Despite a year of setbacks that included vocal community disagreement with Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, both from the community and within the school system, the School Board rallied around him and approved renewal of his contract.

The new contract renews Hutchings’ role in ACPS through June 30, 2025. During the discussion Thursday night, School Board members repeatedly praised his handling of the Coronavirus pandemic over the last year.

“I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge Dr. Hutchings,” said School Board member Michelle Rief. “He had to grapple with uncertainty of COVID and changing guidance from CDC… There’s no precedent or playbook on how to lead school division through global pandemic. Dr. Hutchings, you got us through this.”

Rief praised Hutchings’ work on helping to provide meals, laptops, and internet service for students who needed it.

“The past year has not been easy on anyone,” Rief said, “but we have made it to the end of the school year and are on a path to full reopening in the fall.”

The rest of the School Board more-or-less mirrored Rief’s comments, with some noting Hutchings’ present at the school as a relief from the school system’s frequent struggles with turnover.

“It’s easy to say in hindsight what this year could have or should have been,” said School Board member Veronica Nolan. “For context, this time last year, we were looking for eggs and toilet paper… I think it’s amazing what this team at ACPS has done together. That continuity is so important.”

Ramee Gentry noted that Hutchings’ tenure comes after a time when ACPS had three superintendents over five years. Another Superintendent was dumped by the School Board in 2007 in the wake of a DUI and rapidly increasing operations costs.

“ACPS has not had continuity [of leadership] for years,” Gentry said. “Turnover in superintendents leads to turnover in staff. When you do not have staff continuity, where they feel sure about where they are going, that ship isn’t going anywhere because it’s not steering in any direction.”

Hutchings’ faced his own turnover in staff — most notably the from former ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony who retired and published a damning letter about ACPS leadership in the Alexandria Times.

At the Board meeting, Hutchings passed the praise onto his staff.

“I need our community to know I am nothing without our team,” Hutchings said. “We are not able to accomplish anything in ACPS without our team. I am probably the most blessed superintendent in the world. I have people on my right, my left, my front my back. Our team comes together and we make it happen. We encourage each other and support each other. Thank you for continuously doing that on our behalf.”

Hutchings also thanked the board for their work over the last year, recalling individual memories and qualities of each Board Member.

“This is the best board that I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with several boards in the past eight years,” Hutchings said. “This board, when you talk about courage, boldness, vision, integrity, passion: that is exactly what we have here. I tell our staff that every opportunity we get how thankful we are to have that. This is a second contract for me in the place that made me who I am today. The ultimate gift in my life is this job. I appreciate that and I thank you all.”

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With the June 8 filing deadline, it’s confirmed that major changes are coming to the Alexandria School Board, as only three incumbents have filed to run for reelection.

Vice Chair Veronica Nolan is not seeking reelection in District B, and neither are Members Cindy M. Anderson and Margaret Lorber.

In fact, all of the candidates running for District B are fresh faces, and some of them are known in the community, including Tammy S. Ignacio, the lead administrator for specialized instruction at T.C. Williams High School, and former James K. Polk Elementary School principal PreeAnn Johnson.

The nine-member body is made up of three members from three districts. The new board will take over a school system that has been beset by controversy, including a slow easing of COVID restrictions, the renaming of T.C. Williams High School and recent elimination of the School Resource Officer program by City Council.

In District A, Board member Christopher Suarez is also not seeking reelection, and incumbents Michelle Rief and Jacinta Greene will face off against Former City Councilman Willie F. BaileyAloysius Boyle and D. Ohlandt.

School Board Chair Meagan Alderton is the lone incumbent running in District C, as Members Ramee Gentry and Heather Thornton did not file to run for reelection. Two other candidates — Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi and Christopher Harris are shoo-ins for the two vacant positions.

Election day is November 2.

District A candidates

District B candidates

District C candidates

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(Updated 6/3) In an election where former School Board member Bill Campbell is hoping to move to the City Council, former City Council member Willie Bailey is hoping to make the move in the other direction.

Bailey, an Army veteran and Deputy Chief of the Office of the Fire Marshal for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, was elected to the Alexandria City Council in 2015. Over the next three years, Bailey was one of the Council’s prominent advocates for greater emphasis on affordable housing and supporter of a controversial 1% increase to the city’s meals tax, and lost reelection in 2018.

Bailey is also locally known for some of his philanthropic work; as founder and president of Firefighters and Friends to the Rescue, a member of the Board of Trustees for Operation Warm, and a member of the Carpenter Shelter board and Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority.

Bailey said much of his non-profit work in Alexandria has focused on improving the lives of local children, and his first instinct in 2015 had been to run for the School Board before ultimately deciding to run for City Council.

Bailey said he will run in District A against Aloysius Boyle and incumbents Jacinta Greene and Michelle Rief, though no official paperwork has appeared on the registrar’s website.

Photo via IAFF Local 2141/Twitter

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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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Morning Notes

School Board vice chair condemns City Council elimination of School Resource Office program — “Without surveying the larger community, they made a decision that frankly their backgrounds don’t qualify them to understand the ramifications of their actions. It’s still puzzling, even after a 2.5-hour exchange by council, what problem council was trying to solve, as the SRO program has not only been highlighted to be a successful partnership, but also there was no evidence to suggest otherwise.” [Alex Times]

Investigative journalist Nick Horrock dies — “Perhaps the best example of his courage came in 1968 when he was trying to expose problems in the prison system. His head shaved, he went undercover as an inmate at the Maryland State Penitentiary. With only the warden and the governor aware of why he was truly there, there was no special protection from either the inmates or the guards. He survived unscathed, he wrote, he won accolades and prizes but he was awash in fear when he was doing it.” [Gazette]

Animal Welfare League ‘Cover the Cruiser’ event on Saturday in Del Ray — “Join us this Saturday from 10-2 to help us Cover the Cruiser! We’ll be out in front of The Dog Store in Del Ray along with @AlexandriaVAPD and @AlexVASheriff to cover their vehicles with donated pet supplies to help animals in need!” [Twitter]

Chamber ALX hosting City Council candidate meet-and-greet on June 1 — “The Alexandria Chamber of Commerce will gather members and friends for a “speed networking” type of event where Candidates for Alexandria City Council and Mayor will hop from virtual table to table to have micro conversations and targeted discussions with each group of attendees. Attendees will be seated by areas of interest to better focus the small group conversations.” [Chamber ALX]

Today’s weather — “Sunshine and clouds mixed. High 89F. N winds shifting to ESE at 10 to 15 mph… A few clouds. Low 56F. Winds SE at 10 to 15 mph.” [Weather.com]

New job: Entry level appointment setter — “We are hiring for individuals who have a background in either customer service, finance, or sales. If you are searching for a company that pays well, and takes care of all members, feel free to apply. We are looking to add 4 new members to our team. We fully train, so experience in our industry is not required. If you work hard and show that you are serious, we do have advancement opportunities. We truly care about helping our associates succeed and we have the tools.” [Indeed]

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(Updated at 4:30 p.m.) Only three sitting members of the Alexandria School Board have filed to run for reelection, and four newcomers have entered the race.

The last three years have been a contentious period, and the school system has been under intense scrutiny throughout the pandemic.

So far, only Board Chair Meagan Alderton (District C), Member Michelle Rief and Member Jacinta Greene (both in District A) have filed to run.

“It’s important to have ACPS parents like myself on the School Board because our families are the ones directly impacted by the board’s decisions,” Rief told ALXnow. “We need to return students to full in-person learning, fix old schools and build new ones to solve overcrowding, and provide consistent academic and mental health supports for students.”

Greene said that those incumbents who are running are resilient.

“It is extremely important to have continuity and experience on our school board,” she said. “We owe it to school system to continue to execute our strategic plan centered around providing an equitable education for all students.  I will continue to work tirelessly to make this happen.”

Board member Heather Thornton is on the fence.

“I have not yet made or announced a decision regarding running for reelection,” Thornton told ALXnow.

Board Member Margaret Lorber is not running for reelection.

“Just wanted to confirm that I’m not running for reelection to the school board,” Lorber said. “I had always planned to step down after two terms.”

Member Ramee Gentry is also not running.

“I am not running for reelection. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve Alexandria for six years,” Gentry said. “I’m pleased that some of my colleagues are running again. I believe that the most effective elected bodies are made up of returning and new members, because it ensures a mix of continuity and new perspectives.”

School Board Vice Chair Veronica Nolan and Board Members Cindy Anderson and Christopher Suarez have also not filed and did not respond to ALXnow’s questions. Suarez announced last month on Facebook that he is not seeking another term.

The nine-member body is made up of three members from three districts, and the new candidates include Deborah Ash, former ACPS Principal of the Year Preenann Johnson and Open ACPS! member Bridget Shea Westfall in District B, as well as Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi in District C.

That still leaves two open slots, and candidates have until June 8 to file. If not enough candidates file by the deadline, voters will have the option to write-in up to three candidates on election day in November.

Last month, Board members and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. participated in a retreat where institutional continuity was presented as a major issue. A majority of Board members want staggered terms, since all nine seats are up for grabs every three years, setting up the potential to push back the public school system for an extended period if a newly elected body is made up of new members.

The last election brought five new members to the Board — Suarez, Thornton, Greene, Rief and Alderton.

Mayor Justin Wilson says that institutional instability is a concern.

“Institutional instability is always a concern, whether for the City Council or the School Board,” Wilson said. “It takes a while to learn your role as an elected official and understand how to be effective. Hopefully we have good folks in the community willing to step up to serve. Our students need a strong, committed School Board.”

City Councilman John Taylor Chapman agreed.

“It takes time for everyone to get up to speed,” Chapman said. “It takes a couple years to understand who the players are and the nuts and bolts of the budget process.”

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The Alexandria City Council on Monday night effectively put an end to the School Resource Office program between the police department at Alexandria City Public Schools.

School resources officers (SROs), police officers stationed inside T.C. Williams High School, Francis Hammond Middle School and George Washington Middle School, will no longer have offices in those schools.

Council deliberated for more than two hours over City Councilman Mo Seifeldein’s proposal to reallocate $789,909 for SRO funding to add mental health resources to ACPS, support staff to the Teen Wellness Center, hire an additional Behavioral Health Specialist to the Alexandria Crisis Intervention CoResponding Program Pilot.

“This has been a public discussion, and I have not heard from a school board member telling me to go out in different direction, or they’re willing to engage me on this issue,” Seifeldein said. “I have to believe what they’ve shown. Actions speak louder than words.”

At issue was a last minute proposal by City Councilman John Taylor Chapman to put the funds in contingent reserve, during a period that ACPS would meet certain benchmarks. Chapman’s proposal included asking ACPS to deliver a plan on working with the police department and private security on school grounds. The proposal died after not being able to get the support of four members of Council.

The decision comes after a contentious period of social unrest throughout the city.

“As a student I urge you to listen to us and place funds in mental health resources,” Sesen Tesfay, a T.C. Williams High School senior, told Council. “That would help our well being and bring much relief for my peers, families and community. We need you to prioritize something beneficial and not contribute to towards barriers we have been advocating on this issue for a very long time now and we are counting on your leadership to make a wise decision for us, the students.”

Seifeldein’s proposal also has the support of Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Councilman John Taylor Chapman and Councilman Canek Aguirre – enough to pass in Wednesday night’s budget adoption meeting. The proposal requires an implementation plan from police and ACPS, which will be presented to Council by July.

“I’ve always been of the mindset that the police officers don’t have to be on campus to be able to still efficiently do what they’re doing,” Aguirre said. “Most everything that they’re doing, whether it’s the soccer program or they’re talking with kids during school at lunchtime or during a dismissal or arrival, they can still do that without being housed on campus.”

Last month, School Board members asked City Council to respect their decision on SROS after its bi-annual memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed with the police department.

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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was in Alexandria Wednesday, and with Mayor Justin Wilson welcomed U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School.

Northam stopped by Pacers Running at 1301 King Street before the event with Cardona, where he met Wilson and spoke with employees about raising the minimum wage. Pacers has been paying its employees $15 an hour since last year.

“The $15 an hour is definitely better for morale,” Pacers manager Victoria Sanchez said. “We want to have our employees want to stay and to want to come to work every day and be able to afford, living in the area as well.”

Starting May 1, Virginia’s minimum wage will increase to $9.50 per hour, and then to $11 per hour starting Jan. 1, 2022, to $12 in 2023 and then $15 per hour in January 2026.

Northam then met with Cardona, Wilson, National Education Association of the United States President Becky Pringle and Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane at Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School.

Cardona was at the school as part of his “Help is Here” school reopening tour. Also in attendance were Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. and School Board Chair Meagan Alderton.

“It was an honor to welcome Secretary Cardona, the Governor, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the President of the NEA and more to Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School,” Wilson said. “Secretary Cardona pledged continuing support from the Administration as we continue efforts to return students to in-classroom instruction and provide supports for our kids during this time.”

As part of the tour, which launched in March, Cardona has visited schools around the country that have successfully reopened, as well as schools facing reopening challenges.

Images via Jason Taylor and ACPS/Twitter

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Surrounded by about 100 other protestors outside of Alexandria City Public Schools’ Central Office, Kathryn Grassmeyer started to cry.

The mother of three wants schools to reopen to four or five days a week, and got emotional when talking about some of the difficult choices she and her husband have made regarding their children’s education.

“It puts parents in a horrible situation,” Grassmeyer said. “I had to choose which child needed to be in school more, so we went to a private school for one of them, and my other child is home every day, and then I have a toddler at home.”

The Monday evening rally was organized by the Open ACPS! group and coincided with the joint City Council/School Board Subcommittee meeting.

In that meeting Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. did not announce any change in his plan to keep two days per week of in-person hybrid instruction for students for the remainder of the year.

“There will not be a hybrid model over summer or in the fall,” Hutchings said. “We’re continuing to solidify efforts… to transition as many students as we can into classrooms over the next few weeks.”

ACPS is also requesting access to some recreational centers adjacent to schools to set up as temporary classroom spaces. While the required distance between desks in classrooms has gone down to three feet, there are still pandemic restrictions that ACPS says will require more space than some of the schools have.

Since the pandemic began, 16,000 ACPS students have alternated between completely virtual and two days per week of hybrid instruction. In the meantime, neighboring Fairfax County Public Schools are operating four days per week of in-person instruction, and Falls Church City Public Schools expanded in-person offerings to five days a week.

Erika Melman says it’s not too late to get her two children back to four days per week of in-person instruction.

“They’re just moving too slowly,” Melman said. “The year’s not over.”

While the hybrid model — where students attend both in-person and virtual classes — won’t be sticking around, schools will still be divided between between students who are in classes in-person and those attending virtually. Hutchings said students will be in either virtual or in-person classes, depending on what they state as their preference, but not both the way they are now.

Hutchings said there will be some flexibility for parents who start virtually to switch to in-person classes, but said the school will be up-front with parents that changing from one to the other will involve changing schedules and changing teachers. Over the summer, all students will be offered four-day-per-week of summer learning programs.

“We will have in-person and virtual open for all students,” Hutchings said. “We’re going to be targeting students who need to be in-person for summer.”

One advantage of using facilities adjacent to schools, staff said, will be that the schools won’t need to utilize transportation options like DASH bus.

“We’re scheduling walkthroughs next week of the spaces and looking at what we’d have to modify,” said Alicia Hart, director of educational facilities for ACPS. “Nothing permanent, because their primary use is as recreational space. [But] we’re looking at how many desks we’ll need, how much furniture. From a timeline perspective, we know we have a short window to make these modifications.”

That window is even shorter than it typically is, as Hutchings noted that this is the first year that school will be starting in August rather than September. Hutchings said it will be important to get parents all the information they need well in advance of school starting to allow them time to make a decision.

“It’s not binding, but we need to know what families are going to do,” Hutchings said. “We can’t wait until August for that. It’s important for families to give us some idea of what they’re going to do, and why we need to make sure families know the implications.”

Parent Hakan Ozsancak said that there has been an erosion of trust with the school system.

“We believe in science, but over the last year we’ve tried to have a better dialogue, and we’ve just been looked at as parents who are just pushing for the kids to get out of the house,” Ozsancak said. “We’re not crazies, you know.”

Vernon Miles and James Cullum contributed to this report

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The day has finally come for Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

On Monday, members of the community and Alexandria City Public Schools leadership watched as a demolition crew started tearing down the World War II-era building.

Lisa Porter lives across the street from MacArthur, and watched the demolition from her front yard with a group of neighbors. Porter’s two children went through MacArthur, and she has been involved with the school for 15 years.

“We are thrilled to finally see this happen,” Porter said. “We started hearing about this when my son was in kindergarten, and now he’s in college.”

School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said she would never forget making the “emotional” decision on MacArthur’s fate.

“Man, oh man, was it worth it,” Alderton said. “Because we are moving forward, we are excited. And I can’t wait to have this brand new building and have our teachers and our staff and our families be allowed to have what they deserve. It’ll be amazing when this place is a memory and we have new building up here.”

ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., said construction is on schedule to reopen the school in Jan. 2023. In the meantime, MacArthur students are using the old Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space.

“I’m sorry that our students and our families were not able to be here because of the COVID restrictions,” Hutchings said. “But this was a wonderful occasion. It was a long time coming and we’re so excited for the next chapter of Douglas MacArthur.”

Design-wise, MacArthur’s three-level “Forest” plan was chosen last year. It is currently set back from Janneys Lane, putting classrooms at the rear of the building and providing a view of nearby Forest Park.

City Councilwoman Amy Jackson was also there. Last month, Jackson made an impassioned plea for movement on construction.

“I’m very excited,” she said. “The community engagement has been amazing. It’s going to be an exciting time for an exciting school.”

MacArthur Principal Penny Hairston said that the demolition was a long time coming.

“There is a rich legacy here, and this is very exciting,” Hairston said. “It’s a very emotional thing to see this happen.”

https://twitter.com/DMPrincipal/status/1386676161313378305?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Etweet

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