Bridget Shea Westfall says she’s not a status quo kind of person. Westfall, the parent of a second grader at Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School, also calls her son her hero.
“My son was my hero during the pandemic, and he just had to do a lot of adult things,” Westfall told ALXnow, fighting back tears. “He had to be very resilient, brave and strong and use executive functioning skills that most adults haven’t mastered in their professional and personal lives. But my son said to me, ‘Mom, you should do it. You should. You should run.'”
The Alexandria District B School Board candidate also says that her career advising boards and managing billions in federal grants for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services qualifies her in understanding how to navigate the complexities of a school system with more than 15,000 students.
Westfall is also one of the eight moderators for the Open ACPS! (Alexandria City Public Schools.) We want a CHOICE! Facebook page, which has severely criticized ACPS for its handling of the pandemic.
She faces six other candidates for the three open slots on the nine-person Board: Deborah Ash, Kelly Carmichael Booz, Ashley Simpson Baird, Tammy S. Ignacio, PreeAnn Johnson and Ricardo Roberts. She says she was inspired to run when all of the incumbents in her district decided to not run for reelection.
“It’s a decision that I didn’t take lightly,” Westfall said of deciding to run for office. “When I heard that none of the incumbents were running in district B, it kind of piqued my interest.”
Westfall gives the school system a 5 out of 10 for its performance since last year, and says students should have been moved back to full-time instruction sooner than the beginning of this school year, August 24.
“I think that ACPS had everyone’s best intentions in mind, but there were opportunities when the community spread was low, the weather was nicer to bring students back or to bring certain certain groups of students back, like kids with disabilities in particular,” she said. “For me, the main thing was the communication. I know that not everyone felt safe to come back to school. But I think that there were opportunities for those kids who needed in-person learning to come back to school.”
Professionally, Westfall is the supervisory grants management officer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration for Children & Families. In that role, she manages grant specialists and oversees $9 billion in discretionary grant funding for underserved communities across the country.
“I spent my entire professional career advising boards,” she said. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, you’re not an insider, you’re not experienced.’ I have a lot of external experience. I didn’t have to go the PTA route… I’m considered an expert in working with boards on problem solving tasks.”
A native of St Louis, Missouri, Westfall graduated with a Master’s in social work from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and a Bachelor’s in the arts from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Her campaign platform uses the ACPS acronym:
Accountability through Transparent Decisions & Communications
Challenge Capacity through Smart Growth & Development of ACPS Facilities
Plan for Pandemic Recovery
Support Safe and Successful Schools
Westfall also says ACPS needs to more regularly post online agendas for upcoming School Board meetings.
“I advocate that the board materials need to be provided at least a week in advance of the (School Board) meetings,” she said.
Westfall is against the colocation of affordable housing on school grounds, although supports that colocating schools with City resources like recreation centers and health centers. She also said that the initial City Council decision defunding school resource officers was made without data, and that it went against the wishes of the school system.
“There was not a lot of community input into that decision making process,” Westfall said. “And I think that happened because we’re in a pandemic.”
Election day is November 2.
This week saw possibly the most contentious meeting between the City Council and School Board in years for a debate over School Resources Officers that ultimately culminated in the Council voting to temporarily restore the program. The reversal has been advocated by school officials and some parents, but was lamented by advocacy group Tenants and Workers United that saw it as a step-backward for racial justice.
The following day, ACPS was also hit with lockdowns at Alexandria City High School’s King Street and Minnie Howard campuses and Hammond Middle School, though police later said initial calls about a school shooting were unfounded. At the same time, a gas leak near Potomac Yard led to two homes being evacuated and the temporary closure of Richmond Highway.
Here are this week’s most-read stories.
- Man injured and juvenile arrested after fight at the McDonald’s in Bradlee Shopping Center
- In dramatic reversal, City Council brings back school resource officers to Alexandria City Public Schools
- Planned bus rapid transit route from Alexandria to Tysons rolls ahead
- Alexandria City High School on lockdown after anonymous threat
- Police: Call about shooting at Hammond Middle School unfounded
- City rethinks waterfront flood mitigation plans after seeing the price tag
- Tenants and Workers United upset by City Council restoration of school resource officer program
- City Council to consider swapping parking for ‘parklets’
- Man attempts to steal $1,850 in merchandise from Restaurant Depot with discarded receipt
- Project crowdsourcing Alexandria history aims to go nationwide next year
School Board forum yields big turnout from District B constituents — “Alexandria City School Board candidates gathered in the second of two virtual forums last weekend to prepare for the Nov. 2 general election.” [Alexandria Times]
The Chamber ALX is hosting a wine and chocolate get-together for local businesswomen — “We’re excited to be back in person for our annual Evening of Perfect Pairings: Wine + Chocolate, Women + Business event! Join us in the beautiful back (heated) garden of Sonoma Cellar for a curated wine tasting/food pairing, networking and celebration of the year.” [The Chamber ALX]
City of Alexandria observes bullying prevention month — “In recognition of National Bullying Prevention Month in October, the Mayor’s Campaign to End Bullying encourages Alexandrians to learn more about bullying, what to do about it and how to prevent it.” [City of Alexandria]
Caribbean-Spiced soul food coming to Springfield — “Caribbean-leaning soul food spot KitchenCray opened its first Virginia location over the weekend, taking over the former Walker’s Grille space at 6909 Metro Park Drive…” [Eater DC]
After significant outcry from a school system concerned about weapons in schools, the Alexandria City Council took a dramatic 4-3 vote around 1 a.m. this morning (Wednesday) to temporarily return school resource officers (SROs) to two middle schools and Alexandria City High School until the end of this school year.
Councilman John Taylor Chapman was the lone vote to reverse course, going against Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and Councilmen Canek Aguirre and Mo Seifeldein, who voted to keep away SROs.
“I’ve seen the smile of kids that do not fear adults in school, whether that’s law enforcement or not, and that’s what we can do,” Chapman said. “I would challenge all of us to see that future and make that change.”
SROs are police officers assigned to Alexandria’s high school and middle schools. The program started in 1997. Unlike security staff, which remain at the schools, SROs carry weapons and can fulfill the regular duties of a police officer. The SRO program has been under scrutiny for years, particularly after an officer fired his weapon in George Washington Middle School, but the push to remove police officers from schools ramped up after nationwide protests against police brutality last year.
School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. said that the school year so far has been punctuated by violent incidents, including a recent shooting of a student at the McDonald’s at the Bradlee Shopping Center, a student being arrested with a gun on ACHS grounds, a student being arrested with a knife at ACHS, a firecracker incident that led to the evacuation of a football game, brawls inside ACHS and George Washington Middle School and more.
“Fighting is really not the reason why we need school resource officers in our school buildings,” Hutchings said. “We are not trained to deal with guns or violence or gang initiation, or things of that nature in our school buildings.”
Alexandria City High School Executive Principal Peter Balas begged Council to bring back SROs, and said that students are literally sending warning shots. He also said that gang initiations with fighting are taking place. Balas said that many of his 4,370 students have been traumatized by the pandemic and social/political upheavals over the last couple of years.
“Our students are sending us warning shots, literal warning shots,” Balas said. “My staff, the students, we’re not okay.”
I have never seen anything like this.
— Peter Balas (@PrincipalTitan) October 13, 2021
City Councilman Mo Seifeldein introduced the measure in May, redirecting $800,000 from the SRO program toward student mental health resources. Seifeldein said he was heartbroken by Council’s latest decision.
“I am truly heartbroken, I think for the first time, about a discussion in our city,” Seifeldein said. “I cannot emphasize enough how sensitive this discussion is, and the way this has been discussed… has not been the best way of presenting it to the public. I am heartbroken, but I am looking forward to the path my colleagues have worked so hard on charting.”
Councilman Canek Aguirre acknowledged that Council’s May decision was messy and that he was dismayed and frustrated by the position. Aguirre wanted more data from the school system to show a direct correlation between the SROs being gone and an increase in violence, and said that it can also be the result of a shared school-wide lunch period at ACHS, a staffing shortage and security officers not doing their jobs.
“My issue here is that you are trying to draw a direct correlation between the removal of SROs and everything else that’s been going on,” Aguirre said.
Aguirre said much of the blame for how the situation ended up lay on the School Board, which he accused of not properly planning for the removal of SROs.
“I’m dismayed and frustrated that we’re even in this position,” Aguirre said. “Schools knew that with the new lunch period and everything that was going to happen we were going to have problems. Instead of getting new bodies into the building, they decided to pay for overtime for police officers, which is time and a half. Instead of coming to Council and saying, ‘You guys made your decision, we really need these additional bodies, we’re having trouble finding the money now before the school year starts,’ I would have said ‘Yes, 100%. City manager, get that money ready.'”
Councilwoman Amy Jackson said she’s been calling for the reinstatement of SROs since the defunding decision was made in May.
“[The schools] have asked for help and it is our job to help,” Jackson said.
The decision to restore SROs to schools came near the end of a six-hour City Council meeting, where the SRO decision took up much of the discussion. The meeting also laid bare tensions not just between the City Council and the School Board, but between various members of the City Council. When Hutchings said he would go back and rewatch the discussion, Mayor Justin Wilson urged him not to waste his time.
“I’ve been up here 11 years I can’t think of a bigger waste of my time than the last three hours,” Wilson said. “I thought we were going to have a productive conversation about how we move forward in our community about a problem we’re hearing about from far too many people in our community about, frankly on both sides of the SRO decision. We had a discussion where we’re all trying to score points on an issue decided in the spring. I’m sorry that we had to do this, quite honestly.”
Wilson called the process “horrific” and shames the city’s leadership.
“This is not the way we collaborate with another elected body,” Wilson said. “This is not the way we collaborate with staff, this is not the way we collaborate with the police. This sucks. What person would watch this meeting tonight and say ‘this is the school system I want to send my schools to’ that’s governed by this relationship? This is horrible. This is absolutely horrible.”
Vernon Miles contributed to this story
New gift shop in Old Town helps people with disabilities — “B.E.S.T stands for ‘Building Employment Solutions Together’ and is a collaboration between the Joey Pizzano Memorial Fund (JPMF) and ServiceSource to provide meaningful employment for people with disabilities.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]
Alexandria wins housing policy leadership awards — “Affordable and workforce housing policies and programs put in place by the governments of Alexandria, Virginia, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, have been selected as joint winners of the 2021 Urban Land Institute Robert C. Larson Housing Policy Leadership Awards.” [Urbanland]
Best Pumpkin patches around Alexandria-area — “Cooler fall days are quickly approaching in the Greater Alexandria area, which means it’s time to start planning your family’s yearly trek to the country to find the best pumpkins.” [Patch]
School Board forum tonight — “PTAC will host a virtual School Board Candidate Forum at 7:00 PM on October 13, 2021. Come hear from each of the school board candidates.” [PTAC]
D1 Training opens new Alexandria location — “D1 Training, a sports training franchise for all ages, finally opened its Alexandria doors. On October 11, at 6550 Little River Turnpike, children and parents and divas and mascots reveled in the grand reveal.” [Zebra]
Kelly Carmichael Booz says experience matters, as the former Alexandria School Board member has thrown her hat in the ring to reclaim her former District B seat.
“I don’t think we can afford as a school district after this last year-and-a-half to have a board that doesn’t have experience coming to the table,” Booz told ALXnow in an interview. “If I’m elected and if the Alexandria citizens from District B support me, I can start on day one running with and understanding of the process.”
Booz, who served on the Board from 2012-2015, lost her reelection. For her day job, she’s the director of two digital learning sites for the American Federation of Teachers, producing professional development and lesson content to 1.8 million educators around the country.
“During the pandemic, I also started thinking about running because I saw lots of conversations happening with the School Board in trying to get students and schools reopened,” she said. “I mean, this was a challenge. This was a no-win situation.”
Booz said she also struggled last year by working at home with her husband and two children. She says that she essentially became a virtual class assistant for her daughter’s second grade class at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, even going so far as to train the now-retired teacher how to operate Zoom. She also paid for her daughter to learn in a pod with other second grade girls and for her son to attend kindergarten at a daycare center in the city.
“I bring being a mother to the table,” she said. “I bring the experience of totally understanding how difficult and challenging it was to do virtual learning at home. I bring the experience of understanding the whole digital landscape, because it’s what I do for a living. And, you know, I think combined with my experience of serving on the School Board, I’m in a good position to really help make sure that we’re focused on learning, recovery, and social and emotional recovery.”
The pool of District B candidates is a little crowded. Booz faces six other candidates for the three open slots: Deborah Ash, Ashley Simpson Baird, Tammy S. Ignacio, PreeAnn Johnson, Bridget Shea Westfall and Ricardo Roberts.
Booz says Alexandria City Public Schools should have opened sooner to full-time instruction than on August 24 this year.
“I would say it took me at least year-and-a-half to really understanding the ACPS process,” Booz said, recalling how long it took for her to get used to the position after being elected in 2012. “I can’t imagine serving during a pandemic. That said, we’ve seen countless examples across the country where schools were able to get some more younger children back into schools successfully.”
Critical of superintendent
“He’s a nice guy, and his heart is absolutely in the right place for our community,” Booz said of Hutchings. “I think he’s had an impossible job. There are things that I have agreed with what he’s done, there’s things that I have did not agree with what he what he has done, or I would have liked to have seen some better communication happening.”
Booz said Hutchings brought the community together for the renaming efforts — and that she wished the same level of communication was made last year regarding the pandemic.
“(Hutchings) had these kind of sprint cycles and would basically say that, ‘We’re going to put something in place and we’re not gonna even revisit this conversation for another four weeks or five weeks,'” Booz said.
Booz is also against the colocation of affordable housing on school grounds.
“Housing does not belong on school property,” she said. “I would never support that, even if it’s housing for teachers. If we need to find some other location for teachers, let’s do it, but not on school property.”
Booz also supports having school resource officers in ACPS.
“When you have three head principals of three large schools saying that we need SROs in our schools, you’ve got to listen to your leadership,” she said. “We hire them for a reason. You gotta trust your leaders. If they’re saying we need it, then I need to trust that they’re saying that we need it.”
Booz and all of the other candidates running for the School Board will appear at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in a virtual candidate forum.
Election day is Tuesday, November 2.
It was a busy fall week in Alexandria. Here’s the rundown.
Our top story this week was on a plan to completely close off the 100 block of King Street as a pedestrian-only zone. The plan has been in the works since 2019, and was put into action last year. ALXnow’s poll on the subject had very one-sided results, showing 91% (791 votes) in favor of a permanent change.
There was a momentous groundbreaking this week, as city leaders converged for the $454.4 million RiverRenew Tunnel Project. The project is a major overhaul to replace Old Town’s combined sewer system and prevent 120 million gallons of combined sewage from flowing into the Potomac River.
School violence has become a major issue in Alexandria, as videos of fights at schools are surfacing on the internet, there have been arrests at Alexandria City Public Schools, and protests in front of City Hall on Monday and Tuesday this week.
As for the Alexandria juvenile who was shot in the upper body at the McDonald’s in the Bradlee Shopping Center last week, police say that there have been no arrests yet.
- AlexRenew breaks ground for massive Old Town RiverRenew project
- BREAKING: A bunch of student fights were recorded at George Washington Middle School and put on Instagram
- Last year’s Alexandria City High School class had the highest graduation rate and the lowest student dropout rate ever
- Union says low staffing within Alexandria Fire Department threatens to shut down a fire station
- Upcoming Alexandria City Council and School Board election forums announced
- School Board Chair Meagan Alderton says ACPS leadership will be challenged by high Board turnover
- First apartment building in massive Carlyle Crossing redevelopment starts pre-leasing
- DASH and city leaders celebrate launch of bus system overhaul
- Alexandria starts distributing COVID-19 booster shots
- City Manager lays out plan to push back on evictions in Alexandria
- City looks to permanently ‘pedestrianize’ a block of King Street
- UPDATE: Alexandria man charged with homicide after stabbing at BJ’s Wholesale Club in Landmark area
- Total Wine is taking shape in Potomac Yard
- ALXnow’s top stories this week in Alexandria
- Man buys luxury car with fake driver’s license at Lindsay Lexus of Alexandria
- Protestors rally to return police to Alexandria schools, but officials say behind-the-scenes talks have stalled
- Man arrested for posting lewd photos of Alexandria stepsister on Twitter
- Firecracker shuts down Alexandria City High School football game
- Adoptable Chihuahua Dory only weighs 3.5 pounds
- Mayor Wilson: Potomac Yard construction delay ‘could have nothing to do with Metro station’
- Police: Juvenile shot at shopping center near Alexandria City High School
Have a safe weekend!
(Updated at 10:40 a.m. Alexandria City High School’s rates increased to their highest levels ever, not the highest in Virginia) Alexandria City High School has a lot more than just a new name to be proud of. This week, the school system announced that its recent graduating class saw the highest on-time graduation rate and the lowest student dropout rate in the school’s history.
“ACPS saw a nine-percentage point increase in the on-time graduation rate, from 82% in 2020 to 91% in 2021, and a nine-percentage point decrease in the overall student dropout rate, from 14% in 2020 to 5% in 2021,” ACPS reported. “The previous highest on-time graduation rate for ACPS was 86% in 2013 and the previous lowest dropout rate was 8% in 2019.”
The school system has been challenged by the pandemic on multiple fronts, and the figures reflect a student body that was mostly studying at home for a year. To contend with the challenge of nearly the entire student body studying at home, ACPS developed a Graduation Task Force, which “monitored the graduation status of all ACPS students, identifying those who needed extra support and developing plans to help them stay on track for graduation,” according to ACPS.
The graduation rate for English learners increased by 19%, Hispanic students saw a 15% increase and economically disadvantaged students saw a 10% increase, according to ACPS.
“These historic gains in the 2021 graduation and student dropout rates reflect the daily hard work and determination of our students and staff. They deserve our congratulations and our deepest thanks,” School Board Chair Meagan L. Alderton said.
The 2021 graduation rates are as follows:
- Black: 93%
- Hispanic: 84%
- White: 98%
- Students with Disabilities: 95%
- English Learners: 90%
- Economically Disadvantaged: 88%
“We are thrilled that more than 90% of our students graduated in 2021, and that the number of students who dropped out of school was just one-third of what that rate was in 2020,” said Alexandria City High School Executive Principal Peter Balas. “We know there is still work to be done but I want to acknowledge the remarkable gains of our students, especially our Hispanic students and English learners, as we report the highest graduation rate ever for ACPS.
(Updated 9/30) Alexandria’s incumbents running for re-election managed to hold on through the Democratic primary, but they face Republican and Independent challengers in the upcoming November election.
The Seminary Ridge Civic Association recently announced that it will be hosting two election forums throughout October, one for the City Council candidates and one for Mayoral candidates.
“The Seminary Ridge Civic Association (SRCA) is hosting two candidate forums in October to raise awareness of the candidates running in the November Alexandria elections,” the organization said in an email. “The first forum will be on Wednesday, October 6 (7-9 p.m.) for the nine candidates seeking to be on Alexandria’s City Council.”
Both events will be live-streamed on Zoom, with a link already available for the first forum. The SRCA said another email will be sent closer to the date with a link to the Mayoral debate.
The Democratic City Council candidates are:
- John Taylor Chapman
- Alyia Smith-Parker Gaskins
- Amy Jackson
- Canek Aguirre
- Sarah Bagley
- Kirk McPike
Incumbent Mayor Justin Wilson, who fended off a challenge from former Mayor Allison Silberberg, will face Republican Annetta Catchings. Their debate with the SRCA will be held on Tuesday, October 19, from 7:30-8:30 p.m.
The Alexandria Council of PTAs (PTAC) is also planning a meet-and-greet and forum for School Board candidates. The meet-and-greet will be at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 2, on the tennis courts at William Ramsay Elementary (5650 Sanger Avenue). The virtual forum will be on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at 7 p.m.
Facing no electoral opposition in her November reelection, Alexandria School Board Chair Meagan Alderton says the next three years will be full of challenges. For one thing, the incoming nine-member board will have six new faces who will be challenged to lead a school system beset by controversy.
“I am definitely concerned about the turnover of the board,” Alderton told ALXnow. “One of the greatest challenges in today’s public schools in general is what I call the revolving door. We really reached a critical juncture in which we can’t even expect and plan to our support personnel — teachers, principals, leadership, superintendents… To not stick around for at least five years is devastating to our potential for progress.”
While many have criticized the school system’s reopening to full-time instruction as taking too long, Alderton gives ACPS high marks — an eight out of 10. She credits ACPS staffers who provided students with laptops, free meals and virtual instruction with keeping things afloat.
“I found it to be very humbling,” she said. “And overall I think they (staff) really did a good job to ensure that everybody had access to meals. We continued to focus on supporting the whole child, regardless of the physical environment.”
Alderton, the second Black woman to lead as Board Chair since Shirley Tyler 40 years ago, was elected to represent District C in 2018. Her fellow District C members Ramee Gentry and Heather Thornton did not file to run for reelection, and candidates Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi and Christopher Harris are shoo-ins for the two open slots in the district.
She was named Board chair in an internal election in January, and is a former special education teacher at elementary and middle schools in the city. She is also a licensed Realtor, her husband is a track coach at Alexandria City High School and, like Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., her children attend private school.
Alderton said she sends her kids to private school for faith-based reasons.
“I didn’t come into the role to serve myself for the benefit of my own children,” she said. “I came into this role to use my skills and expertise in love for education as a benefit to all kids…. It’s a very private thing, it’s a faith based thing, and hopefully people can can see my heart and my dedication towards the work, because I know what needs to be done.”
Alderton’s term was also punctuated by the renaming of T.C. Williams High School and recent elimination of the School Resource Officer program by City Council. She says that there is a lot of work to do to rebuild the relationship between the Board and Council.
“I definitely have a good relationship with the mayor,” she said. “I expect that that will continue. I have found him to be supportive of the School Board, of the school division. In regard to what needs to happen in the future with Council, I think we’re going to have to do some really intentional work to rebuild the relationship.”
Alderton says that ACPS and the police department need to get creative in preserving its memorandum of understanding with the police department.
“I think it’s important for our students to have access to our police officers, not just when they’re out in the community,” Alderton told ALXnow. “I do want our police department to stay in touch with our schools. It is an important connection, and I’m sure we can come up with some good ideas.”
Alderton says that her defining characteristic is remaining calm under pressure.
“There’s so much going on around and swirling around, and there has been so much going on and swirling around during the pandemic,” she said. “Overall, I’m just a very calm person. I don’t find value in overreacting, and I have learned a lot about how to manage crisis. When everyone around you is in crisis, as a leader it is essential for you to be rational and to be what everyone else just can’t be in that moment, for a very justifiable reason. If you are going to lead, people need to be able to get some of that calmness and steadiness from you as a leader.”