Finalists emerge for ACHS principal: Search followed resignation of Peter Balas in early May

Finalists emerge for ACHS principal: Search followed resignation of Peter Balas in early May
ACHS (File Photo)

By Brianne McConnell |

The search for a new executive principal at Alexandria City High School is down to two finalists, one a current employee and one from outside Alexandria.

Alexandria City Public Schools initiated the search following the announcement by Peter Balas on May 11 that he was leaving ACHS to take the helm of Wakefield High School in Arlington.

The first candidate, Alexander Duncan III, is currently the campus administrator at ACHS’ Minnie Howard campus. He’s been in that role since 2021. The second candidate, Marcie Rice, Ed.D., is currently a principal at Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield, Virginia.

On Monday, ACPS held a webinar that introduced the two candidates to the ACPS community and was open to all interested city residents. Both candidates were given the chance to answer questions from parents, staff and community stakeholders during the Zoom meeting.

Topics included school community, diversity, drugs in schools, safety and security, absenteeism and special education.

Both finalists are expected to interview with interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt on Friday, and the School Board is expected to vote on Balas’ replacement at a special meeting on June 22.

The selection of the two finalists follows a month-long process that started with an ACPS online public survey that asked about the strengths of the school, the challenges facing the school and the qualities and attributes desired in a new leader.

The survey enlisted comments from about 100 people including parents, staff, students and community members.

The diverse student population, a strong school culture and dedicated and passionate staff were among the strengths noted in the survey. Respondents to the survey said some of the challenges facing ACHS included size of student population, staff turnover and academic issues related to recovery from the pandemic.

Duncan joined ACPS in 2007 as an English teacher and has worked at the middle and high school level within the division.

“I think ultimately in order to lead a school successfully, you won’t be able to do it without a positive relationship with family and the community. I carry an inherent belief that it takes a village. It takes a village to raise children and make a school function and operate,” Duncan said during the Zoom meet and greet.

Rice has been principal of Meadowbrook with approxi- mately 2,000 students since 2019. Rice has been an educator with Chesterfield County Schools since 2011, where she started as a science teacher.

“I believe there are a lot of great things that are currently occurring at ACHS. I think it requires a lot to bring people together in a cohesive fashion to reach a goal. And I think I’ve been able to do just that in a variety of settings, especially in a setting where we are serving a diverse population of students,” Rice said during the Zoom meet and greet.

Last month, Balas shocked many in the community by announcing his departure.

“There’s a big hole now that ACPS has to fill now for us,” Katy Matthews, ACHS Par- ent Teacher Student Association president, said.

The Alexandria City Public Schools Communications Office declined to make Balas available for comment for this story citing his departure as a “personnel matter.”

Principal since 2017, Balas is the leader for more than 4,500 students and 400 staff across four campuses at ACHS, which has been beset with an array of issues during his six-year tenure in the top leadership spot at the school.

Balas had to shepherd the community through the COVID-19 pandemic, the renaming of the school, concerns over safety and violence, concerns over fentanyl and the killing of a student in May 2022 during school hours at Bradlee Shopping Center.

In addition to his role as executive principal, Balas has overseen the graduation task force that monitors completion statuses and dropout interventions. He is credited with leading the school as it achieved its highest levels of student graduation and lowest levels of dropout in the school’s history.

In a letter sent to the ACHS community on May 11 announcing his departure, Balas wrote that this change comes with a heavy heart and mixed emotions.

“I am honored to have had the last 22 years with the most amazing students, staff, families and community. I cannot even begin to thank you for all of your support and guidance,” Balas said in the letter.

Prior to his time at the high school, Balas served as principal at Mount Vernon Community School.

Balas is expected to stay with the school system through the end of the month before beginning his new position in Arlington on July 1. The new leader will come on board for the 2023-24 school year, during which the under-construction, expanded Minnie Howard campus is slated to open in 2024.

Maureen McNulty, who is a parent of two ACHS students, participated in the school survey last month.

“I want to have someone at the helm who is pretty defined and comfortable with the expanded capacity. We just don’t know very much what that’s going to look like. So this leader has to bring to the table all of those qualities to make that a successful opening,” McNulty said.

McNulty is hopeful whoever is named will be a bridge-builder.

“I think because of the pandemic and the reopening of school after the pandemic, I think we need someone who is going to rebuild a sense of community with parents. I do feel we’ve missed some of that. The parents need to be reengaged,” McNulty said.