Arlington, VA

Progressive 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 Jan and Ralph Johnson

It sometimes amazes us where our priorities are in this day of Amazon. Two highly successful programs at Wakefield High School, Cohort (for boys) and United Minority Girls, could be ended with the proposed Arlington Public Schools (APS) budget.

These two programs are led by the Equity and Excellence Coordinator, whose main focus is to guide minority boys and girls through high school, challenging them to take the hardest courses, to study hard and commit themselves to a path to college. Such actions awake in these students of color a world of possibilities never before imagined.

“Those first weeks of high school were overwhelming. I realized how behind I was,” recalled Yoel Fessahaye, a 2014 Wakefield graduate. “Cohort was there to offer me food and brotherhood. Now, I have graduated from Georgetown University and still go back and visit Mr. Beitler regularly.” Fessahaye said, “We all call the Cohort program our salvation from the hopeless future we once felt bound to.”

The success of these programs is unprecedented. Over the past 18 years since Cohort began, 358 Cohort members have graduated and 93% have gone on to college. Over 500 students have been members of United Minority Girls (UMG) and 97% have gone on to college. Other public school systems have come to us asking how Arlington has been so successful as they wish to replicate our program.

But now the Equity and Excellence position has been proposed for elimination. If this position is eliminated, Cohort and UMG are eliminated as well. No longer will there be weekly lunch meetings with fellow program members to discuss their futures. No longer will there be the Equity and Excellence Coordinator to take them on bus trips (privately funded) to visit colleges. No longer will there be that safe place where Cohort and UMG members visit daily to discuss their issues. No longer will there be an advocate for the minority male and female students at Wakefield High School. It will all end.

“Counselors like Mr. Beitler are not just school staff; to communities like mine, they are our champions. And the programs they tirelessly work on are the essential tools that even the playing field for us,” said Fessahaye.

In the APS mission statement, it says “the office of Equity and Excellence advances high expectations, facilitates equitable access and remedies opportunity gaps for Black and Latino students.” This mission has been met at Wakefield High School.

“The strong guidance and encouragement I received from Mr. Beitler and the United Minority Girls program paved the way for someone like me to attend such an outstanding institution as Washington College,” said Bethelehem K. Yirga, a 2017 Wakefield graduate whose family immigrated from Ethiopia in 2011. “I will continue to work hard so that I can become successful and create unlimited opportunities for those who are marginalized by our society.”

By eliminating the Equity and Excellence Coordinator position — thus ending Cohort and UMG — what are we saying to the students at greatest risk in our school system? What are we saying to the minority students in Arlington?

Instead of discontinuing this powerful motivating force, can we instead support it and redouble our efforts? In the words of former Cohort member Fessahaye, such a move would help Arlington “be an inclusive community that empowers all students to explore their possibilities and create their futures.”

Jan and Ralph Johnson are longtime Arlington residents. Jan is a former teacher and Ralph has owned and managed apartment buildings in Arlington.

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