By Kassidy McDonald │email@example.com
One month into the 2022- 23 school year, the Alexandria School Board approved its areas of focus for the current year at its Sept. 8 meeting, which was the first with Melanie Kay-Wyatt, Ed.D. serving as interim superintendent.
Areas of focus included improving teacher morale, mental health concerns and absenteeism of both students and staff. During the open comment period of the meeting, Alexandria City High School students also expressed a desire to return to an extended lunch option, called Lunch & Learn, which was removed for this year because of safety reasons. An ACHS student was fatally stabbed in May during a melee at Bradlee Shopping Center, in which students were off-campus, in violation of school policy, during school hours.
Clinton Page, Alexandria City Public Schools chief of accountability and research, gave an overview presentation of the drafted proposed areas of focus for the 2022-2023 school year.
“Everything we do within Alexandria City Public is grounded in our Strategic Plan: Equity for All 2025,” Page said.
He then went on to discuss the 2021-2022 National Educational Landscape, in which data from across the nation shows that students and school staff struggle with mental health challenges, increases in student externalizing behaviors, increased absences which result in lost instructional time and difficulty finding substitute teachers.
This data also detailed research from Auburn University that showed increases in low teacher morale at 54%, and almost three out of four teachers reported they have considered leaving teaching at the end of the 2021-2022 school year.
ACPS data shows that chronic absenteeism is a problem within the school system, with rates nearly doubling for most student subgroups from 2019-2021 and remaining high in 2022. Staff absenteeism was also higher in 2021-2022 than in pre-pandemic school years.
Kay-Wyatt then gave board members an overview of where the areas of focus would be for this school year. Those included:
• Social emotional and academic learning recovery;
• Academic enrichment and advancement for Hispanic males, including internships, externships and workforce opportunities;
• Staff wellness and growth, including a wellness program, career growth and pipeline opportunities;
• Middle school educational experience, including scheduling, math pathways and middle school transitions;
• Early college, including course sequencing and program development;
• Talented and gifted students, including the identification process and service model.
“[Many additional] items will come up in our department improvement plans as well as our school improvement plans. And those school improvement plans will drill down information for specific community school data. That’s why these are more broad, in a sense that it covers the entire division, but remember we do have division improvement plans as well as school improvement plans,” Kay-Wyatt explained.
Another proposed area of focus was the continuous improvement in Key Performance Indicator disparities, to which Kay-Wyatt said staff is giving “laser focus.” These disparities, which the Board discussed in greater detail during its work session, were the suspensions of Black male and female students as well as Hispanic male students. There was also a disparity in chronic absenteeism for both Hispanic and Black students. This was the only change that came out of the work session from the previous presentation of areas of focus for 2022-2023.
The meeting began with numerous ACPS students speaking about their first week of classes, and expressing their support to bring Lunch & Learn, a recently removed program, back to ACHS.
The students all expressed their understanding that the program was removed for security reasons, but they also emphasized the positive aspects of the program.
The four students who spoke during public comment all had positive things to say about the program, such as that it provided a “brain break.”
ACHS senior Alayit Berhanu said the program strengthened many important aspects of a high schooler’s life, such as friendships, academics and freedom.
“The way Lunch & Learn was set up allowed students to communicate with their friends for 74 minutes, and us students enjoyed it tremendously,” Berhanu said. “… The positive aspects outweigh the negative aspects.”
Another ACHS senior, Lenhle Vilakati, said she couldn’t go to the College and Career Center anymore because 30 minutes during lunch is not enough time to eat and go places.
“I’m asking you to reconsider for those of us who can’t stay after school and for those of us who have excelled with Lunch & Learn,” Vilakati said.
Chelsea Waruzi, another ACHS senior, lost her voice and had a friend speak for her during public comment. She said she was able to be in many clubs and extracurriculars because of Lunch & Learn.
“Lunch & Learn can allow me to reach out and get help. I would be able to go to the College and Career Center to get help with college-related things. I can go to my teachers for extra help on assignments, or go to my counselor about how overwhelming being a senior is, all while having enough time after school to make sure my sister does her homework, my brother showers, do my assignments, eat dinner and go to sleep on time,” Waruzi said. “Lunch & Learn is pivotal to my success as a student.”
ACHS junior Yahney Marie Sangare, a Lunch Committee member, echoed the same concerns about the lack of opportunities for students with the removal of the program.
“When we discuss finding solutions, are we looking at the central problem? Is taking away Lunch & Learn, a fundamental program that allowed for students to come from a variety of different circumstances to come together in networks that facilitated the positive environment we are seeking … is the constant vilification and occasional dehumanization of students, especially students of color … are we making the moves to help these student needs or only trying to minimize certain concerns?” Sangare said.
She then urged the Board to adopt a new program that will serve all students’ needs as well as to include students in subsequent conversations about the topic.
School Board Member Michelle Rief said she was glad improving KPI disparities was included in the areas of focus. Rief also asked about the future of Lunch & Learn, referencing the many student speakers who said it supported their academic recovery.
Kay-Wyatt said the number of students, family and faculty members that have reached out to her about the program shows how important it is within the ACPS community.
“Please understand it is a reset for us as we enter the new school year … it is really to step back and get more input on how we can help students and really facilitate the time around safety, learning and providing SEAL activities in addition to that,” Kay-Wyatt said. “We do understand everyone’s concerns that they shared about making sure we have opportunities for our students … and I think that committee is really going to come back with some great feedback for us on how we can make enhancements for what [students] had for last year.”
The committee working on Lunch & Learn involves about 15 members, including student representatives, who are brainstorming ideas to keep a program like Lunch & Learn as an option for ACPS students.
Board Member Willie Bailey made a motion to approve the areas of focus for the 2022- 2023 school year, which Board Member W. Christopher Harris seconded. The Board voted and approved it unanimously, 8-0, with Alderton absent.