Post Content
Advanced metal detectors will be used for a pilot program in two Alexandria City Public Schools locations as part of a pilot program (via ACPS)

Two Alexandria City Public Schools will be getting metal detectors before the end of this school year.

On Thursday night, the School Board voted 7-0 (Board Chair Meagan Alderton and Member Christopher Harris were not present) to approve the process for “advanced weapons abatement technology” to go into operation at two unnamed ACPS schools in May.

The Board approved staff to proceed with a public engagement process that will end in March, followed by the installation of the equipment in April.

The new system is “less invasive” than traditional metal detectors and handheld wand devices, Alicia Hart, the ACPS chief of facilities and operations, told the Board. Students, staff and visitors would walk through at a normal pace and artificial intelligence will be used to detect weapons.

“It is important to note that the advanced weapons technology tends to use engineering and artificial intelligence to detect most weapon threats,” Hart said. “This is a departure from traditional metal detectors. Additionally, some of the current weapon abatement systems have the ability to indicate via photograph the specific area in which a concealed item has been detected.”

Hart said that the locations of the schools for the pilot have not been released, however, the school system will focus on the middle schools and Alexandria City High School.

“The level of incidents with weapons, as reported previously, tend to happen at our secondary levels, so at our middle schools and our high school,” Hart said. “Naturally, between those schools, that would be one place where we would want to do a pilot.”

Emily Milton, an ACHS senior and student representative on the Board, said that the new detection system will not sit well with students.

“I feel like it’s a bad look for our school if we put them in there,” Milton said. “I feel more uncomfortable, honestly, having those in my school.”

Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt said that the installation of metal detectors is a “proactive preventative measure.”

“I take this very seriously,” Kay-Wyatt said. “When I hear that the students are going to feel that this is uncomfortable, think about a call that would be more uncomfortable — that we would have to call and say there’s an injury or tragedy to somebody.”

There were 28 incidents involving students with weapons in ACPS last school year — 13 incidents in the first semester, and 15 in the second semester, according to a safety report. The weapons seized include a gun, five knives, a stun gun, two fake weapons, and pepper spray. In all, 46 students were arrested and 68 injured, with 194 incidents that provoked a police response.

ACPS began this year with a number of new security upgrades, including the installation of door alarms, camera upgrades, a new student ID process and a new visitor and emergency management system.

Board Member Willie Bailey said that the school system wants to avoid a situation like last month’s shooting of a teacher by a six-year-old student in Newport News.

“God forbid, we do not want that to happen here in Alexandria City in our school system,” Bailey said. “Whatever we can do to prevent that, I am for it 110%.”

Hart said that the decision to install metal detectors wasn’t easy.

“We value stakeholder and community feedback, and staff feedback and student feedback, which is why we’re not implementing it right away,” Hart said. “But I also ask for students to keep in sight the other side of that coin and to understand the decisions that, as adults, sometimes we have to make to make sure that you are safe. It’s not fun. It is not easy. But it is something that we are charged in our positions to do.”

16 Comments
ACPS teachers advocating at the January 19, 2023, School Board meeting (Courtesy photo)

Alexandria City Public School teachers are saying that the proposed salary and step increases aren’t enough.

Last Thursday, 15 ACPS teachers appeared before the School Board at its public hearing for Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt’s $359.9 million fiscal year 2024 combined funds budget proposal. Kay-Wyatt is proposing a 2.6% step increase and 2.5% market rate adjustment for eligible ACPS employees, and the 85% of the budget pays the salaries for 2,700 employees. She’s also proposing eliminating a step for employees on the pay scale.

Jay Falk, an Alexandria City High School English teacher, told the School Board that classes are so large teachers simply don’t have time for students.

“My overall student caseload is over 140 students,” Falk said. “There are almost a dozen teachers in our school who have 150 to 180 students. If I spent every minute of my planning time for a week grading essays, with 140 students I can spend no more than two minutes looking at each child’s essay.”

Alexandria City High School teacher Jay Falk speaks at the Jan. 19, 2023, School Board meeting (staff photo by James Cullum)

About 15% of ACPS teachers retired or quit last year, outpacing Arlington’s 9.5% and the national average, which is 8%, according to the Washington Post.

ACPS enrollment is projected to increase modestly from 15,732 students at the end of the current school year to 15,847 students at the beginning of the next school year in August 2023. Enrollment peaked at more than 16,000 students at the tail-end of the 2020-2021 school year — during the height of the pandemic — resulting in ACPS losing 474 students (3%).

But inaccurate enrollment projections have prompted frustration from some parents.

“This year’s enrollment numbers exceeded last year’s projections in the overwhelming majority of schools, including Brooks,” said Armita Cohen, the PTA president of Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School. “This resulted in larger classroom sizes in many grade levels, which made it harder for teachers to do their jobs. It continues to make it harder for students who are experiencing social and academic delays to catch up.”

ACPS enrollment projections (via ACPS)

Falk said that teachers are burned out, and that ACHS principals requested more than 20 new full time employees. Instead, five new full-time ACHS employees were funded in the budget. She and her colleagues are asking that the Board consider fully funding staffing requests from principals and that those funding requests be made public. They also want more instructional staff, counselors, and social workers. Lastly, they want two or three steps eliminated from the bottom of the salary scale, not just one.

Just at Minnie Howard, we lost three of our four counselors,” Falk said. “We are burned out, overworked and overwhelmed… Is there a reason the superintendent’s budget did not include everything that school leadership is telling you they need?”

Kay-Wyatt did not attend the meeting, but previously acknowledged increased class sizes and staff burnout.

“That is a big challenge that we will continue to shine a spotlight on,” Kay-Wyatt said after presenting her budget earlier this month. “The national teacher and bus driver shortage and the highly competitive salaries that are offered in the D.C. Metro Area have to be addressed so that we can provide our students with a quality education. We must also work to address the many forms of trauma that our students face.”

The School Board is expected to pass the budget (with revisions) on Feb. 16, and it then goes to City Council before being approved as part of the city budget in early May.

19 Comments

Alexandria City Public Schools Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt says her budget will help address some of the long-term effects of the pandemic.

Kay-Wyatt’s theme for the budget is to “reset, restart and refocus” the school system, and she says employee retention is crucial.

“We hope the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is in our rearview mirror,” Kay-Wyatt told the School Board. “But the challenges that it has left behind clearly need to be addressed.”

On Thursday, Kay-Wyatt presented her $359.9 million fiscal year 2024 combined funds budget proposal, and 85% of it is geared toward paying the salaries of more than 2,600 ACPS employees. Kay-Wyatt is proposing a 2.6% step increase and 2.5% market rate adjustment for eligible ACPS employees, as well as increased funding for Social and Emotional Learning programming (SEAL) for every student to regroup students coping with learning loss and other pandemic-related issues.

“We do know some of our challenges, of course, have been staff burnout,” Kay-Wyatt said. “We hear that from our staff, we hear that from our organization, and we are definitely focused on that as well.”

Kay-Wyatt continued, “That is a big challenge that we will continue to shine a spotlight on. The national teacher and bus driver shortage and the highly competitive salaries that are offered in the D.C. Metro Area have to be addressed so that we can provide our students with a quality education. We must also work to address the many forms of trauma that our students face.”

The budget is a 4% increase over last year’s approved budget, and includes funding to develop an official ACPS plan and policy for collective bargaining with employees.

Systemwide, ACPS enrollment is projected to increase modestly from 15,732 students at the end of the current school year to 15,847 students at the beginning of the next school year in August 2023. Enrollment peaked at more than 16,000 students at the tail-end of the 2020-2021 school year — during the height of the pandemic — resulting in ACPS losing 474 students (3%).

ACPS will conduct a public hearing on the proposed budget on Jan. 19. The School Board is expected to pass it (with revisions) on Feb. 16, and then go to City Council for deliberation until it passes the city’s budget in early May.

4 Comments

About 58% of Alexandria City Public Schools students feel safe in school, with bullying, gang activity and selling/using drugs topping a new list of concerns.

Consequently, ACPS is considering enhancing the role of its school resource officers to not only serve as law enforcement but as teachers and informal counselors.

Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt will use the report by Hanover Research and recommendations from an advisory group to present a plan next month. The plan will focus on a reimagined partnership with the ACPS and the Alexandria Police Department’s school resource officer program.

The new arrangement has been months in the making — including 18 discussion group meetings — and will go into effect at the end of this school year in June.

Hanover is recommending the “triad” concept; a method of policing backed by the National Association of School Resource Officers where SROs serve as law enforcers, teachers, and informal counselors.

“In effective SRO programs, SROs fulfill educational and counseling functions in addition to providing law enforcement services,” Hanover said. “Discussion group participants suggest that intimidation and opposition to SROs can be overcome through community-building activities such as classroom visits or athletic events.”

SROs have been a contentious issue in Alexandria. The officers were defunded by the City Council in last year’s budget, and ACPS spent the first few months of the 2021-2022 school year without them. They were returned after ACPS pleaded to Council for their return after multiple incidents with weapons in schools.

“I feel safe from outside threats,” a Black student at Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard campus said in a report. “But within our hallways, we have a lot of fights that break out randomly throughout the day, and I just don’t want to be caught up in that.”

There were 46 students arrested and 68 injured in the 2021-2022 school year, with 194 incidents that provoked a police response, according to an ACPS safety report.

The school system is using the 2021-2022 school year as a baseline for future improvement.

This school year began with new safety protocols, like a new identification requirement for students and staff at Alexandria City High School, staggered dismissal times, and designated entrances for students and staff at schools.

Hanover’s student safety survey of 5,200 students, staff, parents and community members found that just 35% of community members feel that the school system provides a safe environment, versus 75% of parents and 72% of ACPS staff.

“Students also identify drug use as a major concern and express substantial discomfort with drug sales and use in bathrooms,” the report said. “Staff express concern about a perceived lack of follow-up actions to address student violence.”

Between October and November, Hanover Research conducted 18 focus groups with 142 participants, in addition to garnering feedback from more than 5,200 people in the survey.

“Most non-staff members don’t even know how to contact the SROs at the schools,” Marriam Ewaida of Hanover Research told the Board. “The ones that have interacted with the SROs actually have largely positive perceptions with their interactions, but some of them…  describe the SROs as being sometimes intimidating or distance in their limited interactions. Most respondents did not see the SRO as an informal mentor or educator.”

The survey also found that:

  • ACPS has problems with violence or theft — 47% of students agree, 63% from the community, 38% from ACPS staff, and 37% of parents
  • ACPS has a cyberbullying/bullying problem — 39% of students agree, 73% from the community, 46% of staff, and 34% of parents
  • ACPS has a gang presence problem — 32% of students agree, 57% from the community, 31% from ACPS staff, and 31% of parents
19 Comments
1703 N. Beauregard Street, via Google Maps

The Alexandria School Board approved its 2024-2033 Capital Improvement Program budget on Thursday night, paving the way for construction of new schools, swing space and significant renovations over the next decade.

After a series of work sessions and public meetings this fall, the Board approved the $461 million proposal, with $58.7 million to be used next year.

“It is critical that we give our students the best opportunity to succeed by providing optimal learning environments and the resources to support their well-being and academic achievement,” School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said in a press release.

The fiscal year 2024 CIP budget is $37 million less than last year’s approved proposal, although that’s only because the Alexandria City High School Project funding.

In fact, development costs have risen sharply. The school system is contending with price jumps up to 200%, ACPS reported.

Between last year and this year, cost estimates for the design and project management for the new George Mason Elementary School increased from $16 million to $17.4 million when the project begins in FY 2024. Construction estimates for the school have also jumped from $64 million to $82 million.

The budget also includes $5 million to retrofit the office building at 1703 N. Beauregard Street as swing space while George Mason and Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology are completely rebuilt. George Mason students would transition to the swing space in fall 2024 and move into their new school in fall 2027, and Cora Kelly students would move to the swing space in fall 2027, and move into a newly built school in fall 2031.

The Capital Improvement Plan budget includes the following projects for FY 2024:

  • $17.4 million for George Mason Elementary School design, project management and other construction costs
  • $5.5 million for the renovation of the fifth and sixth floors of Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School
  • $5.1 million for the retrofit of the swing space at 1703 N. Beauregard Street
  • $5 million for repair work at William Ramsay Elementary School
  • $2.5 million for renovations at Francis C. Hammond Middle School
  • $2 million in transportation system upgrades
  • $1.5 million for emergency repairs
  • $1.3 million for renovations at George Washington Middle School
  • $1.2 million for Alexandria City High School stadium renovations, security enhancements and stormwater improvements
  • $1.2 million for textbook replacements

The CIP budget will be included in Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt’s proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget to the Board next month. The School Board will approve the budget in February, and it then goes to City Council for final adoption in May.

0 Comments
ACPS headquarters and clock (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated 4:15 p.m.) Are there too many Alexandria School Board Members? Should their terms be staggered and should districts be eliminated? The Board wants these questions answered by the time voters cast their ballots in November 2024.

Yesterday (Tuesday), the nine-person Board unanimously agreed to establish a process for asking the public these questions. The answers will inform a Board resolution that is expected to go before the Alexandria City Council next year and the Virginia General Assembly in 2024.

For years, the Board has weighed whether to restructure its composition and change the frequency of elections to try and reduce turnover. Last night, members tied Board turnover to a pattern of superintendent resignations and heightened anxiety among school staff.

“The impact that the Board turnover has on staff is extremely significant,” said Board Member Tammy Ignacio, who was an Alexandria City Public Schools administrator before retiring and running for office last year. “When you have a turnover of the board, you have a turnover of some staff and a turnover of leadership. It causes a lot of stress and anxiety on staff, and when that happens it impacts kids.”

For instance, six new members joined just three incumbents on the School Board after the November 2021 election. Board Members said school leadership suffers when more than half the Board is learning the ropes of the school system at one time.

“I can attest to the to the challenges that happen with with the high level of a learning curve that Board Members have to go through, the impact it has on staff, and in both of those cases we also had superintendents resign,” said Board Member Kelly Carmichael Booz, who has served two non-concurrent terms.

There were also five new Board Members elected in the 2018 election, five new Members in the 2015 election and seven new Members in the 2012 election.

School Board terms, and their respective City Council/Boards of Supervisor terms, across the region. (via ACPS)

There have also been three ACPS superintendents in the last decade, with a fourth set to be hired this spring.

“On average in ACPS, Superintendents resign nine months after a new School Board takes office,” notes an ACPS staff report. “Since 1994, four of the five superintendents left when the School Board turnover was five or more members.”

Since their first election in 1994, the city’s nine School Board members have served three-year terms for (three apiece in Districts A, B and C) with their elections and City Council’s held on the same day.

Last night, the Board reviewed some preliminary alternatives to the current election cycle, suggested by ACPS staff. They include:

  • Three-year Board Member term options — The two members of one district would be up for election every year, starting in 2025, followed by the second district in 2026 and the third district in 2027
  • Four-year Board Member term options — One district would be up for election every year, starting in 2025, followed by the second district in 2026, the third district in 2027 and the fourth in 2028. There would be no election in 2029, and the rotation would begin in 2030
  • Four-year and only at-large positions — There would be five members up for election (selected randomly by the registrar) in 2026, no election in 2027, and the remaining four members up for election in 2028

Del. Elizabeth Bennett-Parker (D-45) says that the concept of staggered terms makes sense, but said the option of having more elections for individual districts could confuse voters.

“If a single district was up for election every year as opposed to one seat, that could potentially lead to voter and candidate confusion, as many individuals don’t necessarily know what districts they reside in,” Bennett-Parker advised the Board.

Bennett-Parker serves in the legislature’s County, Cities and Towns Committee, which would would send forward the amendment to the Virginia Charter for the General Assembly for approval.

10 Comments

It was an unseasonably warm 60 degrees on Saturday afternoon (Dec. 3) in Old Town for the Campagna Center’s 51st Scottish Christmas Walk Parade.

The parade is one of the most popular events in the city, bringing thousands of participants, including Irish dancers, historic reenactors and the City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums. It is considered the highlight of a weekend full of events.

This year’s grand marshal was former City Council Member Del Pepper.

0 Comments
George Washington Middle School (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

Construction and other capital improvement costs for next fiscal year have increased for Alexandria City Public Schools by millions.

More than $14 million out of the $24 million in cost increases for new and existing capital improvement projects is due to supply chain issues and cost escalations, ACPS staff reported in a presentation to the School Board on Monday (Nov. 14).

Site development cost estimates have increased almost 200%, staff reported.

“There have been industry wide cost escalations on everything,” Erika Gulick, the ACPS executive director of facilities, told the Board. “That affects your groceries and your gasoline and affects construction and steel and concrete and everything else that we use to build our schools.”

In the meantime, the City is wrestling with its own capital improvement cost woes. The city is currently in the process of reevaluating its capital projects over the next decade, and says that CIP costs to the operating budget exceeds anticipated revenue growth.

“Approved capital budgets are larger and more complex than our experienced ability to execute capital projects,” City staff said in a presentation earlier this month. “(The) approved capital improvement program needs to be reassessed and placed on more sustainable path.”

The draft ACPS Capital Improvement Plan budget includes the following projects for FY 2024:

  • $17.4 million for George Mason Elementary School design, project management and other construction costs
  • $5.5 million for the renovation of the fifth and sixth floors of Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School
  • $5.1 million for the retrofit of the swing space at 1703 N. Beauregard Street
  • $5 million for repair work at William Ramsay Elementary School
  • $2.5 million for renovations at Francis C. Hammond Middle School
  • $2 million in transportation system upgrades
  • $1.5 million for emergency repairs
  • $1.3 million for renovations at George Washington Middle School
  • $1.2 million for Alexandria City High School stadium renovations, security enhancements and stormwater improvements
  • $1.2 million for textbook replacements

ACPS will next conduct a community meeting on the FY 2024-2033 CIP budget on Monday, Nov. 28. The Board will approve the CIP on Dec. 15.

2 Comments

Updated at 5:55 p.m. The Alexandria School Board on Friday (October 20) received a recommendation to extend its agreement with the Alexandria Police Department to provide school resource officers at the city’s high school and middle schools until  the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

The School Board will vote on the matter at its upcoming meeting on Thursday, November 10.

The memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the school system and police department was set to expire at the end of this month. By mid-December, the School Board will also receive interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt recommendations on the reimagined partnership. Those recommendations will have been guided by the School Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) Advisory Group.

“The SLEP advisory group may recommend changes to the MOU as part of their overall recommendations to the School Board in December 2022/January 2023,” Alicia Hart, the ACPS chief of facilities and operations, wrote in a memo to the School Board. “To this end, we are recommending extending the current MOU with APD through the end of June 2023. This extension will allow time to account for any potential recommendations that may come from the SLEP advisory group process as well as completion of the public comment process related to the review of the MOU.”

School safety has been a major focus within ACPS since full in-person schooling resumed at the beginning of the last school year.

ACPS began the 2021-2022 school year without school resource officers, after they were defunded by the City Council in last year’s budget. The first few months of the school year were punctuated by incidents with weapons in schools, prompting School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and then-Superintendent Gregory Hutchings to successfully plead to Council for SROs to return in October 2021.

Two months later, two SROs at Alexandria City High School’s King Street campus were put on administrative leave after being accused of having inappropriate sexual conversations with a former student. The school ended up not having SROs stationed at the King Street campus for the remainder of the school year.

There were 46 students arrested and 68 injured last school year, and 194 incidents that provoked a police response, according to an ACPS safety report.

Police Chief Don Hayes says that police are needed to contend with crews of violent kids within the school system, and Kay-Wyatt said that she will work collaboratively with the police to keep schools safe.

2 Comment

Alexandria leaders agree that the city either needs to expand its aging middle schools or completely build a new one.

There are now 15,700 students within Alexandria City Public Schools, and roughy 2,000 more students are expected by 2024. That puts the city in a tricky position, as 10 ACPS schools are more than 70 years old and need continual maintenance, and a surge in elementary school kids means that Alexandria needs more middle school space.

The need for a new school was outlined in a joint facilities update between City Council and the School Board on Wednesday, October 12.

“We’ve got to be creative here with how we do things,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “We can meet the needs of enrollment in our schools with properties we own today.”

A new middle school isn’t budgeted in the city’s 10-year fiscal year 2023-2032 Capital Improvement Program Budget. Three school replacements are currently funded: the Alexandria City High School (ACHS) Minnie Howard campus, George Mason Elementary School and Cora Kelly School.

The CIP also includes more than $12 million for the renovation of an office building at 1703 N. Beauregard Street for development by 2030. The space could be used as swing space for another school under construction or as a new 600-student-capacity school.

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson is in favor of converting the Nannie J. Lee Memorial Recreation Center (1108 Jefferson Street) into a new middle school. Other options include looking into the availability of land on Eisenhower East or at Simpson Field near Potomac Yard.

The discussion was prompted by a new Joint Facilities Master Plan Roadmap, presented by City Manager Jim Parajon. The roadmap prioritizes city renovation projects based on the condition of public buildings. City Hall, for instance, got an F rating for being “functionally obsolete.”

The roadmap is intended to be a guidance document for Council and the Board, filling in the blanks on potential developments.

A potential new use for the land at George Washington Middle School. (Via City of Alexandria)

The room of local lawmakers erupted in relief and laughter when City Manager Jim Parajon reiterated that the roadmap document is merely a guide.

“Just to be really clear, those illustrations that you saw, they are illustrations,” Parajon said. “It gives us some understanding of how a development or redevelopment could occur, or a renovation could occur.”

28 Comments
×

Subscribe to our mailing list