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Progressive Voice: Strengthening the American Dream for Arlington Students

by Progressive Voice February 9, 2017 at 2:00 pm 0

Matt de Ferranti Progressive VoiceProgressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By: Matt de Ferranti

If the past three weeks are prologue, we will be called upon frequently over the next four years to oppose policies that threaten longstanding American and Arlington values.

One way we can respond is to work locally to make sure that every Arlington student, regardless of his or her income or ethnicity, has a real opportunity to obtain an excellent education and pursue his or her version of the American Dream.

Education in Arlington

Two truths about the Arlington Public Schools (APS) stand out simultaneously: (1) APS is very good for many, many students across all demographic groups; and (2) for some students, our work to make sure they receive the education they need to succeed in the 21st Century is not done.

Good news

APS’s overall graduation rates, rates of proficiency on the Standards of Learning (SOLs) that the Commonwealth of Virginia requires for high school graduates, and other external indicators of school quality and student success are very good.

APS graduates 91.1 percent of its students by the most recent measure available and has one of the highest graduation rates in the state.

On SOLs skills proficiency Arlington also does well. In both the reading and math Standards of Learning Assessments, Arlington had an 87 percent pass rate in the 2015-2016 school year. Both rates beat the statewide averages by 7 percent.

Our challenge

The numbers also show that access to the American Dream through high quality education is not yet real for all students in Arlington. 

For example:

  • Arlington graduates only 74 percent of its low-income students compared to the overall APS rate of 91 percent. Graduation rates for Latino and African-American students are slightly below the statewide average.
  • As for proficiency on the SOL’s, low-income students reading pass rates are 71 percent, slightly better than the statewide average but well below the overall Arlington average of 87 percent. Similarly, proficiency rates in math for low-income students are better but still more than 10% below Arlington’s average. Proficiency rates for Latino and African-American students, while above 75 percent, are below the 87 percent average for APS as a whole.

So, what do these statistics mean?

To be clear, this does not mean APS does a bad job. APS leadership and the committed educators in APS are skilled, high quality, relentless, and do inspiring work.

This isn’t to be critical of the significant investments Arlington makes in education. We have the best results in the Washington DC region in part because we believe in education as the path to success for all and invest accordingly. As we continue to grow, we’ll need to keep our eye on investing appropriately to educate our growing and changing student population.

This isn’t to say that more money spent on schools is the only way to improve schools. Accountability for student outcomes for every student at the APS and school level is essential.

Instead, these numbers show that Arlington is not yet a community where every child attains an excellent education.

How can we strengthen the American dream in Arlington?

It is going to take broad-based community engagement — parents and non-parents — to help all our kids get there. To be clear, APS has an important role to play, focusing more directly on identifying students who are at risk of not demonstrating proficiency of SOLs or not graduating at all and providing additional resources to improve their odds of succeeding in life.

For example, some students joining the system are behind students who have been in APS from the beginning. We should analyze with more granularity the needs of these students and how to maximize their chances for success.

Similarly, APS should focus additional resources on Arlington’s Tiered System of Support, which improves instruction for all students. APS needs a targeted strategy with specific actions and a timeline to ensure measurable progress.

But Arlington parents, community members, and volunteers should also play a greater role. We can volunteer through our PTAs and APS Advisory Committees. We can ask questions about graduation and proficiency rates for all students.

And our decisions about important topics such as boundaries, academic expectations, and investments in our schools should reflect a broad community commitment to the success of all students in Arlington.

By engaging as a community and living our values, we can successfully take responsibility for making sure all our students, from Westover to Carlin Springs and from Nauck to Spout Run, graduate from APS ready to realize the American Dream. 

Matt de Ferranti works at a nonprofit that improves education outcomes for Native American students. He is a member of the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on the Elimination of the Achievement Gap, the Budget Advisory Council to the APS School Board, and the Joint Facilities Advisory Board.

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