Kid-Friendly City, Not Many Kids

George Walls of Trinity University in the District speaks to Alexandria students as part of a program praised by the America's Promise Alliance.
George Walls of Trinity University in the District speaks to Alexandria students as part of a program praised by the America's Promise Alliance. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

The City of Alexandria will be named today as one of the 100 best communities in the country for children by the America's Promise Alliance, a group started by former secretary of state Colin L. Powell.

Not bad for a city without many kids.

Unlike in much of the Washington region, student enrollment in Alexandria is on the decline, and only about 24,000 children younger than 14 live there, less than 20 percent of the city's 135,337 population.

The city has the highest percentage of people 25 to 39 in the region (33 percent) but the region's second-lowest percentage of children 14 and younger (17.8 percent).

Parents often complain about being outnumbered during civic debates in the city, which has gradually shifted from a family-centered suburb to an urban enclave more likely to attract young, single professionals and empty nesters, groups that tend to favor the city's townhouses, apartments and lofts.

Still, Powell's wife, Alma, who oversees America's Promise, a youth advocacy group based in Alexandria, said the city does a good job of serving the young people it does have -- many of whom are from immigrant or low-income families. About half of the city's 10,000 public school children are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches.

She said Alexandria was selected from among 1,000 communities across the country because of its efforts to help at-risk youth, including preventing teen pregnancy and encouraging young people to stay in school. The city also has a $1 million fund to improve child care and a college mentoring program for high school students, many of whom are immigrants.

"Alexandria has more kids than you realize," she said. "In low-income areas, you have many, many children that need to be served. We don't say that the communities we select are perfect. We say they're addressing the problems that exist in the community . . . and Alexandria is doing a very good job."

City leaders were pleased. "We have a small youth population in relation to our overall population, but we go out of our way to provide services, programs and outreach -- with education being our first priority -- for our young people," Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) said. "It's challenging, but I'm proud of the fact that we're responsible at what we do. It bodes well for us to have been chosen."

Participants in the contest nominate themselves. The winners include Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Virginia Beach, Chesterfield County and Hanover County in Virginia and Wicomico County and Salisbury in Maryland. The winners will be announced tonight at a news conference in the District. Some communities will be eligible for $300,000 in grant money to further their programs, Powell said.

On a less happy note, one of the Alexandria programs praised by Powell's group is slated to have its budget slashed $25,000 next year, according to recommendations made by Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry. The program, Project Discovery, provides mentoring to high school students and sent 94 percent of its participants to college last year.

Lesa Gilbert, coordinator of Project Discovery, said that it served nearly 150 students last year, 75 percent of whom were recent immigrants. The proposed funding cuts would devastate the program, she said, forcing it to cut a staff member and to stop taking trips to the University of Virginia and other colleges, which provide motivation to students, she said.

"For them to be physically present on campus helps them envision what they can do. It's phenomenal," Gilbert said. "It helps them realize: 'This isn't a dream. This could be my reality.' "

Perry said that the funds had to be cut in a tight budget year. "It's not that anybody wants to cut that or doesn't believe in the value of it, we do," Perry said. "But it's not a school program."

It could still be spared; the Alexandria school board won't finalize the budget until Wednesday.

Parents and educators said that whether Alexandria is a great place to be a child can depend on where the child lives in the city's densely populated 15 square miles. The more affluent east side has plentiful sidewalks, chi-chi organic markets and the riverfront. The West End, with its condo canyons, is more difficult for stroller traffic to navigate, although it does have the flagship Central Library, designed by architect Michael Graves.

"You see a lot of playgrounds for the kids, stuff like that, and we have the library," said Latoya Price, mother of 1-year-old Brianna and a resident of the West End. "But there's some places I wouldn't want my daughter to go at night."

Linda Zanin, 42, a professor and mother of three, said suburban counties such as Fairfax "do have more breathing room, but we have a sense of community."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company