By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Melanie Kay-Wyatt began her new position as interim superintendent at Alexandria City Public Schools one month ago, a role she’s been preparing for since the School Board appointed her in July. In many ways, though, she’s been honing the necessary skills for much longer.
Since joining ACPS last summer as executive director of human resources, she has been promoted to acting chief and then chief of human resources. Previously, she worked as principal and assistant principal at Fredericksburg City Public Schools, as a special education teacher at FCPS and Culpeper County Schools and in human resources at Spotsylvania Public Schools.
“People always think when you’re in human resources that that’s all you do, but in schools when you’re working in human resources, you’re closely tied to other departments like instruction and budgets,” Kay-Wyatt said. “So that was great work because I have the background with schooling in the sense of education and curriculum.”
Kay-Wyatt, who replaces former Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., sat down with the Times to discuss what she hopes to bring to her new position, some of the issues facing ACPS and her ideas for the 2022- 2023 school year. Several of her goals include working toward school safety, pandemic recovery, open communication and student growth.
To accomplish this, she plans to implement the advice Hutchings imparted before his resignation from the district at the end of August.
“[He said to] be true to myself and passion. He’s always like, ‘You know who you are as a leader, so just follow your heart and your passion, and be you,’” Kay-Wyatt said.
A primary goal of Kay-Wyatt’s is to prioritize school safety, which over the past few years has become a contentious topic of conversation among community members due to ACPS’ removal – and subsequent reinstatement – of school resource officers on the high school and middle school campuses.
Certain safety measures are visible to the public, such as the SROs and the recent requirement that each student carry an identification card. But Kay-Wyatt explained that other measures are kept internally confidential in order to avoid compromising the safety of school communities.
“When we talk about safety, people … think you have all of these things that you can see and touch and make available to the public, that ‘If I walk by or drive by, I’m going to see what you’ve done to put safety in place,’” Kay-Wyatt said. “And the whole point of creating a safe space doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to identify that there’s extra this or extra that out there; it’s just that children have that feeling of being safe because of things we have put in place – seen and unseen.”
She asserted that safety has always been a priority in the district; it’s just become a more common topic of conversation due to current events. And talking about it, she said, helps the community feel safer and more confident that school safety is in fact a significant area of focus.
When asked about how she plans to maintain open communication with the public, Kay-Wyatt said she makes visits to community forums and events as often as she can. When she is unable to attend, a representative will speak on ACPS’ behalf to answer questions.
She also pointed to an email address, [email protected], to which parents can submit questions and receive individualized responses. The email is useful for those who may have a personal question they do not want to ask in public, or for those who feel their answers have been misinterpreted or not adequately addressed.
“Oftentimes we need to make sure that we understand [their] question,” Kay-Wyatt said. “ … Sometimes just having that question sent with an explanation will really help us get the right answer to the person that’s asking.”
Kay-Wyatt joins the district at the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left a great deal of learning loss in its wake after students were relegated to mostly virtual learning for the past few years.
ACPS’ 2021-2022 Standards of Learning performance scores lagged behind the state of Virginia’s, with students achieving a lower than 50% proficiency in the math and science categories. Though the district improved in the reading category, it was likely due in part to the state introducing new reading tests last year that required lower proficiency benchmarks because of the pandemic.
Making up for the learning loss will take time, Kay-Wyatt noted, as the pandemic was not a one-and-done event.
“Those several years where our students had to experience trauma and loss, and I’m not talking about [just] learning loss … there was so much that our students and families had to endure that we’re not going to make that up overnight,” Kay-Wyatt said.
Recovery has required an emphasis on social emotional support first and foremost, she said. ACPS is just now reaching a point where it can sufficiently address the academic learning loss as well.
According to Kay-Wyatt, it’s important to acknowledge that students might be at different levels than one another, and to treat every child on a case-by-case basis.
“We’ve talked about giving grace over the past couple of years, but I think right now it’s just about being patient, being diligent in making sure that we understand our students’ needs, and finding ways to address it,” Kay-Wyatt said.
Kay-Wyatt’s contract extends through June 30, 2023, or until the district hires a permanent superintendent. She said the community will “just have to wait and see” if she ends up pursuing the permanent position.
Right now, she’s more concerned with what’s directly in front of her. This includes tackling ongoing issues facing the district, from staffing shortages to school safety, and ensuring that the beginning of the 2022-23 school year continues to run smoothly. Kay-Wyatt said her focus is on the daily operations, management and instructional practices that will keep the community safe and engaged in classroom instruction.
Whether the end of Kay-Wyatt’s reign as superintendent is next summer or several years down the line, her mission looks the same: to make sure staff knows they are valued and to help students grow, however that appears for each child.
“[I want to make] sure that our students have experienced some growth, whatever that growth looks like for them. If it’s a student with specialized instruction, that they’re growing in whatever their goals are; if it’s an advanced student, they’re growing in their coursework,” Kay-Wyatt said. “ … I think there’s a lot to be said about what growth looks like for individual students, so that is my goal.”