Alexandria, VA – Douglas MacArthur Elementary School has been a feature of Alexandria’s local culture for as long as most people can remember. With the exploding population of Alexandria, and the way buildings come and go, it’s a wonder that the school was still operational—up until the pandemic.
The sudden halt of the 2019-2020 school year surprised everyone and left many MacArthur students, staff, and their families without a chance even to say goodbye. Now the old MacArthur building will be torn down and construction will begin on a new MacArthur school on the same site.
MacArthur students will be temporarily shifted into the old Patrick Henry Elementary School building, which shares a location with the new Patrick Henry School, and will occupy this “swing-space” during construction of the new MacArthur school.
You may have passed 1101 Janneys Lane many times and been unaware of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School’s illustrious past. Built in 1943, MacArthur Elementary was originally named Chinquapin School, after the area where it is located. That building was constructed of wood and had only eight classrooms. The school was primarily built for children of workers at the U.S. Naval Torpedo Station who lived in the Chinquapin Village and Cameron Valley neighborhoods. Each grade level 1-7 had its own room, leaving one room as the office.
Sometime in 1949 a cafeteria and library were added and four more rooms were added during the 1950s. Also in the ‘50s, Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford moved into the MacArthur neighborhood. All Ford’s children attended MacArthur Elementary and graduated from ACPS.
The 1960s brought social change and integration, which the Alexandria community opposed. Only after Dr. John Albohm became Superintendent of Schools in 1963 did the school board discover that he favored rapidly integrating Alexandria schools. Albohm transferred a number of black and white students to start the process, and he decided to place black teachers in the white schools.
Dr. Lucille Smith, a reading teacher, became the first black teacher at Douglas MacArthur. Her daughter, Elvinese Smith Wyche, who was a college student at the time, said, “Dr. Albohm called my mother and asked her transfer to MacArthur.” Elvinese Wyche later became a much loved third grade teacher at MacArthur from 1973 – 2013.
Although MacArthur is moving to a different building, it is not the first time that MacArthur students and faculty have had to persevere through difficult times. In 1979, during the international oil crisis, MacArthur lacked enough oil to heat the school so students were bussed each day to R.E. Lee Elementary. Grades 1 and 2 doubled up in classrooms. Grades 3 and 4 set up classes in the gym. Only student chairs were brought over from MacArthur. Students wrote on the seats of chairs or on the floor. Ms. Zane, a former 3rd grade teacher, stated that “The kids were great, and we kept teaching. We were thankful that the kids were already used to the open concept of pods. They stayed on task and treated it like an adventure.”
MacArthur’s existence was again threatened during the 1981 school year. The threat came from a coat closet during class time. It is likely that one of the children found a lighter on the way to school and started what could have been a fatal fire.
Luckily, staff caught the fire in time to alert the fire department before it consumed the school, but some classrooms were badly damaged. The MacArthur community once again rallied together to overcome adversity.
As the years went by, MacArthur and its population of students continued to grow and it became one of the city’s most overcrowded schools. A school designed for 500 students had to accommodate more than 700. The inner halls of the school became labyrinthine, as every square foot of space was needed for classroom space and the building infrastructure wore down. Ultimately, the deteriorating conditions resulted in the School Board in Alexandria approving, in April 2019, the plan to move Douglas MacArthur Elementary School students to the old Patrick Henry Elementary School to facilitate a faster rebuild of Douglas MacArthur School.
It was bittersweet when former and current MacArthur educators met this August to say goodbye to the building where so many memories were made. Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and everyone in the Douglas MacArthur community can agree that a new school building is a top priority.
Zebra wishes the current MacArthur students, teachers, and families good luck and godspeed, as they prepare to (eventually) start school in a new location. If history is any indication, they will continue to adapt and overcome.