About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Hits and misses in 2023

About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Hits and misses in 2023
Mark Eaton (Courtesy photo)

By Mark Eaton

About Alexandria reached its second anniversary last month, so it is time to look back on 2023’s columns to assess the hits, in-betweens, misses and a follow-up item. 

The hits 

Requiring schools to tell students about awards: A March column, “Using a sledgehammer to swat a fly” criticizing a House of Delegates bill requiring public schools to notify students when they receive awards, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s indignant response when the bill was blocked in committee, elicited strong reactions. The theme that every oversight by teachers or administrators need not be remedied by state-wide legislation seemed to resonate. 

The challenges of running Virginia’s largest public high school: “Congratulations, Mr. Duncan,” a July column welcoming Alexandria City High School’s new Executive Principal and exploring the challenges of the position, and its turnover, also generated comments. ACHS’ 25 administrators manage the biggest high school in Virginia which makes it hard to establish constructive relationships with students. 

School Board considers staggered election terms: “Staggering forward” in May looked at the School Board’s debate about staggered terms of office. A School Board member told me the timeline on implementing staggered terms has slowed and that it is unlikely that a staggered terms proposal will be included in the city’s legislative package for the 2024 General Assembly session. 

The in-betweens 

Conspiracy theories and giving public officials a break: The columns titled “Look at the facts, not rumors” in October and “We’re all human, give them a break” in November were suggestions for tolerance, or fewer automatic negative assumptions. The former argued against conspiracy theories in city management and the latter sought to see things through the eyes of public officials who endure meeting after meeting, some of which run very late. 

Public schools issues: “TINA [“There is no alternative”] to chance for change” in April explored the built-in potential for City Council-School Board conflict in the ways that public schools are managed and funded in Virginia. “Reversing learning loss” in September talked about the asymmetry between standardized test results and what opinion polls show parents think about their children’s post-pandemic academic performance. Recent studies show that grade inflation contributes to this disconnect. The column included a shout-out about the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium’s important work. January’s “Book objections in public schools” explored how ACPS responds to book objections, how some teachers handle such objections and urged reasoned conversations with teachers and administrators as a constructive and nontheatrical approach. 

The misses 

Renaming Minnie Howard: August’s column, “Renaming Minnie Howard?” suggested renaming/rebranding the new and dramatically expanded ACHS Minnie Howard Campus. The column landed with a thud. Maybe everyone was away on vacation, but if there is any interest in this I have not heard it. 

Zoning for Housing reform: Zoning for Housing, unanimously adopted by City Council last week, is deemed a “miss” because it was not the subject of a 2023 column. There were so many aspects to the city’s reform proposals, and so much discussion, that it was hard to find something useful to say in 700 words. I tried to add clarity to the debate in other writings. The polarity of reactions to ZFH was remarkable: Some saw it as having modest impact and others viewed it as apocalyptic. 

Following up 

We close with an update on a February 2022 column urging ACPS to repair the 400,000-gallon underground cistern at ACHS that would collect and recycle runoff surface water. The cistern has not operated for many years. In a November 13 statement, ACPS Executive Director of Facilities Erika Gulick said, “A formal request for the cistern’s specifications was submitted, and a purchase order has been issued to the contractor. The contractor has initiated the procurement of essential long-lead items, and a timeline is currently in the works for the equipment installation. Anticipated completion is slated for Spring 2024.” 

Maybe patience really is a virtue. 

The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@gmail.com and free subscriptions to his newsletter are available.