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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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Alexandria City Public Schools is entering a tricky budget season.

As student enrollment and expenditure increases outpace revenue, ACPS faces a $12 million deficit in the run up to the fiscal year 2024 budget, according to a budget presentation to the School Board on Thursday, September 22.

“Over the previous decade, student enrollment and expenditures have increased at a far quicker pace than the corresponding revenue has grown,” ACPS said in a staff report. “ACPS Staff analysis shows that this trend will continue into the future, requiring a combination of revenue enhancements and expenditure reductions to balance a projected budget gap.”

For FY 2024, the projected budget deficit is $12.05 million. Each year, as expenditures outpace revenues, the estimated budget gap will continue to expand. By FY 2028, the annual funding deficit projection grows to $37.83 million, according to ACPS.

Still, the school system is proposing a 2.64% step increase and 2.5% market rate adjustment for all staff. Healthcare costs are projected to increase 8% and dental care costs will increase 2%.

“We assume that we’ll get the same per-people dollar amount at both the state and city level (as approved the FY 2023 budget),” ACPS Chief Financial Officer Dominic Turner told the School Board.

There are 15,700 students at ACPS at this time, according to interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt. That’s about 100 students more than was forecasted in January, and some parents are concerned that elementary school class sizes are getting too big. Last spring, the school system adjusted the caps on elementary school class sizes by an increase of two seats so that kindergarten classes now have 24 students, first and second grades are capped at 26, and grades three to five have 28 students — still below maximum state standards.

Jenica Patterson, the PTA president at Patrick Henry Elementary School, told the School Board that the school is contending with 950 students — about 65 more than what was projected.

“The discrepancy in teacher-to-student ratios among ACPS elementary schools is a major barrier to learning.,” Patterson said. “Teachers are simply managing the large, crowded classrooms instead of dedicating their time to education and learning.”

Kay-Wyatt said that the community has grown over the years, and that ACPS is experiencing a teacher and bus driver shortage.

“It’s very hard right now,” Kay-Wyatt said. “The HR staff is out recruiting, they continue their recruitment efforts. I also want that to be known that we never stop recruiting, and we still have a shortage.”

Next month there will be several budget-related work sessions and meetings:

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A new report on student safety should be taken with a grain of salt, according to members of the Alexandria School Board.

The School Board received the report Thursday night (September 22), and it includes details of 194 incidents that occurred between January and June. Not all of the incidents were criminal in nature, which led some School Board members to question the report’s validity.

“It’s really easy to look at these numbers of these data and draw conclusions, some of them often negative,” said School Board Member Ashley Simpson Baird. “It’s also really difficult just because we don’t yet have that longitudinal data yet, this is just a school year. We don’t know if this is better or worse than two years ago, or three years ago or 10 years ago.”

The data shows that 26 Alexandria City Public School students were arrested in the final two quarters of the 2021-2022 school year. There were also 34 students injured, 28 reported fights/assaults and 11 incidents of sexual assault/sexual misconduct. With the four quarters of the year combined, 46 students were arrested and 68 injured.

Board Member Abdel Elnoubi agreed with Simpson Baird.

“Wait and let’s have a goal that hopefully we start seeing numbers come down,” Elnoubi said. “Don’t look at raw numbers. Don’t look at that in a vacuum, because we It doesn’t mean much unless you put it in context. I just encourage community members to keep that in mind.”

John Contreras, the ACPS director of Safety and Security Services, said that not all incidents were criminal in nature, like when a child needed help getting unstuck in their second grade classroom, or when a golf cart battery caught fire at Alexandria City High School.

“It is important to note that APD (Alexandria Police Department) calls for service are not solely in relation to support for incidents that are criminal in nature,” Contreras said. “It includes a wide variety of things, including missing students, that sort of thing, not an actual criminal act, but we do sometimes someone need assistance or police to help us look for a student that may have not come on time.”

Contreras also said that arrests increased because of large groups of students fighting.

“One assault by mob… resulted in six arrests,” Contreras said. “Another was three — three arrests in one incident.”

Contreras recalled another incident of students smoking marijuana in an ACHS bathroom.

“A teacher goes in there (the bathroom), notices that the aroma in there smelled like marijuana, a controlled substance that’s not supposed to be at the school, but interviews with students or a search of their belongings did not reveal anything. It’s still reported to us as a controlled substance violation of some sort. Law enforcement was collaborated with, but it didn’t really resulting with anything other than administrative response at the school level.”

Alicia Hart, the chief of Facilities and Operations, said that the report is the new baseline for the school system.

“This really is the true baseline for incidents, calls for service and arrests and should be used to note changes in school division safety,” Hart said.

Interim Superintendent Melnie Kay-Wyatt said she wants the numbers in the report to go down.

“I really think it’s just allowing probably another full school year this school year for us to get some more data to really start measuring,” Kay-Wyatt said.

Agenda Alexandria will discuss student safety on Monday, September 26, at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial (101 Callahan Drive) at 6:30 p.m.

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Alexandria’s interim superintendent says that Governor Glenn Youngkin’s proposed new policies restricting transgender bathroom and pronoun use won’t be a distraction as the school system plans to continue its “gender-affirming policies.”

“We just want to make sure that we let our community know that we’re continuing our commitment to both implement and develop gender affirming policies for all ACPS students,” interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt told the School Board on Thursday night (September 22).

The Virginia Department of Education’s new policy adjustments go into effect on October 27, after the end of the 30-day public comment period.

While students are not required to wear gender-neutral clothes, the new rules state:

  • School division employees must refer to students with the pronouns “appropriate to the sex appearing in the student’s official record”
  • “The appropriate participation” in school programs separated by sex
  • Overnight travel accommodations, locker rooms, and other intimate spaces used for school-related activities and events shall be based on sex
  • Students shall use bathrooms that correspond to his or her sex, except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires
  • Single-user bathrooms and facilities should be made available in accessible areas and provided with appropriate signage, indicating accessibility for all students

Kay-Wyatt said that the legislation will not be a distraction for the school system.

“This will not be a distraction from our priorities of the work for all of our kids,” Kay-Wyatt said. “And I’m going to say that again, because it seems that some comments were directed that we’re going to make this a priority and make everything else a distraction. We have our core priorities. We will continue to focus on making sure we do what’s best for all children.”

The revised legislation was announced earlier this week, and created a firestorm of criticism throughout Alexandria. Mayor Justin Wilson tweeted that the school system will uphold its existing policies regarding transgender students, and School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and Kay-Wyatt wrote a joint letter reaffirming the school system’s position.

“As a School Board and division, we are concerned with these ‘model policies’ that do not align with our mission, vision and core values to support all students and staff, in particular our core value of ensuring that we provide a welcoming environment for everyone in our school community,” the letter said.

Kay-Wyatt said that parents can reach out to their school administrations with questions, or email [email protected] for updates.

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Twenty six Alexandria City Public School students were arrested in the final two quarters of the 2021-2022 school year. There were also 34 students injured, 28 reported fights/assaults and 11 incidents of sexual assault/sexual misconduct.

There were also 15 seized weapons, including seven knives and three stun guns/tasers.

That’s according to a School Safety Data report to be presented to the School Board on Thursday (September 22). With the four quarters of the year combined, 46 students were arrested and 68 injured.

The report sheds light on the safety situation within the school system, which came under intense scrutiny when School Resource Officers were defunded between August and October of last year. The SROs — police officers assigned to the city’s high school and middle school campuses, were brought back by City Council after a violent first few months back to in-person schooling.

Most notably, just before the end of the school year an Alexandria City High School senior was stabbed to death in broad daylight in the parking lot of the Bradlee Shopping Center.

In the first two quarters of the 2021-2022 school year, 20 ACPS students were arrested. There were 41 reported fights/assaults and 13 seized weapons, including a gun, five knives, a stun gun, two fake weapons, and pepper spray. There were also two robberies, three drug offenses, a bomb threat and 13 pulled fire alarms.

There were 194 total incidents reported in the third and fourth quarters.

  • 36 incidents characterized as “other” (parking lot accidents, trespassing, mental health episodes, property lost/damaged)
  • 34 injuries that required medical assistance
  • 28 fights/assaults
  • 19 incidents with drugs
  • 15 incidents with weapons
  • 14 reports of a missing student
  • 12 incidents of prohibited items/materials
  • 11 incidents of sexual assault/sexual misconduct
  • 11 incidents of online threats
  • Six pulled fire alarms
  • Two Child Protective Services reports
  • Two reports of suspicious activity
  • Two reports of vandalism
  • Two reports of theft

There were 82 incidents reported at the Alexandria City High School campuses, 65 incidents at the city’s two middle schools and 35 incidents at elementary schools. There were also 84 police calls for service — 48 at the high school campuses, 30 at the middle schools and four at elementary schools.

  • 16 students were arrested for fights/assaults
  • Four students were arrested for drug possession
  • Three students were arrested for alcohol possession

There were 14 students arrested an the Alexandria City High School campus and 12 middle school students arrested. A vast majority of the students arrested are minorities.

The School Board will also get an update on the School Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) Advisory Group. That group is tasked with making a recommendation on the future role of school resource officers within the school system. The 16-person group has conducted three meetings so far, and plans to have its final recommendations to the School Board by mid-December.

According to a presentation that will be delivered to the School Board: “The mission of the SLEP advisory group is to assist ACPS leadership, the Superintendent and the School Board in reimagining the school law enforcement partnership with the Alexandria Police Department in order to ensure a positive, safe and equitable school experience for all students.”

Agenda Alexandria will discuss student safety on Monday, September 26, at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial (101 Callahan Drive) at 6:30 p.m. Panelists include Alexandria Police Chief Don Hayes, ACPS Chief of Student Services and Equity Julie Crawford, Rene Islas of The Community Group and former ACPS Superintendent Herb Berg.

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Alexandria City Public Schools wants to get student and staff absenteeism under control.

A quarter of Latino students at ACPS were chronically absent last school year, and so were 16% of Black students and 22% of economically disadvantaged students, according to data presented to the School Board at a recent work session.

“There’s a lot of discussion around the suspensions of black males, black females, Hispanic male students, (and) chronic absenteeism for Hispanic and black students,” interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt told the School Board on Thursday night (September 8).

There were also 145 daily staff absences across the school system during the 2021-2022 school year.

“We are nothing without our staff,” ACPS Chief Accountability Officer Clinton Page told the Board in a work session on August 25. “The newer area of focus for this year is honing in on staff wellness, and that was arrived at both from the numerical data we see around attendance and indicators in the climate survey, but our qualitative data and from knowing and seeing first-hand the amount of stress, the amount of angst that our staff has been put through just within the “pandemic” years.”

Both issues were added to the school board’s areas of focus for the school year. The school system is also tasked with implementing a staff wellness program and targeted and enhanced staff recruitment.

ACPS staff absenteeism. (Via ACPS)

Last year, there were 153 Black students suspended last school year, and 112 Latino students — versus 23 white student suspensions, one Asian student and seven students characterized as “Other.”

Of the student suspensions, 259 students were economically disadvantaged, while just 36 students not economically disadvantaged were suspended. There were 91 female suspensions and 205 male suspensions.

The school system will also continue developing its half hour of daily Social and Emotional Learning (SEAL), in which all students must participate. As part of the SEAL program, teachers are tasked with evaluating students with the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, a social and emotional tool that assesses “self awareness, self-management, personal responsibility, decision-making, goal-oriented behavior, social awareness, relationship skills and optimistic thinking.”

ACPS is also contending with school safety issues — although they are not listed as a Board priority.

“Please know that safety has always been a priority and will always be our priority,” Kay-Wyatt told the Board Thursday night. “We do that work every day anyway.”

Fifty-eight percent of students felt safe at school last year, down from 75% in the 2020-2021 school year, according to the 2021-2022 ACPS Equity Climate Survey. The survey also reported that 66% of students think teachers care about them, which is down 13% from the previous year.

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The Alexandria School Board promoted Melanie Kay-Wyatt as the interim superintendent on Thursday night (July 28).

Kay-Wyatt was hired last year as the chief of human resources for Alexandria City Public Schools, and will have the interim superintendent position for at least the 2022-2023 school year or until a permanent superintendent is chosen.

“This was a big decision for our school board, and we’re very excited to welcome Dr. Kay-Wyatt to this role,” School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said. “I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Dr. Kay-Wyatt will do to help us to move on.”

The announcement follows the June resignation of Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., who will step down at the end of August.

“We’re going to have an amazing school year,” Kay-Wyatt told the School Board. “I am very fortunate to stand before an amazing school community this evening. I’m grateful for the opportunity and I look forward to working with strong leaders, amazing staff and it’s just an opportunity for us to get better and better.”

Board Member Abdel Elnoubi thanked Kay-Wyatt for stepping up.

“Thank you so much for willing to step up in a challenging time for education and for educators,” Elnoubi said. “I also believe the fact that we had so many qualified applicants with different skill sets and backgrounds wanting to lead this division and be here in Alexandria speaks volumes about who we are in this Alexandria community.”

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 and assistant principal at Fredericksburg City Public Schools.

Kay-Wyatt will be paid $21,383 monthly, and the Board will “immediately begin the search process for a permanent superintendent, which will include opportunities for input from staff, students, families and  community members,” according to ACPS.

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The 2021-2022 school year was “crazy”, says René Islas, the parent of four Alexandria City Public Schools students.

Islas leads The Community Group, a new movement of locals with a list of safety recommendations for the city and school system. After a school year punctuated by violent events, Islas said ACPS needs to work on prevention, justice, and accountability.

“Last year was a crazy year,” Islas told ALXnow. “I can’t tell you how many times I picked up one of my four children from school because they felt that it was either wasted time or unsafe.”

One of Islas’s children even chose to hide during lunchtime out of fear of being hurt by a fight, and he forgets the number of times he picked up his children early from school.

“On many occasions, there were substitute teachers that were not teaching the children,” he said. “There was no one in control of the school or my kids, so I’d go and pick them up.”

On July 16, The Community Group met at Charles E. Beatley, Jr. Central Library to whittle down their list to these action items they want ACPS to implement:

  • Increase transparency publishing timely data
  • An early warning and timely response system for at-risk youth
  • Maintain School Resource Officers
  • Increase personnel in schools

In May, Islas created the group’s “Community Views of Safety in Alexandria Schools” survey. Many of the responses to the survey, which got 179 responses, were by aggrieved parents.

Below are some of their written comments in that survey:

“While in middle school, my son was struck by 3 boys in the bathroom. We reported it but nothing was done.”

“My kindergarten student was physically harmed by another student. We were able to resolve a bullying situation with the school, and are satisfied. I am more concerned with reports of sexual assaults, physical beatings of students, and weapons brought into schools or discharged on or near school property, and also it would be very beneficial to parents if we had more communication to us on incidents occurring at Alexandria schools.”

“My spouse was accosted at a varsity football game by a gang of students. My oldest son (Class of 2021) was assaulted at GW in 7th Grade.”

“Some kids on my child’s school bus (elementary school) are just out of control. They use F word all the time and some of them are in 1st grade, tell the bus driver to shut up, someone smoked, someone threw a rock at the bus driver etc. I talked to the assistant principal at least 3 times, she talked to the kids many times but no improvements. I’m worried about the middle school (Hammond) he is going to in a few years with these kids.”

Islas has a meeting set up next week to talk with City Councilwoman Alyia Gaskins, he says, and has widely distributed the results of the survey to City Council and the School Board. Gaskins recently co-authored a citywide memo with Mayor Justin Wilson on improving school safety.

“Parents just want to know, to have some visibility into what’s happening in school,” Islas said. “We need more action.  We’re trying to spur that along and offer some solutions that are sensible, that they can act on, and we’re happy to help in any way that we can.”

ACPS has wrestled with an increase in violent crime incidents this school year. According to a school safety report released in March, 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.

Islas also wants more documentation released, like on the two final quarters of the school year.

“We have safety data from the first two quarters, but not the third or fourth quarters,” Islas said.

On the early warning system, Islas says that the school system should be aware if kids don’t turn in their homework, or are tardy, or exhibit alarming behavior.

“If the kid has been absent from school for several days, somebody would be notified to find out why and how and discern how they can help the child,” Islas said. “Instead of waiting until there’s a major incident, and they have to call the police and all of those things. Does that make sense?”

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This logo was preferred by staff and focus groups, but not the Alexandria School Board. (Via ACPS)

After months of work, two logo redesigns for Alexandria City Public Schools were sent back to the drawing board.

Last Thursday night (June 16), the School Board voted 7-2 against staff’s preferred option. Only Board Members Willie Bailey and Christopher Harris voted for the preferred logo option.

“Obviously it’s not catching on,” School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said at the meeting. “Which is okay. I don’t think we want to do something just to do it.”

In February, after getting a graphic designer to make 10 logo concepts, the Alexandria City Public Schools Office of Communications created three separate focus groups, which spent months whittling designs down to two favorites.

“It seems like it would be helpful to maybe have a really concise message that we were trying to convey, and getting feedback from people and if the logo was conveying that message,” said Board Member Michelle Rief. “I’m worried that some folks may actually have a hard time even reading the letters, the way they appear in both of those messages.”

The two choices garnered more than 4,300 votes across multiple platforms. The preferred option — the lowercase letters with dots — got 2,167 votes (50.3%). The second option received 2,141 votes (49.7%).

The second logo option for ACPS. (Via ACPS)

“It’s interesting to see how the community was split 50-50 on the two logos,” said Vice Chair Jacinta Greene. “Have we considered asking our very talented ACPS students to submit potential logos like we did for Alexandria City High School and Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School?”

Julia Burgos, the ACPS chief of school and community relations, said that asking students to design the official logo of the school system was risky.

“If we went the student route, we have to take something from the students, and if there was something that wasn’t going to be representative, we don’t want to insult students,” Burgos said. “That was one of the concerns, because if this is the logo for the entire organization, the schools themselves and the student representation for the schools was a little bit less risky.”

Staff hoped to launch the new logo next month on the ACPS website, and to get in sync with the website redesign project scheduled to launch in July 2022.

Via ACPS

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