On behalf of the Alexandria City Public Schools, I welcome parents, students and community members to a new year. Five schools have already welcomed new principals to their buildings this summer. They are Marcia Baldanza at Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics; Lucretia Jackson at Maury Elementary School; Coleen Mann at Patrick Henry Elementary School; Grace Taylor at George Washington Middle School; and Patricia Zissios at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy. All of these principals bring a wealth of experience to their students, and we are fortunate to have them lead our schools.

The school division, which made significant strides in a number of areas this past year, is poised to continue its progress.

First, 12 of 16 schools were fully accredited as measured by the Spring 2003 SOL tests. We are anxiously awaiting the state's release of accreditation status for this year.

Last August, Maury Elementary School was notified by the Virginia Department of Education that the school did not make as many improvements in students' test scores as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. As a result, parents were offered a choice to keep their children at Maury or send their children to another Alexandria school. Twenty-four students ultimately opted to attend other schools. We have put many initiatives in place at Maury to improve student achievement, and we already see evidence of improvements in higher teacher morale and better academic performance.

Because Maury is still under a Title I improvement plan, we had to offer the choice option again to Maury parents, which we did in April. Based on data we received in August, families at three other schools were offered a choice option. These schools are John Adams Elementary, Jefferson-Houston School and Patrick Henry Elementary. Each of these schools missed its targeted benchmarks by only a few points. The school division, as a whole, met 27 of the 29 benchmarks toward adequate yearly progress, compared to meeting 19 of 29 last year.

Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics was recently reconstituted under the leadership of Principal Baldanza. Teachers and staff committed to the extra time and work necessary to make improvements and, as a result, Jefferson-Houston is ready for a year of significant academic progress.

Other accomplishments included finalizing the design and site plans for the new T.C. Williams High School. After lengthy and thoughtful input from the community, city planners and a variety of experts over the last three years, we will be ready to break ground on the new building in December.

Another noteworthy accomplishment was increased instructional time for students by adding three days to the academic calendar.

The school division distributed laptop computers to more than 700 ninth-graders at Minnie Howard School. Through the use of laptops, students see that learning is relevant and are more motivated to learn. We look forward to expanding the initiative this year for all students in grades 9-12.

Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School blazed a new trail this summer as Alexandria's first school to adopt a modified calendar, which redistributes regular instructional days and adds the option of two-week intersessions for remedial or enrichment learning. Students were ready to resume learning when they began their school year on July 26.

Also this summer, nearly 300 incoming kindergartners participated in the expanded Kindergarten Prep program at 12 elementary schools. The children spent two weeks getting to know their school and classroom routines, which will ease their transition to a new school year.

I am pleased that we have significantly improved administrator and teacher salaries to bring them in line with and, in some cases, to surpass surrounding school divisions. This year, we plan to review and propose improvements to the salaries of our support staff, who are a crucial part of our ACPS family.

While we have made some real progress through these new and expanded initiatives, we still face a number of challenges.

First, the rebuilding of T.C. Williams High School will continue to be the greatest endeavor that this School Board, this city, and this school division have undertaken in recent history. This monumental project represents the largest building project of the city in many years, but more important, it represents a significant change for students and faculty in the educational nature of high school teaching and learning.

The second challenge is re-engaging our community in a healthy conversation about the real progress being made in our schools. The School Board chairman and I will be hosting a series of monthly open forums with interested citizens and parents. These forums will be held in locations throughout the city to encourage new residents and longtime Alexandrians to meet and talk about education issues that are important to them.

Alexandria City Public School teachers, administrators and support staff embrace, educate, and love our students who come from more than 92 countries; children from all walks of life, including the very privileged, but also the very needy. Our diversity is our greatest strength but also one of our greatest challenges.

We need to always be able to provide the many resources that will ensure success for all children. Small class sizes, summer programs, special education programs, gifted/talented programs, remedial programs, enrichment programs, music and art programs, career and technical programs, ESL services -- all of these are crucial to the continued success of our children.

Our mission, which states we will, in partnership with our families and community, educate effectively all learners to succeed in a changing world -- goes to the heart of our shared values as educators.

We passionately believe that every child who walks through our doors will learn and grow and succeed. Together, we accept our responsibility to ensure success for every child.

To stay updated on the progress of the Alexandria City Public Schools, please visit www.acps.k12.va.us.