Will we ever get beyond damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic? It seems that ill effects from the global pandemic continue to swirl around us, sometimes in plain sight, other times invisible until a tragedy occurs and, by closely focusing, we see the connection.
The past couple of years at Alexandria City Public Schools, at least at the high school level, have been a trial. One former substitute teacher told us the Minnie Howard campus was constantly chaotic and like a scene from “Lord of the Flies” – the story of an isolated group of boys who turn to savagery.
ACPS’ problems with teacher retention is surely, at least in part, related to the ongoing safety threats within city schools. We have heard repeated descriptions of disrespect toward teachers and staff. We ran a detailed story about a student-described “Big-ass fight” in which student-made videos clearly show an administrator being knocked to the ground as he was trying to keep the peace. We heard multiple credible reports, which ACPS neither confirmed nor denied, that this administrator was knocked unconscious.
A year ago last week, an ACHS senior, who was weeks from graduating, was tragically killed in a melee at Bradlee Shopping Center just outside the McDonald’s – during school hours when ACPS rules state students are not supposed to be off campus.
All of this behavior is obviously not being caused by repercussions from COVID-19, as problems with learning and behavior at then T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School, have existed for years.
We have long thought that one contributing factor is simply the size of ACHS, and we know some school board members share this concern. ACHS is just too large, at 4,500 students and growing. Simply put, Alexandria needs multiple high schools, not one mega facility – even if it’s on two campuses.
Neighboring Arlington County, where universally respected ACHS Principal Peter Balas has accepted a job to lead Wakefield High School, is an example of high schools well done. While Arlington is also dealing with problems with fentanyl – which is a growing danger as it flows across our southern border – the learning environment there seems vastly better than at ACHS.
Notably, all three Arlington high schools – Wakefield, Washington-Liberty and Yorktown – each have just over 2,500 students per school, a much more manageable number than ACPS.
When the under-construction Minnie Howard campus of ACHS is finished, and both campuses house all four grades rather than congregating all ninth graders at Minnie Howard, the situation should improve. But another, separate high school at a different location, bringing our main high school campuses to three like Arlington, is what we think is needed – and should be a focal point of long-range ACPS planning.
We hope that newly confirmed ACHS superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt, Ed.D. spends the summer working with school board members and talking with parents about ways to tackle these enormous problems.
The first priority should be remediating the gaps in both academic achievement and social behavior that widened during Alexandria’s lengthy school shutdown. And the solutions should not be rooted in ideology, but in learning process and behavioral coaching designed to close the gap by lifting all students up.
We can’t undo the mistakes that were made during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as widespread shutdowns of in-person learning in many – but notably not all – U.S. school districts. These shutdowns left our students, particularly those from at-risk home environments, further behind both so- cially and academically. Those decisions were as anti-equitable as anything that’s been done in this city in years.
We continue to reap the bitter harvest of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the bad decisions made in response. The advent of summer brings a much- needed respite. But there is much work to be done.