Arlington, VA

Ed Talk: Learning Pods

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As the school year begins online for students across the country, parents face the challenge of supporting the educational needs of their children while working at their own jobs.

This challenge is real for all working parents. But the opportunities that parents have to meet their children’s needs vary greatly depending on socio-economic status.

Some families with sufficient financial resources are turning to learning pods.  These are small groups of students who will gather in homes or rented spaces with an adult who is paid to supervise them while learning online. Some pods will be led by teachers.

An internet search of  “learning pods” reveals many companies that will create pods and provide adults to supervise and/or teach. The websites for these companies offer pods for pre-kindergarten through grade 12, with two students to nine students per pod. Schedules can be five days per week, half-day or full-day.

The cost?  One website provides a pod for students in grades K-4, Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. with one educator at a cost of $4,583 per month per child for a three-student pod and $1,528 per month per child for a nine-student pod.

There certainly are benefits for those who can afford learning pods. For students, an adult can provide in-person assistance with their education in a small group setting. And interaction with peers promotes social-emotional learning. Parents benefit too, because they can work inside or outside the home while their children are engaged in distance learning.

But students from low-income families who cannot afford the pod fees are left out. They cannot benefit from a paid teacher in the home to enhance their distance learning and they miss out on in-person interaction with other students. Their parents may have to choose between giving up their jobs outside the home and going to work and leaving their children home alone.

Parents in Arlington, like those around the country, are forming learning pods. One website helps parents connect for free and a local company creates pods with an initial fee and monthly costs.

Long before COVID-19, significant disparities in academic outcomes existed between groups of students in Arlington. These disparities will grow with months of distance learning and the disparate opportunities that students have at home depending on their socio-economic status.

In his Back to School Update during the School Board’s July 30th meeting, Arlington Public Schools (APS) Superintendent Dr. Francisco Duran stated that APS is working with Arlington County Government and community partners to address the need for childcare for families while APS provides distance learning.

Arlington might look to the city of San Francisco, which has committed to opening 40 community learning hubs in September.  These will be located at recreation centers, libraries, and non-profit sites, providing full-day supervision for low-income students. Each hub will have access to technology for distance learning, enrichment activities, and meals.

In addition, APS should develop a plan for in-person instruction focused on students most in need. Such an approach is consistent with APS summer school, which is being offered online this summer for elementary students who need strengthening in math and literacy and secondary students who received low grades last school year.

Before APS opted for distance learning this fall for all students, the APS hybrid learning plan offered in-person learning two days a week. If social distancing is required when APS opens schools again, instead of limited, in-person instruction for all students, APS should offer in-person instruction for more hours for students most in need. This includes low-income students who have not had the benefit of small group instruction in learning pods.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with Project Peace, the Community Progress Network, and Second Chance.

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Last week, as our nation celebrated Independence Day, protests continued across America for racial equity and justice. The dissonance between the promise of the Declaration of Independence — that all are created equal with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — and the failure to live up to that promise, has a long history.

In a speech on July 5, 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass praised the founding fathers. He also laid bare the simple truth that slaves, as well as free Black people like him, did not have the rights that the framers declared, saying:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.

These words, uttered 168 years ago, ring true today.

The “immeasurable distance” between whites and Black people in 1852 persists in the disparities we see in 2020 in education, employment, health, wealth, criminal justice, and more.

To make progress in eliminating these disparities, we must better educate all students about Black history and current events.

In recent comments, Virginia’s Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni, made clear that Virginia has more work to do on this front: “We talk about freedom and justice and spreading democracy throughout the world. I would argue that a lot of those principles came from the struggles of African Americans throughout our history, and that history is not being told in our classrooms.”

Qarny is a member of Virginia’s Commission on African American History Education, which was created to improve the teaching of African American history. The Executive Order creating the Commission also calls for a new high school elective course on African American history, to be offered online through Virtual Virginia starting this fall.

An initial outline of that course includes a comprehensive study of history, literature, the arts, race and racism. This course will benefit the students who choose to take it. In addition, all students should learn Black history by including it across academic disciplines. Students should read Black authors in their language arts classes. They should study the contributions that Black Americans have made to the arts, mathematics, and science in those classes. And their history and government classes should include more focus on the centuries-old struggle for racial equity and justice.

The history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination makes many uncomfortable and ashamed. That not everyone enjoys the same rights and opportunities today is not easy to discuss. Acknowledging this history and our current reality, and discussing these in classrooms, are critical to real learning. Learning can lead to change.

In his 1852 speech, Douglass found hope in the principles of the Declaration of Independence, even while urging the country to acknowledge the injustice of slavery: “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed…”

Decades later, Langston Hughes wrote about patriotism, resilience, and hope in the face of segregation his 1926 poem, which begins, “I, too, sing America.” Though sent “to eat in the kitchen when company comes,” Hughes says that tomorrow, “I’ll be at the table.” And, “They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed.” His poem concludes, “I, too, am America.”

Recognizing that Black history is American history, and teaching it effectively, can help this country make progress in realizing Hughes’ vision of a more equitable and just America.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Project Peace Prevention Committee and Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with the Community Progress Network and Second Chance

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued detailed guidance this week for the phased reopening of schools. Because each of the three phases includes six-foot social distancing in school and on buses, Arlington Public Schools (APS) will have to provide a hybrid model of education this fall, with limited in-person instruction, combined with online learning.

The Governor’s guidance for instruction is as follows:

  • Phase I – continues remote learning and allows in-person instruction for students with disabilities;
  • Phase II – adds limited in-person instruction for preschool through third grade and English learner students; and
  • Phase III – allows in-person instruction for all students, with new content taught.

While the timing of moving through these phases is not explicit, it appears that Phase II is intended for summer school and Phase III is anticipated for the fall.

APS class sizes are too large for social distancing. A recent report of the American Federation of Teachers on school reopening states that classes should have 12-15 students to maintain recommended social distancing. The APS 2019-20 Class Size Report shows average class sizes of 22 students for elementary schools, 21 students for middle schools, and 20 students for high schools.

APS does not have enough buses to maintain social distancing for students who ride the bus. An APS presentation on school opening estimates that school bus capacity will be reduced by 75% with social distancing. Given that more than 65% of students ride the bus, ridership would be cut from 18,942 students to 4,736 students in the fall, based on projected fall enrollment of 29,142 students.

Recognizing the impact of social distancing, the Governor’s guidelines offer sample school schedules for Phase III, with students attending school physically one or two full days per week, half-days four days per week, or two to three days per week every other week.

APS must determine how many hours per week each student can attend school for in-person education considering Arlington’s student enrollment, square footage of classrooms, and bus capacity. An additional consideration is the effect of COVID-19 on the APS workforce and how many teachers and staff will request to work remotely because of health considerations.

Another factor affecting the number of hours available for in-person instruction is the APS budget. The School Board’s adopted FY 2021 budget slashed expenditures by $55.6 million, compared with the interim Superintendent’s proposed budget. The budget lacks funding for more buses and drivers or for more teachers to reduce class sizes. In fact, the budget increases class sizes by one at each grade level, for a savings of $4.9 million.

Phase III school reopening in Arlington could have all students return to school for significantly reduced hours per week, or it could allocate the limited resource of in-person education in a different way.

The Governor’s guidance has a focus on equity and identifies “vulnerable” students who should receive targeted attention.  These include young learners, English learners, students with disabilities, those at risk of not moving to the next grade level or not graduating, and students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.

APS Superintendent Dr. Francisco Duran has convened a task force of parents, teachers, students and citizens to advise him in developing the APS reopening plan. Key to the task force considerations should be the APS core value of equity: “Eliminate opportunity gaps and achieve excellence by providing access to schools, resources, and learning opportunities according to each student’s unique needs.”

Arlington has significant achievement gaps between groups of students, and these gaps are expected to increase as a result of school closures. Such disparities have long-term consequences, affecting post-secondary educational opportunities, jobs, and wages. Therefore, in-person education in Arlington this fall should focus on those students who need it the most.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Project Peace Prevention Committee and Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with the Community Progress Network and Second Chance

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On February 27, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that there were 16 COVID-19 cases in the United States.

That same day, the Arlington Public Schools (APS) interim Superintendent presented her proposed FY 2021 budget, with total expenditures of $725.9 million. That reflected an 8.4% increase in expenditures over the current year, added 265 positions, and increased per pupil spending from $19,921 to $21,290. It included a step increase and cost of living adjustment for employees. Revenue was estimated at $698.4 million, with options presented for spending reductions to reduce the $27.5 million budget deficit.

In March, schools were closed, non-essential businesses shuttered, and stay-at-home orders were issued for most of the nation. By April 23, the number of reported COVID-19 cases in the United States had increased to 865,585.

When the School Board met on April 23, the economic impact of COVID-19 was evident in the proposed budget it adopted. Following the revised recommendation of the interim Superintendent, expenditures proposed in February were cut by $54.8 million — a 7.5% reduction in spending.

The School Board’s proposed budget is balanced, with expenditures matching the revised revenue estimate of $671.1 million.  Most of the change in revenue results from a decrease in the transfer that APS will receive from Arlington County: $21.6 million less in ongoing funds and $3.7 million less in one-time funds. That is based on the County Manager’s revised budget, which estimates $55.7 million less County revenue than was included in his initial proposed budget.

The new budget reality means that APS will spend next fiscal year about the same that it does this year, while educating more students, and facing other increased costs. As detailed in the interim Superintendent’s revised budget, FY 2021 expenditures will increase by about $1.5 million. That does not cover the $11.77 million estimated cost of enrollment growth, which is projected to increase by 4%, adding more than 1,100 students next year.

In the new budget reality, most of the proposed increases in the February proposed budget are eliminated and its reductions are retained, including cutting the Foreign Language in Elementary School program.

The compensation increase costing $15.3 million is eliminated. According to the Washington Area Boards of Education (WABE) Guide, which compares 10 local school divisions, Arlington ranks at the bottom of the 10 school divisions in salary for a teacher with a master’s degree at step one of the pay scale, and at or near the top for teachers with more experience. Because employing quality teachers is a key factor in student success, Arlington’s ranking for new teacher pay is cause for concern.

Class size is increased by one at every grade level, for a savings of $4.9 million. The WABE Guide shows that Arlington now has the lowest class size (students per classroom teacher) for high school, second lowest for middle school, and is in the middle of the pack for elementary school.

To balance the budget, reserved funds are used, reducing these from a current balance of $28.5 million to $12.1 million.

The School Board’s final FY 2021 budget, to be adopted on May 7, likely will be very similar to its proposed budget. If revenues come in higher than now projected, the School Board should first replenish its reserve funds.

It is hard to find a budgetary silver lining in any of this. But maybe it is this. Arlington’s commitment to quality public education continues. APS now spends the most per pupil in the region, at $19,921. Even with the new budget reality that reduces per pupil spending to $19,624, that is more than our neighboring jurisdictions invest now.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Project Peace Prevention Committee and Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with the Community Progress Network and Second Chance.

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

There is a new reality for students, families, teachers, staff, and school leaders: K-12 schools are closed through the end of the academic year, as ordered by Virginia’s Governor.

With this new reality, what are the priorities, challenges, and opportunities for Arlington Public Schools (APS) students?

Nutrition

As of October 2019, APS had more than 8,000 students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. That is 29% of the student population – a percentage that will increase as parents are laid off and lose jobs. Ensuring that Arlington youth have nutritious meals daily is a top priority.

APS is providing free grab-and-go breakfast and lunch for all Arlington youth ages 2-18 on Mondays through Fridays available for pick up between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. at Kenmore Middle School and Barrett, Campbell, Drew, and Randolph elementary schools. For next week’s spring break, a week’s worth of food was made available in advance. Beginning on April 13, Hoffman-Boston and Key elementary schools will be added to the sites offering these meals. The federal government recently waived the requirement that students be present to receive these meals.

APS staff are to be commended for quickly putting this food distribution system in place. However, not all families who need support can access one of these five sites. Across the country, and in neighboring jurisdictions such as Fairfax and Loudoun counties, school buses are being used to provide food to students in their own neighborhoods.

APS should consider expanding its food distribution to include schools buses. In time, school buses also might be used to distribute other items, like school supplies and books, for children in need.

Mental Health and Safety

Another top priority, especially now, is mental health and safety. Families are facing the stress of job losses and managing work with children at home full-time. There is the fear of loved ones becoming infected with the virus.

In these stressful times, child abuse and neglect as well as domestic violence may increase — putting children more at risk. APS has 125 school counselors, 38 psychologists, and 31 social workers serving our more than 28,000 students. In normal times, these dedicated staff is stretched thin. These are not normal times. The County and schools should work together to ensure that students and families are receiving the support that they need.

Learning

Students, their families, and teachers are adjusting to distance learning.

In a March 26 update, APS states that students on track to graduate as of the end of the third quarter will be able to graduate. In addition, students in good standing as of that time will move to the next grade level. During the fourth quarter, students with failing grades will receive assistance to help them improve and advance to the next grade level. These are important priorities.

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Ed Talk: Accountability

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Accountability in education means having clear goals for student achievement and data that is readily available to decision-makers and the public to assess progress toward those goals.

Strategic Planning – Setting Goals

Strategic planning charts a long-term course for school divisions, setting goals and specifying metrics to provide accountability.

The Arlington Public Schools (APS) 2018-24 Strategic Plan includes this goal: “APS will eliminate opportunity gaps so all students achieve excellence.” The Plan includes performance objectives for this goal, such as:

  • Increased achievement for all reporting groups on district and state assessments shows progress toward eliminating the opportunity gap.
  • All students will make at least one year’s worth of growth as measured by federal, state, and/or district assessments.

However, the Plan includes no quantitative benchmarks for academic performance. How much should achievement increase by 2024? How is one year’s worth of growth calculated?

Compare this with the APS 2011-17 Strategic Plan. For the goal that every student is challenged and engaged, the Plan included 21 key performance indicators, setting quantitative targets for 2017 for achievement in reading, math, science, and history/social studies, as well as for on-time graduation rates, enrollment and performance in advanced classes, and SAT/ACT scores.

For the goal of eliminating achievement gaps, the 2011-17 Plan had 23 key performance indicators, each including data for seven groups of students – resulting in 161 performance targets.

The School Board should build on its Strategic Plan to add quantitative key performance indicators. Establishing these targets as part of the Strategic Plan is critical for APS staff and the public to know what the expectations are for our students.

Monitoring Progress/Data Transparency

How does the School Board monitor student performance? One method is program evaluations.  These are thorough reviews that include classroom observations, data analysis, and recommendations for improvement, conducted about every six years for each academic discipline.

For example, an extensive English Language Arts (ELA) Program Evaluation was completed in May 2019 and considered during a January School Board work session. The previous ELA evaluation was completed in 2013.

APS collects vast amounts of student achievement data, as required by law. In previous years, the School Board reviewed data for the key performance indicators in its Strategic Plan during a series of meetings each fall. The Board could see how different groups of students were performing on a variety of measures over many years. From this, the Board could consider what was working well and where adjustments might be needed to enhance success.

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

While many believe that Arlington Public Schools (APS) currently is engaged in an elementary school boundary process, it is not. Instead, APS proposes moving entire school populations from one school to another. It then will consider boundary changes in the fall of 2020, offering no details on what those might look like.

Making adjustments to school assignments is necessary to create an attendance zone to fill seats at the new elementary school at the Reed building opening in 2021. In addition, APS intends to redraw the attendance zone for Arlington Science Focus School to address significant crowding in that part of the County.

APS has a detailed policy for boundary changes, which includes consideration of the following factors: efficiency, proximity, stability, alignment, promoting demographic diversity, and contiguity. However, there is no policy governing the current “school move” process and APS has been explicit that it is not considering demographics.

Research is clear that students — all students — do better in diverse learning environments.

Yet many of our schools are not diverse. The socio-economic differences are stark: the average eligibility for free/reduced price meals for neighborhood elementary schools in south Arlington is more than three times that of neighborhood schools in north Arlington – 52.58% compared with 15.58%.

We also know that there are significant gaps in academic achievement between poorer and wealthier schools. For example, the Standards of Learning math pass rate last year at Carlin Springs Elementary was 62% (free/reduced price lunch eligibility — 81.15%) and for Tuckahoe Elementary it was 98% (free/reduced price lunch eligibility — 1.51%).

The School Board’s boundary policy appropriately considers promoting demographic diversity, recognizing that this has an impact on student achievement. Students in diverse schools also have the benefit of learning about and from others with different backgrounds, languages, and life experiences.

Among the APS core values is equity, which is defined this way: “Eliminate opportunity gaps and achieve excellence by providing access to schools, resources, and learning opportunities according to each student’s unique needs.”

APS should consider lack of diversity in schools as an opportunity gap.

As APS staff, community members, and the School Board engage in the current process, I suggest that the four equity questions I referenced in my November 1 column be asked:

  • Who benefits?
  • Who is burdened?
  • Who is missing?
  • How do you know?

Since APS is not considering demographics in its school move process, these questions cannot be fully answered. We do know that the burden of one of the proposals may fall disproportionately on low-income students, since it would move nearly all students at Campbell, Carlin Springs, and Key elementary schools. And given what appears to be the lack of any community support for the proposals, who benefits?

The Board should not move thousands of elementary school students in a process that is separate from a boundary process and that does not consider demographic diversity. To do so misses the chance to reduce opportunity gaps by increasing diversity at our elementary schools.

Instead, school moves and boundary changes should be considered together, with data about the free/reduced price lunch population and racial/ethnic composition of each elementary school that would result. And consideration should be given to other tools that have been used in the past to address crowding, diversity, and achievement, such as option and team schools.

Achieving more diversity across our elementary schools, most of which are neighborhood schools, is challenging. But we cannot make any progress if promoting demographic diversity is not even a factor in the process of assigning students to different schools.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Project Peace Prevention Committee and Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with the Community Progress Network and Second Chance.

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Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

For the second year in a row, Niche has ranked Arlington Public Schools (APS) as the best school division in Virginia.

The Niche rankings are based in part on standardized test scores in reading and math, averaging the test scores of all students. While Arlington can be proud of the quality of its schools, such rankings based on aggregate data hide the disparities in academic achievement among different student groups.

Virginia Department of Education data shows startling gaps between white students and others in reading test scores in Arlington for 2018-19: a 56 point gap for English learners, 40 points for students with disabilities, 31 points for economically disadvantaged students, 28 points for Hispanic students, and 22 points for black students.

There are significant disparities in other subject tests results as well. And different outcomes for different groups of students extend beyond test scores to gifted programs, advanced studies diplomas, school discipline, measures of wellness, and extracurricular activities.

One way to address these disparities is to focus on equity and APS is doing just that. Equity is an APS core value described this way: “Eliminate opportunity gaps and achieve excellence by providing access to schools, resources, and learning opportunities according to each student’s unique needs.”

The School Board plans to expand on this by adopting an equity policy, likely in November.

The School Board’s equity policy should draw on the work of Destination 2027, an initiative of Arlington’s Public Health Division working to achieving health equity by 2027.  The Destination 2027 Steering Committee’s final report recommends that equity can be put into action by asking four questions:

  • Who benefits?
  • Who is burdened?
  • Who is missing?
  • How do you know?

The School Board should include these questions in its equity policy, as the County Board did in its recently adopted equity resolution. Eliminating opportunity gaps and achieving excellence for all students means asking these questions in the School Board’s decisions about the budget, capital improvements, boundary changes, policies, programs, and hiring.

The School Board is investing in its commitment to equity by hiring a Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, which will report to the Superintendent and be responsible for instructional equity, recruiting and retaining diverse staff, and developing partnerships with the community. The County Board should make a similar investment in its upcoming budget by including a Chief Equity Officer in the County Manager’s Office to coordinate its equity work and partner with APS.

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