After decades of service, Alexandria custodian recognized during Women’s History Month

After decades of service, Alexandria custodian recognized during Women’s History Month

During Women’s History Month, communities across the region are taking time to recognize women who continue to have an impact on people’s everyday lives.

Patricia Morgan has continued to do this for hundreds of students attending school during her 42 years as a custodian within the Alexandria City Public Schools system.

Most recently, she’s watched kids come and go during her time at Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School. 

“My day starts at 4:30 in the morning. It’s really beautiful to see the different changes, and watch the kids grow up,” she said.

She works to make sure students have a safe and clean environment to learn in, while building relationships that have lasted decades.

“I just love my job. I love for the building to be clean and fresh when the kids come in,” she said with a smile.

Born and raised in Alexandria, Morgan attended the former T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School.

She said she hopes to see the kids she has watched grow up become impactful young men and women with hearts set on contributing to their communities.

“And do it with a smile and be happy about doing it,” Morgan said.

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Investigation into Fairfax schools’ National Merit delays unveils miscues, lack of standard protocol

Investigation into Fairfax schools’ National Merit delays unveils miscues, lack of standard protocol

An investigation into why some Fairfax County high school students didn’t learn of their National Merit Scholar recognitions last fall unveiled a series of miscues and lack of countywide procedures for notifying students of the honor.

At a meeting with parents at the public school system’s headquarters Wednesday night, Superintendent Michelle Reid revealed the findings of the Sands Anderson law firm’s report into the delay in notifying students.

About 50,000 students with the highest PSAT scores across the country are recognized by the program as “Commended Students,” but only 16,000 of them are semifinalists and able to compete for scholarships.

The report, Reid said, found that eight of 28 county high schools did not notify students of the honor by Nov. 1. The delays, according to a document shared with families that describes the key findings, “had nothing to do with race or any effort to downplay students’ achievements.” This directly opposes accusations the school system has faced of deliberately not sharing the recognition.

The majority of Fairfax County students weren’t impacted by the delays, Reid said, and logistical factors explain some of the delayed notifications. In 2022, the county had at least 833 students who received Commended Student recognition.

Now, Reid has adopted a policy that requires principals or other school staff members to notify a student and parent of the recognition in writing within two weeks of receiving the information from the NMSC. They also have to disclose how and when the student will receive the award certificate.

Since December, several Northern Virginia school systems have announced that some high school students hadn’t been notified of their National Merit recognition.

“We’re a really large division, and we’re an imperfect people,” Reid said. “And human error does happen and mistakes are made. And in this case, the absence of a division-wide regulation on the specifics on how to handle our National Merit Commended certificates contributed, I believe, to the circumstances that we found ourselves in with the eight schools identified.”

During the somewhat contentious meeting, some parents urged Reid to consider releasing the full report, which she said wouldn’t be made publicly available, citing attorney-client privilege. She said she hopes sharing the key findings would help families regain trust in the administration.

Others expressed frustration that resources were being spent on the investigation instead of supporting students and staff.

The six-page findings document outlines a series of what Reid called logistical factors that contributed to the delays at the eight schools.

In one case, at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the investigation found certificates were delivered to the principal on or around Sept. 15, 2022. Later that month, they were given to the director of student services for completion.

Brandon Kosatka, who according to the school’s website holds that role, “was not aware of any deadline for distribution and because he mistakenly believed at the time, that NMSC directly notified Commended Students of their achievement, he did not prioritize distributing the certificates,” the report said.

Then, in January, other Fairfax County high schools sent messages to families saying they too didn’t notify students of the award.

At Langley High, the delays were attributed to “clerical oversight.” At West Potomac High, staff “reported having no understanding of any required deadline from FCPS or NMSC on the timing of such notification.”

Thomas Edison High usually recognizes its Commended Students at an award ceremony scheduled by the end of October, but it occurred at the end of last November “due to scheduling conflicts.”

Schools in Stafford, Prince William and Loudoun counties have also said there was a delay in recognizing National Merit “Commended Scholars.”

Another investigation

The school system announced it initiated the independent, third-party investigation, but Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares also announced an investigation into the delay.

When asked about the status of the state’s investigation on Wednesday morning, a spokeswoman for Miyares said, “We cannot comment on ongoing investigations.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin said at the time the delay may have violated the Virginia Human Rights Act. Reid had previously attributed the delay to human error and the lack of standard notification process.

In addition to recounting a series of missteps, the report said “the greatest cost of this unfortunate episode has been borne by FCPS staff.”

School staff members, the report said, have been “individually harassed and threatened, including through targeted phone calls and emails using hate-filled and threatening messages.”

“The emotional toll on our staff has been substantial, and, in addition, staff have been required to divert significant time and attention away from their education-focused roles to respond to these inquiries,” it said.

In December, an article in the publication City Journal accused the principal at the prestigious high school of deliberately withholding notification of the recognition.

The story alleged that it was part of the county’s “war on merit” campaign, but the school system said after learning of the issue, it notified students of the honor, and counselors contacted colleges where the students had applied to tell them about the award.

Reid didn’t say when she specifically learned of the delays, adding, “As soon as we were made aware of the reports, we moved to fully investigate and then to address any system concerns that we could improve, so that the system would work and the situation wouldn’t happen again.”

If schools don’t notify students, they can call the National Merit Scholarship Corporation to check their status, a NMSC spokesman previously told WTOP in an email.

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Inflation driving big increase in Prince William schools’ construction costs

Inflation driving big increase in Prince William schools’ construction costs

Inflation and rising construction costs are cutting into schools’ purchasing power, costing Prince William County Schools an estimated $674 million extra in borrowing over the next decade.

School system leadership says it won’t be a problem for the division to issue more debt than it has in the past and move forward with new schools and renovations as planned. But they’re also hoping that the inflation that’s been hurting county residents for months is, in fact, returning back to normal. If it doesn’t, those projects may require some changes.

Between the fiscal 2023 capital improvement program and the plan the School Board approved last week, the estimated cost of the forthcoming Woodbridge Area Elementary School, set to open in 2024, grew from $41.6 million to $61.8 million. Estimates for the replacement of Occoquan Elementary School jumped from $44.3 million to $64.8 million. And estimates for the county’s 14th high school went from $157 million to $280.1 million.

According to data from the division’s finance department compiled in January, the cost increases for new schools and other capital projects will result in the school system issuing an additional $674 million in debt over the next nine years, costing an additional $82 million from the general fund in debt service.

General inflation isn’t the only cause for the increases. The school division’s high-performance building design initiative on new buildings and renovations, as well as its prevailing wage mandate – which means that division contractors have to pay U.S. Department of Labor prevailing wages on any project over $250,000 in cost – are also driving expenses.

The high-performance building initiative is projected to account for 20% of new building costs, helping the division meet its adopted sustainability goals. It’s also supposed to pay dividends with operating cost reductions over the lifetime of the school, with features like geothermal heating and cooling systems, solar power compatibility and high-performance windows.

Vernon Bock, the school system’s chief operating officer, said in January that the upgrades should reduce energy consumption by 25% and water usage by 10%, netting a 30% overall reduction in CO2 emissions.

“Some of those investments for sustainability have a higher cost on the front end, like geothermal heating. But then the savings that we realize through that long term is more significant,” Bock said.

School Board members also defended the prevailing wage mandate, which is projected to make up about 15% of project costs, saying it would result in better quality construction and reduce the need for repairs and replacements down the line. And, said Potomac District Board Member Justin Wilk, making sure contractors are paying living wages is just the right thing to do.

“I think it’s long overdue,” he said.

No cause for panic – yet

County financial guidelines keep the school division from paying debt service that exceeds 10% of revenues in an effort to maintain the school division’s AAA bond rating. Even the projected increases wouldn’t run the risk of reaching that threshold as a percentage of current revenues, which will also likely grow. And price estimates on some projects have actually fallen since the finance department’s January presentation.

But Bock said that if costs continue to rise the way they have in the past year, the division could consider scaling back the high-performance initiative or pursuing more “value engineering” in design. That would mean things like lowering ceilings, making hallways smaller and using lower-grade floor tiles.

“When you do that, you have a building that looks different from existing buildings in the community,” Bock said in January. “But when you have a building that looks different from existing buildings in the community … what that can lead to is inequities across the district.”

Speaking with InsideNoVa, School Board Chair Babur Lateef said those kinds of cost-savings measures aren’t under consideration right now. The hope is that more recent indications of slowing inflation will continue, and the school system could even see some financial benefits from Congress’s Inflation Reduction Act, though it’s unclear how significant those might be.

“All of construction across the commonwealth from universities to schools is up. Inflation is a driver of those costs and uncertainty in the markets,” Lateef said.

The county and school division’s AAA bond rating is intact and not at risk right now, he added. And cost savings in the past two fiscal years have actually allowed the division to reduce its bond issuance by about $60 million, putting the school system in a better position to face the increase in coming fiscal years.

“If you look at the projected borrowing over the next few years, those numbers are going to go up more than we thought they would. So we’ll be selling more bonds … but it’ll still be borrowing underneath the 10% cap, which will help us maintain a AAA bond rating between the county and the schools,” Lateef told InsideNoVa. “The impact is on the amount of borrowing and the amount of money we have to set aside to repay that debt moving forward.”

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George Mason students petition against Youngkin as commencement speaker

George Mason students petition against Youngkin as commencement speaker

George Mason University students are petitioning against the college’s decision to host Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin as the graduation commencement speaker in May.

Senior Alaina Ruffin started the petition Thursday, one day after university president Gregory Washington announced that the Republican governor will speak before “the largest and most diverse class of graduates ever.” The petition has received more than 4,000 signatures since then.

“George Mason University prides itself on being one of ‘the most diverse institutions in the Commonwealth. Yet by having Governor Youngkin as this year’s Commencement speaker, we believe that the University compromises its supposed values of centering students’ experiences and overall well-being,” Ruffin wrote in the petition.

“When satiating its own desire to appease the powerful few, the University, once again, has abandoned these principles.”

Ruffin cites what she characterized as “anti-transgender” policies from Youngkin and “intentional [targeting]” of other marginalized groups as a reason why he shouldn’t speak or attend the ceremony.

Ruffin also said she doesn’t want “the memories of our graduation day to be tainted by an individual who has harmed and continues to harm the people he serves.”

When asked to comment on the petition, Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter told WTOP, “Governor Youngkin looks forward to addressing the 2023 graduates of George Mason University and celebrating their tremendous accomplishment.”

Some of Youngkin’s initiatives have drawn criticism in the purple state.

The governor’s updated school policies now require transgender students to use facilities and participate in activities corresponding with their biological sex.

Youngkin also ordered state education officials to review an Advanced Placement African American history course’s contents to see if it violates his executive order that targets “inherently divisive concepts.”

The main example he listed in the order was critical race theory — the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.

Last year, the governor passed a law that requires parents to be notified in advance if instructional materials include sexually explicit content. The move came amid a nationwide trend of parents seeking greater transparency about classroom materials, with some attention being paid toward books that discuss LGBTQ+-related issues.

Other comments on the petition voicing agreement include: “Couldn’t GMU have found someone respectable, inspirational, and compassionate to do this job?” and “This man stands opposed to everything I believe in and am as a student, my majors and very being are under attack in his politics.”

Someone else started similar petition in support of Glenn Youngkin delivering the spring commencement speech. It has gained just over 30 signatures.

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Brentsville District High School student injured in jump from roof

Brentsville District High School student injured in jump from roof

A Brentsville District High School student was injured Thursday morning reportedly jumping from a roof at the school in Nokesville — an incident witnessed by several other students.

The student was taken to a nearby hospital in unknown condition. It was unclear what prompted the student to jump.

In a note to the school community, Brentsville Principal Katherine Meints said no further information would be released to protect the student’s privacy.

“Students are understandably upset and have questions and concerns. Be assured we have been supporting those students today, and we are available to you and your students as needed.  We have counseling teams on site at the school,” the note said.

“Additionally, for the privacy of the family, we ask you to encourage your student not to share photos, other personal information, or rumors on social media related to today’s incident.”

Prince William County Police 1st Sgt. Jonathan Perok referred questions to the Prince William County School division, which released Meints’ statement. The full text is below:

March 23, 2023

Dear Brentsville District High School Families,

As a follow up to this morning’s communication, I am writing with more information about the situation at our school this morning. Students may have witnessed an incident involving one of our students which required an emergency medical response. EMS responded and transported the student to the hospital. 

We have been in contact with the student’s family and will be providing support. For student privacy, we will not be sharing further information.     

Students are understandably upset and have questions and concerns. Be assured we have been supporting those students today, and we are available to you and your students as needed.  We have counseling teams on site at the school.

Additionally, for the privacy of the family, we ask you to encourage your student not to share photos, other personal information, or rumors on social media related to today’s incident.

If your student needs additional support, please reach out to your student’s counselor or contact the school.

I appreciate your cooperation, patience, and support.

Thank you,

Katherine Meints

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Prince William Schools report better test scores, but more absences

Prince William Schools report better test scores, but more absences

New data from Prince William County Public Schools shows testing improvement in crucial areas like reading and math, even as school division officials are increasingly concerned about falling attendance. 

Results from the most recent Virginia Growth Assessment earlier this year show significant improvement from fall 2022 scores. Taken in grades third through eighth, the reading and math assessments focus on material from a student’s current grade level. 

In math and reading, third-graders saw the biggest improvement in reading scores from the fall 2022 assessments. The Virginia Department of Education has yet to release interpretation guides for the “vertical scaled scores” on which the test is graded, making the raw scores difficult to analyze on their own. But all of the county’s tested grade levels showed improvement on the test, which has been a state mandate since 2021. 

Multiple reading assessments for younger students showed progress. The percentage of students from grades second through fifth reading on or above grading level, according to the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt reading assessments, jumped from 42.6% in the first quarter to 56.1% in the second quarter.

According to the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, or PALS, 66% of first-graders and 68% of second-graders were considered on target in terms of word recognition. In spelling, 65% and 74% of grades first and second, respectively, were found to be on target. 

“Yes, there is still work to do. We knew that this would be a long-term process,” Superintendent LaTanya McDade told the School Board on March 15. “However … we’re moving in the right direction. We’re seeing some promising practice as well as outcomes to show that the work that we’re doing is taking root.”

For middle and high school students, in-class grades dipped slightly in the second quarter, with more students failing one or more courses at both levels. 

Attendance issues

But more concerning to School Board members at the March 15 meeting were dips in attendance across every grade level in the school system. 

For all students, attendance dropped from 94% in the first quarter to 92% in the second. Attendance in the 12th grade fell from 92% to 89% between the two quarters, and over 23% of all students have missed nine or more days (out of 90 total) across the first two quarters. Students who miss 10% of school days or more are considered chronically absent.  

High schoolers have missed the most school, with 28.7% of high schoolers missing nine or more days. Over 28% of special education students missed nine or more days, and over 26% of English-language learners did the same. 

“We know that there is a correlation between absenteeism and classroom performance. Stated simply, better attendance is associated with higher grades,” Michael Neall, the division’s supervisor of program evaluation, told the board. “It isn’t just our academic performance that’s critical here, but it’s hard to make a connection and foster a sense of belonging when students aren’t present in school. And we know that that is critical in addressing social-emotional needs.”

Neall and other officials from the school system said absenteeism is more common in the days surrounding holidays, of which there were more in the second quarter. They also said that there’s been a growing culture since the pandemic of families keeping students home if they say they don’t feel well.

McDade said that if students are sick, they should stay home. But both excused and unexcused absences count toward a student’s “chronically absent” status, which in turn can impact a school’s state accreditation. 

Every school in the division, Neall said, is implementing a “specific and targeted” attendance plan to address chronic absenteeism, and the division has a new initiative aimed at improving notification of families when a student is chronically absent.

“This is a full-court press, as you would say, across many departments,” said Julie Crawford, director of student health and wellness.

School-based teams are trying to reach absent students and their families regularly. At the division level, communications and students services staff are trying to increase communication with families about the importance of attendance.

Starting in January, the school system has also started holding “reengagement nights,” in which schools try to host families whose students have become disengaged or are considered at risk of dropping out. 

“It has an impact on a child’s education,” Denise Huebner, associate superintendent for student services, said of attendance. “The message that we’re trying to send to parents is that we care about your child, we want to be sure that your child’s well, and we want your child in school to learn.” 


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