Filling in the blanks: Why do people choose Alexandria City Public Schools?

Filling in the blanks: Why do people choose Alexandria City Public Schools?
School board chairwoman Karen Graf

By Karen Graf

The first week of school is here. New and prospective parents often ask me why people send their children to Alexandria City Public Schools and why they choose to stay.

Based on the last several years, we know that something has shifted in a positive direction in Alexandria. In fact, I have heard the dialogue change around ACPS. This benefits the whole community in many ways.

I informally surveyed a group of parents who have children in the district between kindergarten and eighth grade. I asked them why they send their children to ACPS. Most everyone gave “community” as the reason.

A common story is that they moved to Alexandria before their children were of school age. Many were interested in living in neighborhoods where they could meet neighbors, walk to school and participate in their community.

The community connection is strong in Alexandria, and they were betting on that being true in school system as well. They found that the local schools served as a community-gathering place. Playgrounds were seen as a way to meet people, and many felt that they were making lifelong friends through participating in their schools.

Many parents felt strongly about wanting to be in a functioning, urban school district in a city that also felt like a small town. They welcomed ACPS’ diversity. Today’s workplace is a global one, and having children experience diversity at such a young age helps them develop skills for adapting to the world at large. Parents believed that this helps students build resilience and grit, which are emerging concepts in the education community.

They also like that each school has a different “personality,” and they felt that this led to similar values in the school populations. When I asked them to clarify their concepts of values, they said most people have a deep belief in the public education system and enjoy the benefits of a diverse staff and student population.

There’s also a strong investment of time and money in local schools. Many community partners, nonprofits and parents across the city are giving their time, money and energy to better our school system. This serves as a capstone to districts becoming high performing.

All of these reasons might be enough for someone to send their child to ACPS, but why do they stay? The general thought was that people want to help their city and their neighborhoods progress.

They also recognize that T.C. Williams has some of the best offerings in the state. The high school provides the most AP courses in the commonwealth, it has a robust career and technical education program, and the counseling department is committed to assisting students to realize their college goals. With such a large student population, there are exciting opportunities for students to experience successes in science, the arts and music.

The parents also cited the dedicated, committed staff. As I listened to them, I realized that education is complex. Every student learns differently and every teacher teaches differently. But through those differences, ACPS is committed to creating equitable opportunities for every child in the school system.

What struck me was that these parents have pride in their children, their school experience and the city of Alexandria. And this combination is what is aiding the district’s focus on high performance.

I’m excited for the first week of school and all of the people that will be coming through our doors all over the city. And I’m eager to continue to observe the successes of our staff and our students in the coming year.

With a community like ours, success is defined by those making a difference in people’s lives. And in our city, Alexandrians give and receive that in bucket loads.

The writer is the chairwoman of the Alexandria City School Board.