(Updated at noon, Jan. 12) In the midst of declining enrollment, Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. wants to give all ACPS employees a raise.
That’s the gist of Hutchings’ $346 million fiscal year 2022 Combined Funds Budget, which he presented to the School Board last Thursday night (Jan. 6). The proposal is a nearly 4% increase over last year’s budget, and asks for approximately $248.7 million from the city. The City Council ultimately provides ACPS with 80% of its operating fund.
Hutchings is asking for a 2.6% salary step increase and a 2.5% market rate adjustment for all eligible ACPS employees. The school system is also continually adapting to the pandemic, as exponentially rising case numbers recently prompted the School Board plans on reverting to virtual formats on a school-by-school basis.
“Enrollment is projected to continue to decline,” noted a staff presentation to the School Board. “FY 2023 Operating Budget proposes maintaining school staff to provide continued supports due to effects of Covid-19 Pandemic.”
Systemwide, ACPS enrollment fell 3% (474 students) between summer 2020 and now (fiscal years 2021 and 2022) — a challenging period of the pandemic after more than 16,000 students transitioned to fully virtual, hybrid and then in-person learning. The school system now projects an increase of only nine students at the beginning of FY 2023 in July.
“This budget is aligned with the priorities set by the School Board for the 2022-23 school year,” Hutchings said in a press release. “It provides the support our students and staff need to succeed and mirrors our core values that ensure ACPS is empowering, equity-focused, innovative and results-driven.”
The school system is not alone in wanting raises for staff, as the Alexandria Fire Department and Police Department are also struggling with retention and Mayor Justin Wilson says the city needs to do more with less in the days ahead.
ACPS will conduct a public hearing on the proposed budget on Jan. 21. The School Board is expected to pass it (with revisions) on Feb. 18, and then go to City Council for deliberation until it passes the city’s budget in early May.
(Updated 8 p.m.) Alexandria Police are investigating alleged drug possession and distribution at Episcopal High School, one of the most exclusive private boarding schools in the country.
On Dec. 8, police responded to a narcotics complaint at Episcopal and met with the school’s attorney, according to a search warrant affidavit. The officer was told that a week prior, on Dec. 1, two students were found to be allegedly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Both students were then “immediately withdrawn” from the school by their families, according to the affidavit.
The school’s attorney then told police that one of the suspected students, who turned 18 on Dec. 10, received a number of packages with suspected drugs and that the packages were in the school mailroom.
“The parcels were retrieved and one of the parcels appeared to already be damaged and open,” police said in the search warrant. “Upon looking inside, the administrator believed the contents were illegal narcotics. Based upon the open parcel containing suspected illegal narcotics, the administrator and additional witnesses opened the other parcels and discovered additional suspected narcotics.”
Police found a number of U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail envelopes addressed to the 18-year-old at the school and containing the following:
- 20 grams of suspected Psilocybin mushrooms
- 26 suspected Xanax pills and 1.2 grams of suspected methamphetamine
- 1.3 grams of suspected cocaine
- Five suspected Ecstasy pills
Episcopal’s attorney has not returned ALXnow’s requests for comment, and no arrests have been made.
More than 450 male and female students attend the 182-year-old private boarding school in the fenced 130-acre property at 1200 North Quaker Lane.
Episcopal went on winter break on Dec. 17, and students will return to classes on Jan. 3.
Days after both school resource officers at Alexandria City High School were put on administrative leave, the Alexandria Police Department and Alexandria City Public Schools system are still unclear as to if or when those officers will be replaced.
The officers were placed on leave last Thursday after a “serious complaint” from a former student alleging “sexually inappropriate conversations” while she attended ACHS, according to the Washington Post.
SROs have been controversial over the last year, as they were defunded by City Council earlier this year, and then brought back in October after outcry from the school system after a number of incidents with weapons in schools.
SROs are police officers with sidearms who receive 40 hours of specialized training with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Service’s Center for School Safety. They work alongside unarmed security personnel, and are trained in deescalation, seizure and arrests on school grounds, operating during active shooting incidents and working alongside kids with emotional and behavioral issues.
Police say that the memorandum of understanding between the police and schools remains in place, but would not say if or when the officers at the high school will be replaced.
“This question could be misleading,” APD public information officer Marcel Bassett told ALXnow. “We do have other officers in the Department, but again wouldn’t get into further speculation of ‘what if’ or even mentioning replacement until we understand the resolution of the investigation.”
The school system, which would not comment on the matter, is now on winter break until Jan. 3.
“We are looking at and evaluating every possibility to keep our students safe,” Bassett said. “This does depend on the results of the investigation. In the meantime we are working closely with ACPS to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff of all ACPS.”
A $12.5 million aquatics facility, three school replacements and swing space that will be turned into a new elementary school are all part of the nearly $500 million 10-year Capital Improvement Program budget that the Alexandria School Board approved last Thursday night.
After a series of work sessions and public meetings this fall, the Board approved the $497,804,800 proposal, with $204,685,100 to be used next year, without discussion. In a press release, Board Chair Meagan Alderton said she appreciated the work of Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. and his team to develop the document, and said that it takes rising enrollment, infrastructure and critical capital planning needs into account.
“The School Board is confident that this CIP budget accurately and responsibly addresses the school division’s needs,” Alderton said.
Hutchings said he appreciated the Board’s support, and that the CIP addresses ACPS’ most critical capital needs.
“The School Board’s approval of this budget allows us to move forward as we continue pursuing instructional excellence in all of our schools,” Hutchings said.
The CIP budget now waits for the direction of incoming City Manager Jim Parajon, who is facing significant pressure from other departments for increased funding, including the police and fire departments. Parajon starts work next month, and with his new staff will present a proposed fiscal year 2023 budget to City Council in February.
Mayor Justin Wilson was noncommittal about the proposal, and that he’d only seen the superintendent’s version before it was passed.
“The City Manager will propose his budget in February and we’ll work to balance the needs of the community against revenues,” Wilson told ALXnow. “That applies to everything in the budget.”
Three new schools, and more…
With a 15,477-person school system expected to increase by up to 2,000 students within the next decade, the CIP budget gives the school system some room to grow.
The budget funds next year’s massive $157.4 million expansion of Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard Campus. Construction on the five-story facility is scheduled to begin in June 2022 and be finished by September 2024.
Design, project management and other costs for the new George Mason Elementary School are budgeted for $16 million when the project begins in 2024, and construction, which will begin in 2025 is estimated at more than $64 million.
Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology is also slated for replacement, with $17.3 million going toward initial development in 2027 and construction budgeted for $69.4 million in 2028.
The budget also includes the $24.5 million development of the 1703 N. Beauregard property next year, an office property that will be converted to swing space for George Mason and Cora Kelly students. The space will be developed into a new 600-student-capacity elementary school in 2030, with $12.7 million budgeted for initial work.
- Approximately $1 million to textbook resources in FY 2023
- $7.4 million in repairs to Alexandria City High School
- $1.4 million in access control and security management
- $2.4 million in building technology modernization
- $3.5 million to renovate Charles Barrett Elementary School, with $500,000 toward a new HVAC system in 2023
- $6.5 million to renovate Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School, with a majority of the work HVAC, roof repair and more being completed in 2026
- $1.9 million to replace the HVAC system at Francis C. Hammond Middle School in 2023
- $42 million in facilities repairs system-wide
- $27 million for transportation services, including $10 million for a facility modernization and $12.8 million for new school buses
Alexandria’s COVID-19 infections jumped after Thanksgiving, and the numbers continue to rise going into the winter holidays.
There were 116 new cases reported in the city today (Friday), which is the most single-day cases reported since January 2021. There have been 301 new cases reported in the City in the last three days alone, and this “exponential” jump in COVID-19 cases, as described by the Health Department Thursday night, has stretched to Alexandria City Public Schools, as it waves farewell to 15,000 students for the two week winter break starting Monday.
There were 32 new cases reported across ACPS on Dec. 15 (Wednesday); 52 cases reported between Dec. 14 and Dec. 16, and more than 40 new cases reported last week, the Alexandria Health Department reported to the School Board on Thursday night.
Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. told the Board that ACPS will not revert to system-wide virtual learning, and will monitor rising numbers to determine if individual schools need to shift back to an all-virtual environment on a case-by-case basis.
Hutchings also told the Board that the ACPS COVID-19 Dashboard will be updated more regularly to provide current numbers, which will be used to “determine if we need to revert to a virtual setting.”
Earlier this week, the Dashboard showed only 19 infections in the month of December. That has since been changed to 59 reported cases, significantly below the 122 cases reported since Dec. 6.
The Virginia Department of Health reports that 56% of the city’s 5-17-year-olds are fully vaccinated. In ACPS, 120 staffers are not vaccinated due to religious and medical exemptions, but they are being tested weekly and none have been fired because of refusing to take the vaccine, Hutchings said.
Alexandria’s transmission rate went from “Substantial” to “High” at the end of November, and the numbers of new infections have climbed at rates not seen since January of this year.
Consequently, ACPS recommends the following travel guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Delay travel until you are fully vaccinated
- Check your destination’s COVID-19 situation before traveling. State, local, and territorial governments may have travel restrictions in place
- Wearing a mask over your nose and mouth is required in indoor areas of public transportation (including airplanes) and indoors in U.S. transportation hubs (including airports)
- Do not travel if you have been exposed to COVID-19, you are sick, or if you test positive for COVID-19
- If you are not fully vaccinated and must travel, get tested both before and after your trip
ACPS also asks families to check their emails and answer phone calls, since callers could be contract tracers with the Health Department or ACPS informing of an exposure.
With only 15 total students in the entire school in a single room, it’s unlikely students at the proposed Bright Start Learning Center will get lost in the crowd.
Bright Start currently has a child care program at 4920 Brenman Park Drive but is looking to convert the administrative space at 4917 Brenman Park Drive into a school for elementary-age children.
“The space is currently being used for administrative offices of Bright Start Learning Center,” the school said in a special use permit application. “We propose changing the use to a private commercial school that offers enrichment classes to children ages 3 to 12. This use is separate from Bright Start’s child care center.”
The school will be open from noon to 8 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on weekends. The application says the Cameron Condominium Association Board has agreed to let the school use existing visitor parking spaces for the school.
A Montessori program has filed a permit to open a new school in the city’s Landmark neighborhood.
The program would be aimed at students 0-5 years old and would incorporate elements of both the Montessori and Reggio Emilia educational philosophies, in which students explore and direct their own educational experience with guidance from teachers.
The next closest Montessori Kids Universe school is in Ashburn, but the school is far from the first of its kind in Alexandria. There are at least three Montessori schools in Alexandria, though most of those are in Old Town and Del Ray. Two additional Montessori schools have filed permits to open this year.
The application said the school will have a capacity of 106 children.
(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.
The Alexandria School Board on Thursday (September 23) will vote Thursday on a number of policy and regulatory revisions on the treatment of transgender students.
Among the changes are proposals to not segregate extracurricular activities by gender and allowing students to dress according to their gender identity or gender expression. Student athletes would still, sometimes, be segregated.
“Dress expectations should allow students to dress in a manner consistent with their gender identity or gender expression, including attire required for school-related programs, activities and events,” ACPS notes in a staff memo. “An organization may only impose membership qualifications based on sex where based on competitive athletic skill or where the activity involved is a contact sport. However, membership shall not be denied solely on the basis of gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”
The Board is making the changes to adhere to Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE’s) Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students in Virginia’s Public Schools, since the General Assembly now requires that all public schools in Virginia have inclusive policies regarding transgender students by the fall of 2021.
“Teachers, administrators, and other personnel employed on a full-time basis who support and interact with students are required to complete a mental health awareness training or similar program,” notes an ACPS memo. “In order to promote a positive school climate where all students feel safe and supported, regular education about transgender students will be included in such training.”
The regulatory revisions highlight eight issues, according to ACPS:
- Compliance with applicable nondiscrimination laws;
- Maintenance of a safe and supportive learning environment free from discrimination and harassment for all students;
- Prevention of and response to bullying and harassment;
- Maintenance of student records;
- Identification of students;
- Protection of student privacy and the confidentiality of sensitive information;
- Enforcement of sex-based dress codes; and
- Student participation in sex-specific school activities and events and use of school facilities. (“Activities and events” do not include athletics.)
Kristin Carpenter’s services are in demand.
This month, she and her team opened The Linder Academy at the corner of S. Washington and Gibbon Streets in Old Town, joining their smaller McLean location, which opened in January.
Right now, she’s got 24 students in McLean and 52 at the Alexandria campus, and when the latter is built out it will have 13 classrooms and be able to hold just over 100 students.
“I never thought I would want to run a private school,” Carpenter told ALXnow. “But as a research specialist and a teacher, it was nice that there was no bureaucracy and we could just teach the kids. We don’t have curriculum contracts, so we could just pick the best materials and the best methods and teach with super small class sizes and problem-based learning — things that just aren’t options at big schools, and we really had a great time with it.”
Still under construction, the Old Town school is located at 601, 607 and 609 S. Washington Street and 710 Gibbon Street. New murals of famous authors and civil rights icons with quotes have been painted on the exterior walls to show the essence of the school’s philosophy.
Carpenter launched Linder Educational Coaching in Arlington in 2008, and focused mainly on interventions outside of school with tutoring and after-school programs.
“But when COVID hit, we just realized there were a lot of parents that needed support,” she said. “My biggest concern was early childhood literacy. Even with the best teacher in the world, you’re just not going to learn on an iPad.”
The school, which costs more than $28,000 a year in tuition, specializes in working with students who struggle with learning disabilities and traditional school settings. Children spend the early part of the day with the most cognitively demanding classes, like math and English, and they day becomes less regulated in the afternoon for electives.
There are six-t0-nine students in each class, Carpenter said.
“I would say weaknesses in social skills is one of the biggest things that we are seeing,” she said. “Outside of that, I think overall that their writing skills are very weak, and that wasn’t helped by being able to type or do voice-to-text this past school year. You know, the actual act of being able to write is important.”
Carpenter said she had no plans to open additional schools in the future.
“God, no,” she said. “I can’t think about it right now. I’m very tired. I just want to sleep for years.”