Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.
By Progressive Voice Editors
Progressive Voice editors recently talked with Miranda Turner and Mary Kadera, candidates for the Democratic endorsement for Arlington School Board. Here are excerpts from their answers to questions that probed their experience, new ideas and understanding of challenges facing the school system.
Disparity in Free and Reduced Lunch populations. Do you believe more efforts need to be made to distribute F/R lunch students more evenly across APS schools? If so, how would you approach this?
Turner: It’s surprising to many people that we have such disparity, with some schools at 83% and others at 2%. The disparity suggests economic segregation and that’s concerning. Historically, communities have tried to deal with this in various ways… that haven’t worked well… such as busing. I live in Green Valley and when low-income and minority kids were bused out of here [in the 1970s] as a way of integrating, that was hard on the community.
The way to approach is… maximize the walk zone around a school [safely] and… then look at the demographics. If there is a way to enhance diversity and bring schools closer to the mean of Arlington, that deserves a hard look. If we can, enhance diversity in a way that doesn’t disrupt school communities, doesn’t raise transportation costs, doesn’t disrupt walkability and still preserves the neighborhood character of schools.
Kadera: Historically, it most often has been students of color and low-income who get bused away from their neighborhood schools, to schools that often have excess capacity. Their neighborhood schools have set up supports to serve needs of those students like food pantries and tutoring programs afterschool. For all those reasons, it strikes me as problematic to propose a “busing and boundaries” solution.
I would concentrate on making every neighborhood school the best it can possibly be, and being sure students have equal access to opportunities and services.
Option schools are another way we can look at balancing demographics. I’d like to see APS double down on making sure all families are aware of options…and figure out ways of doing more intentional outreach to lower-income families and families of color.
Pandemic. Several hundred families chose not to enroll in APS schools during the pandemic. If they return or not, what difference will that make to the school system?
Turner: There are different reasons families did this. I can speak anecdotally… We put our daughter in parochial school, one that was open five days a week. Some families with younger children just red-shirted them [delayed kindergarten by a year]. Some families moved, left Arlington or the state. Some older kids have gone to work. A different decision for every family as to whether they come back.
APS has assumed they will get all of these students back. I think that’s unrealistic. But they’re staffing based on that number. If we wind up with a surplus [of teachers], potentially that’s a good thing, we can deploy them [to help address learning gaps]…double up in small groups, all of the things we know work best to catch kids up.
Kadera: I’m quite concerned about the exodus of families from the public schools. I appreciate the real and urgent needs that are sometimes forcing families to make that difficult decision. I am hoping that families… will realize that we have been in an extraordinary time, and that they will take a second look and come back when schools are reopened.
If families don’t come back… that creates a number of problems. It creates an unfortunate impression that APS can’t serve the needs of students with different ability levels and needs. Parents then fear the system will be so focused on meeting needs of struggling kids, that my child’s needs won’t be addressed. If the base of supporters and families in the APS tent shrinks, that’s a problem.
Year-round school. The APS staff did an evaluation of the year-round school model at Barcroft before the School Board voted to eliminate that model. What questions would you have asked before making such a decision?
Turner: The questions I would have asked start with families, whether they valued the year-round calendar when kids get more intensive time and shorter breaks during the year, how they would manage with 10 weeks off in the summer. I would look at the effect on the “summer slide” [in retaining knowledge]. In terms of results, I don’t know if it’s quite fair to compare school to school.
Kadera: Many in the Barcroft community were taken by surprise. There was a concerning communication from Barcroft PTA saying… this happened without a whole lot of community engagement. It was standardizing and simplifying life for administrators, but not acknowledging the school community, having careful conversation.
I would have asked… what is driving this? If it is an academic claim, then I would like to see the evidence. I would like to compare that to similar schools and divisions… bring in lessons learned from outside. I’d like to hear voices of families, understand their preferences and needs, and honor that in a significant way as part of decision-making.
PV: Arlington students at TJHSST. The APS superintendent recently proposed not paying for Arlington students to go to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. What do you think of this idea?
Turner: Your budget shows your priorities. This [eliminating Arlington students’ rights to go to TJHSST] shouldn’t be in the first tier of cuts. As a public school system, we ought to be providing a path to success for every student. If we can provide an additional way for kids who are really stellar to pursue their educational passion, we should.
Kadera: It concerns me that we’re making decisions about option programs which are instructional decisions, and appearing in a budget cycle. It’s important to know if the decision was being made for financial reason, or for enrollment or capacity reasons… If the answer was “because of money,” I would call a time-out. We should have a conversation about instructional vision first…then that should drive budget and facilities decisions, not the tail wagging the dog.
PV: Equity. How would you measure whether there has been any change in “equity” over the next four years? What two actions do you think would have the most impact in a school system to promote diversity, equity and inclusion?
Turner: One measure is quantitative: Has the opportunity gap among groups narrowed, in other words, you can’t predict an outcome based on what group a particular person is in? Do measurement consistently, year after year, make it public, and move forward. And then qualitatively, are outcomes being monitored and is the process being monitored.
We’re never going to overcome inequities in the home for everyone. But we can do our best to even things up, set students up for success…send each child home at end of the day with good experience.
The two most important actions now are to get kids back in school as quickly as possible, as many days as possible. That addresses academics and starts to work on learning loss. And then we need to tend to social emotional health, such as getting more counselors.
Kadera: I would like to see a dashboard of equity-related data that is front and center in APS’ online presence. We need a baseline, that’s a first step. We need to shine a little daylight on our problems.
On specific actions, one is a shift in our schools away from exclusionary discipline practices and toward restorative justice. And then I believe it’s time for our police officers [School Resource Officers] to come out of school buildings. In Virginia, we have high rate of referrals to the legal system… Environment is a huge part of that. So I want to create an environment where kids feel supported.
PV: Pandemic. For School Board members, what is the most important lesson learned from the pandemic?
Turner: In terms of how to apply [lessons learned], the School Board has gotten flak for not taking a vote on return-to-school issues. That’s somewhat deserved. I understand they’re trying to manage a lot of anger. What might help is more back and forth between the School Board and the community. During public comment time, speakers get no response. If there could be a little more, “I heard you…I understand you want X, what we’re doing is Y, and here is why.”
Also I would have touted the safety measures APS was taking, maximizing the safety protocols, communicating and making sure parents felt safe.
Kadera: The thing that I think will be a lesson learned is that the School Board needs to go on record and be accountable and vote on an issue of this magnitude. This pandemic touched every school-aged child and family. And yet return-to-school items were positioned as “monitoring” Items.
In my opinion this was an all-hands on-deck moment, so do more than monitoring. The School Board needed to take ownership. There’s a real palpable frustration…many people feel there’s no accountability. The importance of this issue of ownership and going on record is signaling to our community, we know we are accountable to you.