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School buses on W. Braddock Road on Dec. 10, 2021 (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria has started identifying pedestrian safety improvements around Alexandria City High School and a number of other school campuses.

Staff with the city’s Department of Transportation & Environmental Services are creating “walk audits” with available for public review in a final report by next June.

The walk audits will be conducted at both campuses of Alexandria City High School, George Washington and Francis C. Hammond Middle Schools, and at the city’s newest school — Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School.

“We will be coordinating with the school communities for each of those schools,” said Bryan Hayes, the City’s Complete Streets coordinator. “That’s the principals, teachers, parents, the students… to help identify things that make it challenging or unsafe for students to walk or bike to school.”

It’s all part of Alexandria’s Complete Streets and Safe Routes To School programs, which are devoted to making infrastructure improvements like adding new sidewalks, enhancing crossings and traffic calming.

Five years ago, the City identified 250 transportation improvement recommendations at 13 elementary schools. The city has completed about half of those recommended projects, according to the Department.

Staff will gather data through this winter and spring. To develop recommendations, the Department will have a small team of city staff, consultants, school representatives, and others to observe students walking to schools.

Making the improvements will be a multi-year process, said Alex Carrol, program manager of the City’s Complete Streets project.

“We’ve we’ve tackled a lot of the low hanging fruit in the recommendations,” said Carrol. “These were always intended to be multi-year efforts. I don’t have a specific timeline for when we expect all of the recommendations to be completed, but it is going to be a multi year process.”

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Alexandria City Public Schools officials say that their strategies to make school safer are working, although it will take time to tell if they’re right.

Flanked by city, school and police officials, interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt said at a student safety forum on Wednesday night that crime incidents are down this school year.

Kay-Wyatt didn’t present data to back up the claim that schools are safer, but said that it’s because of a new identification requirement for students and staff at Alexandria City High School, staggering dismissal times, designating entrances for students and staff at schools, and providing all ACPS students with a mandatory 30 minutes of daily Social and Emotional Learning (SEAL) time.

“While we see that incidents are down, I remain very hopeful,” Kay-Wyatt said. “I believe that it’s (due to) of some of those SEAL lessons that are in place and other supports that we put in place throughout the school year to make sure that we are supporting families and students.”

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, in fact, using the 2021-2022 school year as a baseline for future improvement.

Transportation-wise, the city recently approved the installation of speed cameras in five school zones, as well as reducing speed limits in school zones to 15 miles per hour. The city is also working on walk audits for potential pedestrian improvements on roadways near Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School, George Washington and Francis C. Hammond Middle Schools, and both ACHS campuses.

By December, Kay-Wyatt will also receive recommendations on a reimagined partnership between ACPS and the police department, the latter of which provides school resource officers to the high school and the city’s middle schools. In the meantime, a proposal will be presented to the School Board to continue the SRO program as it stands until the end of the school year.

“Last year was very challenging, extremely challenging,” John Contreras, ACPS Director of Safety and Security Services, said at the forum. “It was a very challenging year and this year is a bit calmer.”

Contreras also did not present any safety data on this school year.

While the school system might feels safer, it will take time to collect the data to really see what’s working, said School Board Member Abdel Elnoubi, who attended the meeting as an audience member.

“You’ve got to give it time,” Elnoubi said.

One high school student at the event said that SEAL lessons aren’t working, and that the information being presented to the community is being “sugar-coated.”

“They have us do community circles to share our emotions, but it’s high schoolers,” another student said. “Nobody want to talk about how they feel. It’s just an awkward experience.”

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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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As has become a tradition at every major holiday where drinking is involved, Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP) is offering free Lyft rides during the Halloween weekend.

the 2022 Halloween SoberRide program will be in effect from 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 29, until 4 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 30.

“[SoberRide is] a way to keep local roads safe from impaired drivers during this traditionally high-risk period,” WRAP explained in a release. “During this twelve-hour period, area residents age 21 and older celebrating with alcohol may download the Lyft app to their phones, then enter the SoberRide code in the app’s ‘Payment’ tab (under the ‘Add Lyft Pass’ option) to receive their no-cost (up to $15) safe transportation home.”

The code will be posted at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 29, at the SoberRide website.

“Nearly half of U.S. traffic fatalities during Halloween involve drunk drivers according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” Kurt Erickson, WRAP’s President, said in a release. “Halloween is of particular concern for younger drivers as 2020 NHTSA data shows that 68% of drunk driving deaths on U.S. roadways during the fall holiday involve drivers ages 21 to 34.”

WRAP reported that last year, 777 people in the region used the SoberRdie program on Halloween rather than drive home impaired.

The program is available in:

  • D.C.
  • Alexandria
  • Arlington
  • Fairfax
  • Loudoun
  • Falls Church
  • Manassas
  • Prince William
  • Montgomery County
  • Prince George’s County
  • Bowie
  • College Park
  • District Heights
  • Gaithersburg
  • Glenarden
  • Greenbelt
  • Hyattsville
  • Laurel
  • Mount Ranier
  • New Carrollton
  • Rockville
  • Seat Pleasant
  • Takoma Park

WRAP also offers the program on St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Independence Day and the winter holidays.

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In an update (page 7) prepared for a Transportation Commission meeting tomorrow night, staff outlined some of the progress made in the Complete Streets program along with a look at what’s ahead for some of the city’s most popular trails.

One of the biggest items is progress on the long-awaited Holmes Run Trail Repairs. Portions of the trail have been closed since flooding in 2019 destroyed much of the creek-adjacent infrastructure. The report for the Transportation Commission outlined what’s ahead for those repairs. Parts of that trail, the report said, could be completed by next spring.

“Design for the bridge at 4600 Duke Street is complete, and the City is in the process of awarding a contract for construction,” the report said. “Construction for this part of the project is expected to be complete by Spring 2023.”

Three other sections of Holmes Run Trail are still at the 60% design stage, the report said. The design is expected to be completed next February.

Elsewhere, the city is working on installing a shared-use path along Old Cameron Run Trail — which runs on the Alexandria side of Hunting Creek between Alexandria and Fairfax — between South Payne Street and Hooffs Run Drive.

“This project is currently at the 60% design stage,” the report said. “The City and its consultants are currently developing right-of-way plans to inform land dedications and/or easements that will be needed. This project is expected to begin construction in 2025 or 2026, after the RiverRenew project, which involves construction activity in the trail area, is completed.”

Another shared-use path will be added to North Beauregard Street in the West End between Fillmore Avenue and Berkeley Street.

“This project is currently at the 60% design stage,” the report said. “Design is expected to be complete in 2023.”

Lastly, the city is working on making some improvements to the Mount Vernon Trail, including some widening to allow for two-way bicycle traffic.

“This project will expand the existing Mount Vernon Trail north of East Abingdon Drive, where the trail is currently too narrow for two-way bicycle traffic,” the report said. “Design is currently at the 30% stage.”

Staff said this summer, the city worked on making some improvements on routes to John Adams Elementary School with the Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) program.

“This summer, staff implemented the Rayburn and Reading Avenue Complete Streets Project,” the report said. “This project involved the completion of 14 SRTS recommendations for John Adams Elementary School. Improvements included the installation of new crosswalks, ADA curb ramps, median refuge areas, sidewalk connections, and pedestrian signage.”

Meanwhile, city staff have started working on similar plans around William Ramsay Elementary School, with design expected to start this fiscal year.

“Ramsay has 11 SRTS recommendations, only one of which has been completed to date,” the report said. “Construction is expected to take place next fiscal year.”

Along with the school-specific programs, city staff is working on curb extensions at multiple schools.

The Transportation Commission is scheduled for tomorrow (Wednesday) at 7 p.m. in the City Council workroom at City Hall (301 King Street).

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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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The scene of a crash outside Jefferson Houston Elementary School, March 29, 2022. (staff photo by James Cullum)

Things are about to slow down in school zones.

The Alexandria School Board on Thursday (October 6) unanimously approved a resolution requesting a reduction from 25 miles per hour to 15 mph in school zones.

“We are really making our students and our community safe,” said Board Member Abdel Elnoubi, who wrote the resolution. “We’re helping save lives here.”

The resolution now goes to City Council for approval.

The following school zones have 25 mph speed limits:

  • N. Beauregard Street — Outside the John Adams Elementary School, William Ramsay Elementary School and Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School zones
  • Braddock Road from N. Beauregard Street to Quaker Lane — Outside Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard Campus school zone
  • Seminary Road (Kenmore Avenue to N. Pickett Street) — In the Francis C. Hammond Middle School zone
  • King Street — Alexandria City High School’s school zone

City Council will also review a plan to install Alexandria’s first speed cameras in school zones later this month.

The conversation over a speed limit reduction and cameras installation began after a nine-year-old girl was hit by a car and seriously injured just outside Jefferson-Houston Elementary School in March.

The scene of a crash outside Jefferson Houston Elementary School, March 29, 2022. (staff photo by James Cullum)
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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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Alexandria City Public Schools is has a “crew” problem — organized groups of kids that are participating in criminal behavior, according to Police Chief Don Hayes.

If the description sounds like a gang, there’s not much difference. Hayes says that the school system is also dealing with gang activity.

“We have gangs, and we also have groups called crews with young males going around and just doing violent acts, but also just instigating crimes, things like that,” Hayes said on Monday night (September 26) at Agenda Alexandria‘s discussion on school safety. “We know that they are not just in our school system, but our neighborhoods.”

In the meantime, ACPS is also contending with an opioid crisis. Between April 1 and May 1, there were six opioid overdoses of minors in Alexandria. Each ACPS school carries has the prescription medicine Narcan, which can reverse an opioid overdose through injection or intranasal mist.

“I would say we do have a fentanyl crisis in the city, as evidenced by the opioid workgroup,” said Julie Crawford, the ACPS chief of Student Services and Equity. “It’s challenging as a school system to be able to identify the exact substance without getting the information from our students. But we know that many things that students may think are not as harmful, like marijuana, which of course we know is harmful, we don’t want our students using is more likely to be laced with fentanyl.”

Safety in schools has been a top issue in Alexandria 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. What followed was an uptick in incidents with weapons in schools that prompted School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and former Superintendent Gregory Hutchings to plead for their return in October 2021.

The discussion, which was moderated by Alexandria journalist Michael Lee Pope, comes on the heels of a new safety report detailing arrest and security incidents in the final two quarters of the 2021-2022 school year. There were 46 students arrested and 68 injured last school year, and 194 incidents that provoked a police response, according to the report. The school system will now begin compiling the data on a more regular basis, using the 2021-2022 school year as a baseline for future improvement.

Hayes said that the police presence of school resource officers at Alexandria City High School’s campuses and at the city’s middle schools has resulted in a safer beginning to the school year than last year.

“I believe that here are going to be incidents that are going to happen but I believe that because of partnerships that we’ve developed there, because of our presence there, because of extra security specifically for the high school,” Hayes said. “I know for a fact this year has been less eventful than the past two years, and even before the pandemic happened, and I think it’s getting to a point now where we are looking better.”

Herb Berg, the ACPS superintendent from 1995 to 2001, said that the pandemic created a crisis of education within Alexandria’s school system.

“We have 15,700 kids who lost two years of education,” Berg said. “That is a crisis of huge magnitude… I think the city council and the mayor needs to be asking for a meeting with the City School Board, and the superintendent and best minds in the city to put their arms around this issue. These kids have lost an education, and you’re not going to be able to make it if you don’t make it the number one priority.”

The School Board is set to receive the recommendations on the reimagined partnership between ACPS and the police department with a recommendation from the Superintendent’s School Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) Advisory Group in mid-December.

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