By Aaron Kopp
Alexander Duncan III, who became the principal of Alexandria City High School on July 1, told parents last week that ACHS’ “closed campus” policy will be enforced this year. Duncan also emphasized the need for consistent student attendance in an email and post on the school’s parent portal. Duncan’s message, which went out four days prior to Monday’s start of the 202324 school year, said the closed campus policy applies to all four ACHS locations: King Street, Minnie Howard, Satellite and Chance for Change.
“As we approach the beginning of the school year, I wanted to take this opportunity to remind all of our students, families, staff and community that our high school campuses are ‘closed campuses,’” Duncan said in the email.
Duncan, who is entering his 16th year in ACPS, has stepped into the post most recently held by the well-regarded Peter Balas. Duncan was previously administrator of the Minnie Howard campus, which has been beset with student behavioral issues since reopening following the COVID-19 shutdown.
Students leaving campus have caused problems at both the main King Street campus and at Minnie Howard – which is right next to Bradlee Shopping Center – in recent years.
Most notably, ACHS senior Luis Hernandez was murdered on May 24, 2022 in a large-scale fight between students who were off campus during school hours. Another student, Ryan Vega, was tried as an adult in Circuit Court and convicted of felony charges for second degree murder and murder by mob earlier this summer.
Duncan elaborated what a “closed campus” means in his email.
“A closed campus means that students are not allowed to leave school grounds during the school day. … The expectation is that all students will arrive by the start of the school day and remain on school grounds through dismissal unless a student has specific permission, in accordance with school procedures … for leaving at a certain time,” Duncan wrote.
The new principal emphasized that there will be consequences if students leave school grounds with-out permission.
“Any students leaving the school campuses without permission will be given administrative consequences,” Duncan wrote. “The consequences can include – but are not limited to – loss of privileges (such as attending after school events), detention, parent meetings or suspension.”
Duncan also reminded families of the importance of consistent school attendance.
“Remember, student attendance matters. Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) encourages all students to be in school every day and ready to learn. The Department of Student Services and Equity has information online about the ACPS attendance policy,” Duncan said in the email.
In an interview earlier this summer, Duncan spoke about his long career within ACPS and how it has prepared him for this new role.
“My first year was the first year [T.C. Williams was] in this building,” Duncan said. He has served as English teacher, dean of students, assistant principal, summer school principal and, most recently, as the campus administrator of ACHS’ Minnie Howard Campus.
His time in the community has allowed him to make important connections within the school system. One such connection is with ACHS history teacher Luis Gonzales, who worked at Minnie Howard while Duncan served as campus administrator.
Gonzales said Duncan’s experience translates well to his new role as principal.
“For all intents and purposes, he was the principal of the Minnie Howard campus. He was basically fulfilling all the same duties. … He ran the day-to-day and acted as administrative lead,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales also commented on the strong relationships Duncan has built in the school system.
“Everyone knows him, he has very good relationships with the staff and administrators,” Gonzales said.
Duncan also touched on his relationship with students.
“I was just thinking about a group of young men I worked with at Minnie Howard, and I’m excited to see them and work with them now as upperclassmen,” Duncan said.
The new principal also elaborated on how the skills of his former job transfer to his current position.
“Working with our Alexandria community as I led a community, a campus, has prepared me to serve this role. While I may have served the ninth grade community for many years, I am now fortunate enough to serve the entire community,” Duncan added.
Duncan said his entire career of leadership has prepared him for his biggest job yet.
“Leadership is leadership, whether you are leading one person or a school of thousands,” he posited. “A part of that, I feel, is effective communication.”
Duncan brings a varied career in education to his new post.
“I approached this work with sixth grade through collegiate experience. Now that I’m serving as a high school executive principal, as we’re talking about instructional initiatives, as were talking about various programs that we will offer here at the school, I’m able to lead with an awareness of a young person’s earlier maturation years, as well as where they may be headed,” Duncan said.
Duncan emphasized the opportunity ACPS has to derive strength from its diversity.
“I love working with young people, I love working with diverse populations. I celebrate diversity and think it’s a strength we have here,” Duncan said.
Gonzales discussed the same topic.
“There are a lot of people in this city that are new to the country. We are a very multicultural area. They’ve done a lot of good things this year addressing those issues,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales specifically cited the administration’s efforts to give students a school break for the Muslim holiday of Eid. Gonzales also stressed the importance of hiring a Black educator for this role.
“It’s very important, given our population, that students see themselves reflected in such a high level position. In my schooling in New Jersey, I had no teachers of color in my entire schooling. As a person of color, that is huge. It’s important for kids to see that so they can say, ‘Hey, I can do that too,’” Gonzales said.
One tension in the hiring process for the new principal was the choice between hiring inside or outside the system. Gonzales spoke to the benefits of hiring a long-time member of the community.
“When it comes to higher up administrative jobs, having someone who knows the community is important. He knows students, staff and parents, and he knows norms. There’s not as much of an on ramp,” Gonzales added.
Duncan also referenced the power of choosing a principal from within the school, particularly as the rebuild of the Minnie Howard campus of ACHS nears completion.
“One of the strengths I bring to this role is historical knowledge. That’s a strength that can help as we are entering a new season of transition,” Duncan said.
“Our work to build bridges with the community is at the top of my mind. Because I believe that it takes a village,” Duncan said.
In his time at Minnie Howard, he tried to build relationships between the school and the broader community.
“We want our students to participate as engaged, positive members of the community,” Duncan said.
One example of this relationship-building is the creation of a lunchtime soccer club.
“Supporting [the students] with academic enrichment and providing them with activities that would allow them, as long as they were successful in school, to engage in an activity, during lunch, that they would really enjoy. We worked with the community to provide coaching and teaching to the boys,” Duncan added.
He also cited job interview simulations and internship partnership programs as enrichment innovation.
One challenge ACHS faces in the upcoming school years is uniting the King Street and Minnie Howard campuses, especially as the Minnie Howard redevelopment comes to its conclusion. Gonzales outlined some of the issues the school faces.
“Currently the campuses feel very separate, given the mile of literal distance between them. Scheduling tends to largely favor the main campus at King Street. That tended to control what happened at the Minnie Howard campus,” Gonzales stated, emphasizing that the issue tends to be most problematic during testing season.
Gonzales said Duncan’s experience at Minnie Howard can help him close this gap.
“He has committed to maintaining a presence in both buildings, which is quite a challenge to do,” Gonzales said.
Duncan said he plans to bring his experiences at Minnie Howard into his principalship to bear into this challenge.
“One of the things I think Minnie Howard does well is building a community among the staff and students. When I was first named executive principal for the entire high school, that is something I decided I wanted to make a part of my work across the high school. As a community, I think we are great at our team mindset, how we come together, to be able to support the community and maintain the one we have,” Duncan said.
Duncan also spoke about the special value of teaching at the high school level.
“Some people believe that in high school, the kids are big now, they’re ready to make their own choices, and while they are, they’re also still impressionable. You can make a positive impression on a young person, you can be a voice saying ‘No matter where you started you can go farther than this’. You can tell them ‘dream, be all you can be.’”
-Denise Dunbar also contributed to this story.