Our View: New superintendent, old problems

Our View: New superintendent, old problems
File Photo

A spate of news from our schools has reverberated around Alexandria in the past week – some good, some horrible and some to be determined. It’s a lot to digest. Below, we touch on each major news item briefly, with more to follow in coming weeks.

Because there’s been lots of bad school-related news recently, let’s start with the good: Alexandria City Public Schools has a new permanent superintendent, Melanie Kay-Watts, Ed.D. We and others noted when Kay-Watts was named interim that she had no prior experience running a school district and had only been at ACPS a short time. On the face of it, she was an unusual selection as interim superintendent, but was nonetheless clearly the favorite to land the permanent job from the start.

The more cynical among us may roll their eyes at the “nation-wide search” that took place in the superintendent search. But in corporate as well as government settings, a process must be followed even if there’s an existing, internal preferred candidate who is likely to emerge with the posted job.

While our schools have not become safer nor achieved visible academic progress since Kay-Wyatt took over as interim superintendent last September – ACPS continues to lag behind the rest of Virginia in most measures of learning, and the drug and violence issues have reached a boiling point – we also think she inherited a district in crisis that had suffered from several years of distant leadership.

We welcome Kay-Wyatt and offer several pieces of advice:

• Focus on rubber-meets-road issues such as safety and academic achievement for all rather than aspirational initiatives.

• Be visible, responsive and accountable. Don’t just issue statements that are mostly public relations spin and then disappear when something bad happens. Instead, stand in front of parents, students and the media and discuss solutions.

• Show empathy for the real and justified concerns that parents and students have about both safety and the difficult learning environment that exists in many of our schools.

More encouraging news comes from the safety front, where the first weapons detection equipment began being installed Monday in ACPS. Alexandria City High School’s main campus and the Minnie Howard Campus, along with the city’s middle schools, will receive these safety devices.

The other positive school safety news is the new two-year agreement between ACPS and the Alexandria Police Department to have police officers, commonly called SROs, in schools. The current agreement runs out at the end of June. According to Alxnow, the School Board will meet with City Council on May 15 to discuss the memorandum of understanding, which will be followed on May 18 by a School Board public hearing and vote. The MOU would take effect on July 1 if approved.

Despite a dangerous flirtation a couple of years ago with axing the SRO program, we are relieved that practical concern for the safety of students and ACPS staff seems to have prevailed.

Unfortunately, the school news in Alexandria is not all good, as one student died last week after suffering from cardiac arrest at home and another overdosed at Alexandria City High School before being administered Narcan by an officer in the school, according to openmhz.com.

As today’s page 1 story “Student overdoses prompt action” indicates, community leaders are taking steps to educate residents about the dangers of fentanyl-laced drugs and to increase the availability of Narcan.

Those are positive steps.

What’s missing, though, is visible action by APD and the Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office to more effectively arrest, prosecute and incarcerate those who sell fentanyl-laced drugs. We look forward to hearing their plans to tackle this scourge that, according to the Virginia Department of Health, killed almost 2,000 Virginians in 2022.