Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

Why Does Alexandria Love to Hate Its Schools?

Over the past ten years, as a parent of two children enrolled in Alexandria City public schools, I’ve been frustrated and saddened by the way in which denigrating our schools—and even our students—has become one of our city’s favorite pastimes.

A year or so ago I heard T.C. Williams High School principal Suzanne Maxey tell a group of parents how surprised she was at how little support the community showed to its only public high school compared with other schools that she has led during her career (mostly in Maryland).  While our city is fortunate to have many business owners and individuals who generously donate to the Scholarship Fund and other school-related causes, what Ms. Maxey was referring to is the lack of pride and enthusiasm that Alexandria residents have in their schools and students.

The negative bias toward ACPS in the local news media is part of the problem because for many Alexandria residents that is their only point of contact with the schools. It’s also not helpful when our very own elected officials make disparaging—and, I should add, inaccurate—comments about the caliber of our students (http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-06-12/local/39917609_1_students-school-system-2017-18-school-year).

And while it may be an urban legend that there are more dogs registered in the city than children in our school system, it’s a fact that only 13% of city households have a school-age child, compared with 20% nationally. In other words, for the other 87% of households, one out of every three of their property tax dollars goes to a budget line item with which they have no current personal connection.

It’s not the case, as I often hear people speculate, that a disproportionate number of our families with school-age children send their kids to private school. Eighty-eight percent of Alexandria children attend public school, which is the same percentage as Fairfax County and slightly lower than the national average (90%).

So this low regard—disdain even—for ACPS is puzzling to me because it’s so foreign to what many other parents and I have experienced as ACPS consumers. Of course, over ten years and with two kids, like every parent we’ve experienced our share of frustrations and disappointments—a teacher who didn’t click with a child, or a process that seemed overly bureaucratic. But I’ve also encountered creative, talented and dedicated teachers, principals and staff who have made a difference in the lives of our own children and hundreds of others.

“We have seen our friends and neighbors in Alexandria grow to trust and embrace ACPS more than at any time in my 20-plus years in the area, and rightly so,” says one parent with children at Charles Barrett Elementary and George Washington Middle School. “In fact, more of our friends and neighbors in the City with school-age children have enrolled their children in ACPS than at any time in my memory, and most have done so with the intention of keeping their children in ACPS through the completion of their secondary studies.”

The data support this parent’s anecdotal evidence. Enrollment in ACPS for the coming school year is expected to approach 14,000, up from 10,332 in 2006.  Over the past five years, a higher percentage of kindergarten-age children are enrolling in ACPS and fewer students are exiting from ACPS at all grades compared to the previous 10 years.

There’s no question that ACPS is grappling with a number of vexing challenges, including bringing Jefferson Houston into the fold of accredited schools, meeting the needs of students who are English Language Learners or whose families are struggling economically, and developing a plan for fitting more and more children into buildings that are bursting at the seams. But there is much for all of Alexandria to be proud of in their schools. Stay tuned for more.

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