime crowds.

“The new high school will be introducing a new concept to student dining,” the report said. “In lieu of a single large cafeteria, smaller dining spaces will be provided on each floor so students will be able to dine in smaller groups and lunch hour capacity can be accommodated at the same time. Food will be prepared in a single kitchen and then delivered to each floor.”

The staff report recommends approval of the project’s request for a master plan amendment and other zoning requests.

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Updated 1:15 p.m. — ACHS King Street Campus has returned to normal operating status and Alexandria Police have finished their sweep of the Minnie Howard campus.

The Alexandria Police Department is sweeping through the Alexandria City High School Minnie Howard campus after a bomb threat to the school.

The school is being evacuated while the Alexandria Police Department searches the building. ACPS said Minnie Howad students will be released early. Fourteen buses are en-route on the campus to pick up students on Braddock Road. Some parents are being asked to park at the nearby shopping center and walk to the school to avoid crowding.

Both schools were on lockdown earlier today after threats, and Alexandria City High School’s King Street campus remains on “secure the building” status. ACPS said this means the school day is operating on normal status inside the building, but no one is allowed to enter or leave the school campus.

Image via Google Maps

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Alexandria residents are being invited to weigh in Tuesday (August 10) on the design for the Alexandria City High School Minnie Howard campus.

The community will be provided a design update at 6 p.m. in a Zoom meeting with staff from the ACPS Office of Capital Programs, Planning and Design. The recently approved competition-sized swimming pool will also be discussed.

“We encourage you to read more about the history of the High School Project (PDF), and we look forward to hearing from you on August 10,” ACPS wrote to parents.

The School Board unanimously approved the $150 million “pinwheel” concept for Minnie Howard in April. A recent ACPS survey found that 77% of respondents like the pinwheel, a decision that took years in the making.

Minnie Howard will continue as a satellite campus for Alexandria City High School, and will accommodate 1,600 students in a new five-story facility. Construction is planned to start on open space on the property next June and wrap up in September 2024. During that time, physical activities and parking will need to be held off-site.

The meeting will include Spanish, Amharic and Arabic interpreters. The Superintendent’s Advisory Team will discuss the comments and recommendations on Wednesday, August 11, from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Photo via ACPS

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Minnie Howard field, via Google Maps

As the city and schools prepare for the process of overhauling Minnie Howard as part of the expanded Alexandria City High School, the Parks Department braces to go two years without access to one of the city’s most well-equipped fields on the school grounds.

At a meeting of the School Board and City Council, Jack Browand, division chief of Parks and Cultural Activities, fielded questions from City Council member John Chapman and Mayor Justin Wilson about how the city will fare without one of the most heavily used fields.

“[Activities] will be redistributed throughout the system,” Browand said, “but as everybody is aware, there isn’t another site like Minnie Howard.”

Browand said activities will be put on other fields, more will be pushed to weekends, and the city will do its best to utilities the existing infrastructure — but Browand said there’s no getting around the fact that fact that it’s going to hurt.

The strain on other parks should be relieved, somewhat, by plans to add a synthetic turf and lighting to Armistead L. Boothe Park (520 Cameron Station Blvd). Browand said the city hopes to have that field online by early 2022 to relieve the stress when construction starts at Minnie Howard around the same time.

Browand said the significance of Minnie Howard is in both its size and amenities.

“Minnie Howard has a restroom facility, parking, synthetic turf and lights,” Browand said. “Not every field has all of those attributes. There are fields with synthetic turf but no light, or fields that are grass but with lighting, and you have to be mindful of pushing the limits to those with maintenance.”

It isn’t a simple thing, Browand said, to add lights to an existing field.

Tell us about it,” Wilson quipped.

Browand said lighting isn’t as important in the summer, but activities in the fall and winter often require lighting with earlier sunsets. Browand also said the the Parks Department cannot use the lighting at the Parker-Gray Stadium at Alexandria City High School per agreement with neighbors.

“This field is going to go offline next spring,” Browand said. “It’s going to take a little time for us to consider lighting existing facilities that don’t have lights, that’s not going to be a short process, but we are looking at every avenue and we may resort to renting lights, because the need will change throughout the year.”

Options being considered are adding temporary lights at the Francis C. Hammond Middle School and Jefferson-Houston, both synthetic fields with ample parking, but no lights.

Browand said options will be presented to the Parks and Recreation Commission later this month.

“We’re going to have to get creative,” Browand said.

Photo via Google Maps

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Morning Notes

Man killed in Alexandria part of Fairfax County — “A man was found dead inside an Alexandria apartment building Wednesday night and police said detectives are investigating the death as a homicide. Fairfax County Police Sgt. Tara Gerhard with the Fairfax County Public Affairs Bureau said the shooting was reported just after 7 p.m. in 3100 block of Southgate Drive in Alexandria. Gerhard said a family member found the man with a gunshot wound to the upper body. When first responders arrived on the scene, medics pronounced him dead on the scene.” [WUSA9]

Help name new tunnel boring machine for Alexandria to build cleaner waterways — “Alexandria’s wastewater authority, is seeking the community’s input to name its 250-ton tunnel boring machine (TBM). The TBM, currently being manufactured in Schwanau, Germany, will bore through 100-foot-deep soil to construct the 12-foot-wide, 2-mile-long Waterfront Tunnel — ultimately preventing millions of gallons of combined sewage from polluting the Potomac River, Hooffs Run, and Hunting Creek.” [Zebra]

ACPS to give update on Minnie Howard expansion — “With the Alexandria High School Project in the design phase, the community will receive the latest design update on the Minnie Howard Campus and aquatic facility at an Aug. 10 meeting.” [Patch]

Today’s weather — “Partly cloudy early. Scattered thunderstorms developing in the afternoon. Storms could contain damaging winds. High around 90F. Winds S at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of rain 40%… Scattered thunderstorms in the evening. Clear skies overnight. Low 73F. Winds WSW at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of rain 40%.” [Weather.com]

New job: Closing assistant — “Universal Title, an established title company with over 20 offices throughout the VA-DC-MD area, is seeking a Closing Assistant for our Old Town Alexandria office. Industry experience is preferred, but no experience is necessary to apply. As a Closing Assistant, the successful applicant will need strong interpersonal skills, drive, and the ability to work as part of a team to accomplish complex tasks in a fast-paced environment.” [Indeed]

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Athlete on the T.C. Williams Swim and Dive Team (photo via T.C. Williams High School/Facebook)

Despite the unanimous vote of approval to install a new pool at the Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard campus, even the most positive of voices on City Council last night were lukewarm about how they got there.

The Council voted 7-0 in favor of setting aside $12 million in funding, down from $19 million proposed earlier, with Alexandria City Public Schools diverting some funding from a solar panel project.

Like a parent scolding his child for reckless spending, City Manager Mark Jinks warned that the pool proposal is coming in after the budget has already been approved.

“This is a project that is not in the CIP (Capital Improvement Program),” Jinks told Council. “When the School Board made its request, we all acknowledged that pool capacity needs to be expanded… my proposal is to renovate Chinquapin, change the depth of the pool, and shorten it slightly for the right competitive length.”

Jinks said this would allow the city government and ACPS to determine, at a later date, whether to put a pool in somewhere else with greater access — considering the proposed school would be just a few blocks away from the existing Chinquapin Park Recreation Center and Aquatics Facility (3210 King Street), the only other indoor aquatics center in the city.

Jinks also warned that diverting up-front funding from the solar panel projects and opting instead towards privatized sources of funding is a short term budget trick that doesn’t save money in the long term, because the business investing in those solar panels up-front will want that money back from output in the future.

“This is using money that was supposed to be used to buy solar panels and put that into the pot,” Jinks said. “It won’t save us money long-term. It’s a budget tactic that works in the short-term but doesn’t help long-term.”

ACPS would also, Jinks said, face an additional annual operating cost of $1-1.5 million and likely up to $5,000 in capital maintenance expenses. While some pools make some of that cost back in fees and being rented out for private events, Jinks says that complicates the idea that this pool is being funded with equity in mind.

Ultimately, the timing of Chinquapin’s announced closure for cleaning– from June 26-Sept. 6 — helped sway some on the City Council toward funding another pool. City Council member john Chapman said angry public emails have flooded in after the closure was announced.

“I do understand and do believe the city has a number of other priorities,” Chapman said. “If we are forced to push, we will push a pool out of the way like we have before. Whether revenues are down or another project that will require our more immediate attention… I’ve seen that be done. That’s what’s leaning me to support a pool. It’s not that this is the perfect thing. I’m not overly excited for the late addition… but I don’t see another tangible alternative to say ‘we’re not going to do one at Minnie Howard, but instead of that we’re going to do this.'”

Jinks said funding for the pool would come in large part from issuing general obligation bunds for a set amount of money, with the City putting its foot down and saying that’s as much as it will provide.

The move was met with praise from ACPS leadership.

“I am truly overjoyed and thankful with the unanimous vote from City Council to provide funding for the aquatics facility at the Minnie Howard Campus,” School Board member Jacinta Greene told ALXnow. “For far too long Alexandria’s aquatics facilities have not met the needs of our ACPS student athletes or the overall community. Now our swim teams will be able to practice and compete in their own regulation size pool and the community can benefit from an additional pool for aquatics activities.”

Photo via T.C. Williams High School/Facebook

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Some officials say that a last-minute proposal to add a pool to the Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard campus is long overdue.

While previously dismissed as prohibitively expensive, the total cost for the addition of the pool isn’t clear yet.

School Board chair Meagan Alderton said Monday night that the regulation-sized pool is long overdue for a school system that still has the hallmarks of racial disparity in its aquatic sports teams.

“We are, indeed, asking the city to provide additional dollars to provide this facility for the Minnie Howard site,” Alderton said at the joint City Council/School Board subcommittee meeting. “I find it hard to think there will be racial equity without investing dollars in communities that have historically been denied access… Consider it reparations for people of Color, because it’s long overdue. It has been so hurtful to watch and this School Board is ready.”

Beyond the actual cost of building the pool, it would cost ACPS $1.2 million in energy credits to keep the school at its Net Zero goals. The current total cost of the School Board’s chosen design for the school is $149.5 million.

The addition of the pool throws a slight wrench into budget process, as the City Council approved the School Board’s budget weeks ago. City Manager Mark Jinks said any proposal for more funding for the addition of a pool to the school would need to be given to the city by June 1.

Photo via ACPS

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School Board chair Meagan Alderton is pushing for the last-minute addition of an aquatics facility to the planned Alexandria City High School expansion, noting that the addition would help toward rectifying a longstanding racial disparity.

Alderton said Alexandria is guilty of the same nationwide disparity in swimming proficiency, with lack of access to pools for Black Americans creating disproportionately white aquatics sports teams. It’s a disparity Alderton said the city can start to push back against with a new pool at the Minnie Howard expansion planned as part of the high school overhaul.

“You only need to look at the swim team or crew team to know something isn’t right,” said Alderton. “These teams aren’t diverse and don’t represent he populations we serve. We need to be teaching Black and brown students how to swim. We need to be teaching elementary students how to swim. We need to be encouraging these students to participate in aquatics.”

Part of the challenge, though, is that the school request will be coming in late in the budget process, nearly a month after Alexandria’s City Council approved this year’s budget.

The pool had been included in earlier concept review, but hadn’t made the final cut for the budget process after analysis showed the pool would cost $1.2 million to offset the energy requirements of the pool keep the school at its Net Zero goals.

“Funding for pool is not in the School CIP,” said City Manager Mark Jinks. “That funding is not currently available. To change that, it would need to come forward as request from School Board to Council to change that number. That assumes that pool cannot be built for dollar amount set aside for Minnie Howard.”

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings said the schools would be moving forward with that request as soon as possible, saying a final decision would need to be made by the School Board sometime in the first week of June.

“Our design team asked for [a decision] by the beginning of June,” said Erika Gulick, director of capital programs. “We are already in the DSUP process. [The current] iteration currently includes a pool. Where Pre-K ends up going depends on the pool.”

ACPS staff said a they were aiming for a final decision at the June 9 School Board meeting, but Jinks said that’s too late. A submission from the School Board should come in no later than June 1.

While acknowledging the challenge of the late change, Alderton said if the city is committed to its goals of racial equity, it will find a way to make it happen.

“We are, indeed, asking the city to provide additional dollars to provide this facility for the Minnie Howard site,” Alderton said. “I find it hard to think there will be racial equity without investing dollars in communities that have historically been denied access… Consider it reparations for People of Color, because it’s long overdue. It has been so hurtful to watch and this school board is ready.”

Photo via T.C. Williams High School/Facebook

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