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Students unveil the Alexandria City High School marquee, June 23, 2021. (staff photo by James Cullum)

It was criticized by many for taking too long, but now Alexandria City Public Schools is winning awards for the renaming of Alexandria City High School and Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School.

On Friday (May 5), ACPS announced that it was awarded the Silver Prize in the National School Boards Association Magna Awards program for The Identity Project campaign, as well as a 2021 Gold Medallion Award from the National School Public Relations Association.

“We are excited that the ACPS Identity Project has been honored with a Magna Award,”  School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said in a statement. “This recognizes the contributions from our students, families, staff and community who came together to work on this historic change. With student voices at the center, we mobilized to educate our community about the past and to chart an inclusive path for the future. We now have school names that are reflective of the values of Alexandria City Public Schools.”

Alexandria City High School is the largest high school in Virginia. The school was previously named T.C. Williams High School for 50 years, and became known around the world for the 2000 movie Remember the Titans, which is the story of the 1971 state championship-winning varsity football team that found greatness by working through racial adversity.

T.C. was named after segregationist Thomas Chambliss Williams, who was the superintendent of ACPS for 30 years. Williams worked against the integration of schools, and required Black students who wanted admission to previously all-white schools go through an application process. Only 75 Black students (about 3%) were allowed to transfer to formerly white schools by the time Williams announced his retirement in 1962, and that was three years after the city officially desegregated schools.

The new name of Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School is unveiled by students on June 22, 2021. (staff photo by James Cullum)

Naomi L. Brooks Elementary was previously named Matthew Maury Elementary School for nearly a century, after the Confederate leader and oceanographer. Brooks was a beloved teacher for 25 years at Charles Houston Elementary School and Cora Kelly Elementary School.

It took more than a year to solicit name proposals from the community and for the School Board to whittle them down to replace the names of T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary School. The schools were officially renamed last summer, putting an end to an issue that residents tried to address for decades.

The project was deemed so successful that Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. highlighted it in a book he recently co-wrote with Georgetown University professor Douglas Reed: “Getting Into Good Trouble at School: A Guide to Building an Anti-racist School System.

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Abandoned railway at GenOn power plant (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

Alexandria’s annual budget process wrapped up this week with a $839.2 million fiscal year 2023 budget approval and special tax relief for car owners.

Meanwhile, an uptick in opioid overdoses among children has Alexandria City Public Schools considering adding Narcan to schools and city officials issuing warnings about counterfeit Percocet.

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Alexandria City Public Schools will likely soon begin carrying Nalaxone, or Narcan, as an emergency medication to be given to students if they are overdosing on opiates.

If approved by the School Board on May 5 (Thursday), school nurses or anyone “acting on behalf of the School Board who has completed a training program may possess and administer naloxone or other opioid antagonist for overdose reversal,” according to a staff report.

The policy would go into effect immediately if approved by the Board.

The City began offering free Narcan spray and fentanyl test strips years ago as the number of opioid-related overdoses was on the rise. Residents can get access to Narcan for free by mail, and it is also available without a prescription at pharmacies.

“The drug Naloxone, also known as Narcan, can save the life of someone who is experiencing an opioid overdose, if given in time,” the city said.

Residents can get Narcan by mail by emailing their name and address to [email protected] or picking up a dose of the nasal spray by calling the Alexandria Health Department at 703-746-4888 or the City’s Opioid Response Coordinator at 703-746-3326.

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“Extremely problematic,” “inappropriate,” and “disrespectful” was how Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. said School Board members handled edits of his plan to create a School Law Enforcement Advisory Group.

In a March 9 email, Hutchings scolded a majority of School Board Members — Michelle Rief, Ashley Simpson-Baird, Adbel Elnoubi, Kelly Carmichael Booz and Chris Harris — for editing his SLEP proposal. He said that such “behind the scenes” operations raised transparency issues by violating the Virginia Freedom Of Information Act.

“I believe that this approach is extremely problematic, inappropriate, disrespectful and most of all not aligned with our legal board practices,” Hutchings wrote. “SLEP is not an action item for the board and I’m not understanding why this is being presented to me this way. I believe some of the points in the document are welcome revisions; however, I hope that this will not be shared with our team tonight at the meeting.”

The 16-person SLEP advisory group will begin meeting in May or June to develop feedback recommendations for Hutchings on the future of the controversial school resource officer program within ACPS.

The group will send back their recommendations in a report in December. ACPS is now in the process of going through a solicitation process to hire a meeting facilitator.

The email was sent shortly before Hutchings and staff presented the Board with the first draft of the SLEP proposal on March 10. The edited draft circulated by the Members have some recommendations that stuck around in the final proposal, including adding a SLEP link to the ACPS website for community information.

At that March 10 Board meeting, Hutchings said: “This is our first time having a public discussion about this partnership and having a public discussion around this particular information that we’re sharing out and we’re sharing that with the board.”

The Board is allowed to discuss their positions on issues with each other outside meetings.

“I didn’t come here to uphold the status quo or be a rubber stamp,” Elnoubi said. “There’s nothing wrong with members sharing and discussing ideas outside the board room as long as as long as it’s in a one on one setting to abide by the ‘Sunshine Laws’ and that’s what we did. In this situation here when I see a proposal that continues to marginalize people of color like me, I have an obligation to speak up.”

According to the Board’s operating procedures:

The School Board transacts all business at Board meetings, and does not vote by secret or written ballot. However, nothing prohibits separately contacting the membership, or any part thereof, of the School Board for the purpose of ascertaining a member’s position with respect to the transaction of public business, whether such contact is done in person, by telephone or by electronic communication, provided the contact is done on a basis that does not constitute a meeting under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Board Member Tammy Ignacio was not pleased to receive the edited document in a Board-wide email before the March 10 meeting from Harris, who asked that Board members look at it for discussion. Ignacio said she was not privy to the edited recommendations, and that they equated to “backstabbing” from her colleagues.

“We can’t openly expect to bring data forward when we’re backstabbing our own Board and making decisions and writing memos and editing them for our own specific purpose,” Ignacio said at the March 10 meeting. “And if that is the way that this Board is planning to run, I don’t want to be a part of it. Transparency. Do not stand up here in front of our public and our children and our staff and talk about transparency when you’re going behind the backs of other Board members and creating memos and editing them. It is unacceptable. It is unprofessional.”

Booz then failed in a 4-4-1 vote to get the advisory group to report directly to the Board instead of the Superintendent.

Simpson-Baird said on March 10 that ACPS has one chance to get the issue right.

“We have one chance to get community input and go through a very thorough processthat we all know didn’t happen over the past year,” she said at the March 10 meeting. “I know that’s where a lot of our our passions come from.”

On March 14, Hutchings provided the Board with a refresher on their operating procedures, which include not talking to the media.

Hutchings’ full March 9 to the School Board is below the jump.

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

Alexandria leaders are working on permanently reducing speed limits and adding speed cameras in school zones.

The news comes in the wake of the last month’s crash that injured a student walking home outside Jefferson Houston Elementary School.

Mayor Justin Wilson is proposing the addition of five photo speed cameras at school crossing zones, which would cost $490,000. The locations of the cameras would be determined by the Department of Transportation & Environmental Services, and the cameras would be paid by ticket revenues.

Additionally, last month City Council granted City Manager Jim Parajon the authority to reduce speed limits to 15 miles per hour in business and residential districts. Parajon is considering reducing speed limits to 15 miles per hour in school zones, according to Yon Lambert, director of the city’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.

“There is no plan to make the speed limit be 15 miles an hour city-wide,” Lambert told the City Council/School Board Subcommittee on Tuesday night. “We have been looking, however, at whether we could be introducing slow zones, primarily around schools and in certain residential areas. That is how that tool would potentially be used.”

Lambert said that the city has accomplished about 100 of the 250 recommendations on school-related transportation improvements within ACPS that were outlined in 2017 Safe Routes To School audits. He also said that the city recently received a grant that will allow it to continue conducting the audits, which include filling a sidewalk gap near James A. Polk Elementary School and Avenue near Pelham Street.

Parajon also included $100,000 toward Safe Routes to School projects in his budget, and $4 million in funding increases will be  necessary to tackle remaining projects over the next five years.

Wilson said that a shortage of 10 school crossing guards in schools around the city. There are 27 budgeted part-time positions, but Wilson said that ACPS should consider stop-gap and long term solutions in a future budget to fill the positions and keep them occupied.

“We have a bad problem,” Wilson said. “It’s causing us to have to grab people from patrol and other places to fill these positions. And then a lot of them are just not filled… You have schools that just do not have crossing guards out in front.”

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. said that he’d work on crossing guard recruitment with his public affairs team and with Police Chief Don Hayes to set up training sessions for new staffers.

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The Alexandria School Board gave its blessing to Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. on Thursday night (April 21) to form an advisory group to make recommendations on the controversial school resource officer program within Alexandria City Public Schools.

The 16-person school law enforcement partnership (SLEP) advisory group will be made up of students, ACPS administrators, Alexandria Police and members of the community. The group will evaluate the partnership between ACPS and police for the school resource officer program, and also on school safety initiatives, and deliver a report in December.

Hutchings does not want the meetings to be public or recorded, although he said minutes from the meetings would be provided to the Board. A link with SLEP information on the ACPS site is also in development, Hutchings said.

“What we want to make sure is happening is that there are authentic conversations happening ,” Hutchings told the Board. “We need people to be able to feel as if they can have these real discussions without the additional ice or heat or criticism that will come out of that, because people wanting to watch a long meeting like that (are) typically watching to give some type of constructive criticism. Typically, not always.”

Last month, a report revealed that 18 ACPS students were arrested in the first two quarters of this school year, in addition to 41 reported fights/assaults and 13 seized weapons. The weapons seized include a gun, five knives, a stun gun, two fake weapons, and pepper spray.

Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard Campus at 3801 W. Braddock Road was evacuated on Friday, Dec. 10, after a bomb threat. Here, Alexandria Police and a Bomb Dog look for anything suspicious outside the school. (staff photo by James Cullum)

Transparency issues

Member Kelly Carmichael Booz said that compiling the report behind closed doors raises transparency issues.

“I completely understand the challenges and the concern about making sure that folks feel comfortable to have open and frank conversations,” Booz said. “We also are in the business of transparency and making sure that we have access to the information that’s being provided. I do think we need to strike that balance there.”

Last month, Booz failed in a 4-4-1 vote to get the SLEP advisory group to report directly to the School Board instead of the superintendent, which would have made it a more public process.

Alicia Hart, ACPS executive director of facilities and operations, said that the decision to record meetings will be determined by a meeting facilitator. No facilitator has yet been awarded the contract, although she expects a number of proposals to come in soon.

“I’ll honestly have to defer to the external facilitator in terms of how they feel the meetings are best handled,” Hart said. “I don’t know if that’s the standard for our advisory groups or committees within the division. I don’t want to offer that it would be open to the public. I’d rather the external facilitator have the opportunity to present their framework for how they believe the meeting should occur.”

Board Chair Meagan Alderton said that certain meetings should be public, and others not, although the Board did not come to an official position on the matter.

“I do believe there is a balance to strike,” Alderton said. “We should probably select certain meetings that the public could come and sit in on it just to have that available, just because I don’t think we want to leave any room for being accused of not being open and transparent in that way.”

Hutchings said that there will be a link to the ACPS website regarding the SLEP advisory group.

The SROs — police officers stationed at Alexandria City High School and the city’s two middle schools — were defunded last summer and then brought back in October after Alderton and Hutchings pleaded for their return in the wake of numerous violent incidents with weapons in schools.

Since then, Hutchings has also advised the Board not to talk to the media and co-wrote a book that stated school systems should avoid being racist by abolishing policing practices.

There have been no SROs at Alexandria City High School since both SROs at the school were placed on leave after a “serious complaint” from a former student alleging “sexually inappropriate conversations” while she attended ACHS. Alexandria Police continue to rotate officers in and out of the school on a daily basis.

The SRO program is currently funded through June 30, 2023.

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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 Police cruiser (staff photo by James Cullum)

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. wants another year of funding for the school resource officer program — time he says that will allow Alexandria City Public Schools to map out its future without a rush.

Hutchings says the extension will allow for the formation of a School Law Enforcement Advisory Group next month, which will closely study the SRO program and hammer out a proposal for a new bi-annual memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Alexandria Police Department in December.

“What we are asking the Board is to inquire that request with the City Council to extend the timeframe for our SRO funding so that we can have the adequate time to really work through the advisory group, and bring a recommendation to the board that’s not in a rushed format,” Hutchings told the Board Thursday night.

In the meantime, the $800,000 program will continue as-is, with the specially trained police officers stationed within Alexandria’s two middle schools and the Alexandria City High School Minnie Howard campus. There are no SROs at Alexandria City High School’s King Street campus since both officers placed on leave after a “serious complaint” from a former student alleging “sexually inappropriate conversations” while she attended ACHS. The determination on returning SROs to ACHS is up to Alexandria Police, which has rotated detail officers in and out of the school on a daily basis.

Some are unhappy about the extension, including Sindy Carballo Garcia, a youth organizer for Tenants And Workers United.

“It’s still unacceptable that the data keeps on showing the same results, that among all students being arrested, primarily black students are the ones that are that are being arrested in disproportionate percentages,” Garcia told the Board during the public comment portion of the meeting. “It is unacceptable that we do not prioritize programs such as mental health and restorative practices, and fully invest in them to implement them correctly to meet the needs of students by truly supporting students and having trusted trained adults that understand and serve young people.”

The advisory group will be formed and presented to the School Board at its meeting on April 21.

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Alexandria City Public Schools is requesting an extension of its controversial school resource officer (SRO) program through the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

School Board Chair Meagan Alderton says that the extension is part of the reimagining of the $800,000 program, as Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. will work to develop a School Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) Advisory Group and formulate an SRO plan to present to City Council next year.

The SROs — police officers stationed at Alexandria City High School and the city’s two middle schools — were defunded last summer and then brought back in October after Alderton and Hutchings pleaded for their return in the wake of numerous violent incidents with weapons in schools. The SRO program is currently funded through June 30, 2022.

Once formed next year, the advisory group (comprised of ACPS staff, police, students and members of the community) will report to Hutchings, who will take their recommendations to the Board, which will send a finalized plan to City Council for approval. The advisory group will also make recommendations on the bi-annual memorandum of understanding between ACPS and the Alexandria Police Department.

“This will give the SLEP advisory group enough time to form, meet and make recommendations on the school-law enforcement partnership, to receive community and stakeholder input on the program, as well as allow our two elected bodies to make sound decisions on the future of the SRO program,” Alderton wrote in a memo to City Council. “Additionally, the importance of having a security presence in our schools in order to provide safe and secure environments for students, staff, families and community should be maintained while the most appropriate structure for safety within our facilities is determined.”

There are still no SROs at Alexandria City High School. In December, both SROs at ACHS were placed on leave after a “serious complaint” from a former student alleging “sexually inappropriate conversations” while she attended ACHS, and Alexandria Police have since rotated officers in and out of the school on a daily basis.

Council’s vote to defund SROs created a rift between City Council and the School Board that both bodies have publicly expressed a desire to mend.

Mayor Justin Wilson says the SRO program needs to be carefully deliberated.

“In the aftermath of the Council’s decision in October, I have made it clear that I think we need to pull together an inclusive community process to determine a path forward for our City on school safety and security,” Wilson told ALXnow. “Once we put together that process, I certainly support providing the space and time for that process to conclude.”

The extension will be discussed in a School Board meeting tonight (March 24).

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Morning Notes

The ‘I Love You’ art installation at Waterfront Park opens on March 25, 2022. (staff photo by James Cullum)

Leasing Starts for Apartments Over Wegmans —  “Developer Stonebridge and its leasing partner Bozzuto, announced Wednesday the start of leasing for Easton, a boutique-style apartment building offering sophisticated design and amenities located in the Carlyle Crossing neighborhood. The 11-story building is slated to begin move-ins in mid-April just ahead of the anticipated May 11 opening of Wegmans Carlyle Crossing.” [Alexandria Living]

Ukraine Donation Drive Launched — Leaders launched an effort Wednesday to provide donations, such as gently used coats, new blankets, new pairs of sweat socks or heavy socks, and new pairs of gloves at locations around Northern Virginia. “No matter the scale – global to local – humanity is a community unto itself and we must always come to the assist of those in need,” Alexandria Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said at the event. [Facebook, Patch]

Kingstowne Woman’s Family Raises Funds to Find Suspect — “The family of a missing Alexandria woman, who is presumed dead, is raising money to help catch her alleged killer.”[WJLA]

It’s Thursday — Light rain throughout the day. High of 67 and low of 58. Sunrise at 7:06 a.m. and sunset at 7:25 p.m. [Weather.gov]

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