Arlington, VA

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

APS parents are known for their engagement on issues with the School Board.  But why should parents direct their attention to the County Board?

The most obvious answer is because APS relies on the County for its funding. However, the County’s independent priorities and policies affect not just APS’ budget, but also its policies and decisions.

It is, therefore, in the County Board’s interest to understand the needs of its school system and community. County Board members should recognize the challenges APS faces and understand how it operates and uses its resources. They should appreciate and acknowledge how its own policies and decisions (housing, transportation, land use, zoning, “community benefits” from developers, bike trails, sidewalks, bond allocations, etc.) impact APS’ resources, how efficiently it can use those resources, and the resulting types of services and quality of education APS delivers.

APS parents should be just as concerned about County Board candidates’ positions on issues as they are about candidates for school board. With a special election to fill Erik Gutshall’s County Board seat upon us, now is the time for voters to ask themselves some questions they may not typically consider when voting for County Board:

  • How well do County Board members understand our school system, the expectations placed on Arlington public education today, and how school and County issues relate to each other?
  • Do they understand the effects of development, housing policy, and land use decisions on individual school enrollments, transportation and boundary policies, and APS’ ability to provide equitable and inclusive learning environments?
  • How will their positions impact school crowding; or how attendance zones can be drawn; or the instruction that can be implemented; or how employees can be compensated; or accessibility of school facilities for staff, substitute teachers, parents, volunteers, and even community members attending events and using facilities?
  • Do they have ideas about ways the County can partner with APS in providing supportive services (such as childcare or preschool, after-school enrichment, mental health services, transportation, etc.) so that APS can devote more of its budget and attention to academics and instruction?

The argument that only 20% of Arlington residents have children in the schools has grown tiresome. The fact is, far more than 20% of Arlington residents have had, have, or will have children in Arlington Public Schools. Furthermore, every resident is affected by the quality and reputation of Arlington’s school system and the resources it uses from the County’s coffers – whether in the form of property values, available amenities, quality of public services, or by inefficient delivery systems unnecessarily diverting money from other community needs and desires.

School and County Board members differ on even the most fundamental matters, such as the urgency of issues APS is facing due to demographic shifts in Arlington. A friend said recently, “Denial is bad public policy.” It is time for County Board members to stop denying the challenges APS and parents tell them they are confronting. The two boards do not have to see eye-to-eye, but it is not County Board members’ role to determine schools don’t need expensive parking because they prefer to encourage alternative transit, or that APS does not need more land or buildings because education will look different in the future. APS has 28,000 students to educate now, and Arlington is not the progressive city with the sophisticated public transit system the County likes to believe it is.

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

(Updated at 4:10 p.m.) A new strategic plan. A newly-developed definition of “equity.” Years of exponential enrollment growth. Turnover of several high-level administrators and, in a few months, two board members. The hiring of the first Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer. The naming of the first new superintendent in over a decade. A shutdown due to a pandemic.

It has all come to a head and has created the perfect opportunity to pause and reset.

This pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to APS and the County to identify and fix the problems with student and parent access to online information and materials.

According to APS data collected, 95% of devices accessed the system in the past few weeks. That is impressive and encouraging. It does not mean all of the remaining 5% cannot access. Some students have chosen not to engage, some may be using another device available in their home, and some may not be able to continue with school due to circumstances caused by the pandemic.

APS and the County cannot fix every issue with online learning, but they can fix the basic problems of availability of devices and internet access and need to do so before the start of the next academic year. Schools have the devices. The County needs to find a way to resolve any lack of internet access.

This distance learning experience is a wake-up call to APS to finally develop and implement a district-wide ed tech curriculum that serves as an effective supplement to classroom instruction and that can facilitate a seamless transition to an effective online program when necessary.

The 1:1 technology initiative has been in place 6 years and we continue to endure vast inconsistencies and insufficient teacher training in how to optimize the use of devices for the benefit of instruction and learning. We cannot wait any longer.

This is a wake-up call to build a broad, integrated network of resources with APS and County working as a unit to identify, facilitate, and deliver needed services.

The beginnings of such a network can already be seen through the efforts to identify locations for new school facilities and collaborating on data used for enrollment projections. Other signs of an emerging network include APS referring parents to County programs as alternatives to eliminated summer enrichment programs, and collaboration between APS and the County for food distribution programs and increasing internet access through mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

These are efforts to build upon, and this is the perfect time to assess the various needs of students and families, to identify whether APS or Arlington County is responsible for addressing those needs and determine how one can support the other to facilitate filling those needs. For example, education is the primary responsibility of school while social services are a major function of government. Schools could identify students and families in need of mental health and social services and offer space for County providers to deliver the actual services.

Another example is preschool and extended day programs. There is a need and desire for more preschool opportunities and APS’ extended day programs have waitlists. The County also runs preschool programs and may be able to expand its offerings more easily than APS. The County can also work to encourage and support the establishment of more private preschools, daycares, and extended day programs to extend APS’ offerings.

Finally, this is a wake-up call and a perfect opportunity to re-evaluate APS’ definition of equity and how it impacts APS policy decisions.

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

Last week, Arlington Public Schools revealed its continuous learning plan for the remainder of the academic year. As with all APS decisions, the plan is controversial and parents have been quick to react with criticism.

I initially approached this week’s column intending to discuss the most contentious aspect of the plan. But no matter what APS does or doesn’t do, parents will continue to criticize and debate. So, upon considering the conversations I’ve had, my own reactions, and comments I’ve heard and read, I decided instead to look for some silver linings.

I am in something akin to a “Twilight Zone” episode wherein I find myself in a (literal) stay-at-home mom role with no idea what day of the week it is, a teen and pre-teen inexplicably unenthused and uncooperative with the thoughtful schedule I’ve outlined, a husband able to escape to an office one full day a week, juggling my own paid and volunteer work while trying to consolidate academic expectations from 14 teachers using Canvas (or not) in 14 ways. Maybe it will all come together in time to return the kids to the classroom into the much more capable hands of their teachers?

Meanwhile, as I ignore sibling exchanges and commentaries in response to my nagging about screen time, daring to suggest the kids fill their time by helping out more around the house, I welcome the diversion of some possible positive outcomes from APS’ distance learning plan:

  • Struggling students have a unique opportunity to significantly improve their year-end grades, possibly boosting their self-confidence and maybe becoming a turning point for some.
  • Most students will enjoy the reprieve from the daily stresses of school and the academic pressures and expectations causing significant anxiety and depression.
  • Many will have time and opportunity to pursue self-selected topics and to learn in ways more suited to them than the structured school day and prescribed assignments.
  • Parents have been inspired to become more involved and actively help other school communities in need.
  • APS and PTAs are coordinating with County efforts to supply and manage food distribution programs.
  • New connections between PTAs are being made. A more substantive PTA partnership program may begin to emerge – partnerships that continue beyond the current crisis at hand and that benefit students academically and socially.
  • Partnerships and collaborations taking place now can create a foundation for a countywide network for providing ongoing services and to respond to future crises more efficiently and effectively – reducing time required to coordinate while people wait for the help they need.
  • The move to “distance learning” and APS’ decision not to introduce new curriculum content highlight the disparities and obstacles that exist in our County and schools. With increased awareness of the severity of disparities and all students being directly impacted by APS decisions based on equity issues, perhaps APS and the County will feel more pressure to solve existing problems and devise more creative and collaborative solutions.
  • APS could consider enrichment options and better use of its tiered system of support instruction to compensate for material missed this year and students being expected to learn more information more quickly next year.
  • APS has renewed reason to evaluate whether its 1:1 digital device initiative is the best model or if there is a more equitable model for designing instruction that better facilitates the allocation of devices and resources, ensures every student has access to a working device at home, and allows students to be taught new material via distance learning when necessary for any reason.
  • Maybe my kids will learn to cook — or at least feed the dog.

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

People assert “social engineering” to oppose ideas to increase the socioeconomic diversity within our schools or neighborhoods. Where has this indignant outcry been as Arlington County policies “socially engineered” us into the segregated neighborhoods and schools we have today?

“Social engineering” is always applied as though it is necessarily bad. The fact is, all public policies and practices socially shape our communities. Is it “social engineering” per se that people object to? Or the intended results that potentially threaten their status quo?

Arlington County’s development and zoning regulations and housing policies reinforce and perpetuate the same impacts of redlining from decades past. Concentrating affordable housing for the lowest income levels in a few specific areas of the county has created segregated neighborhoods and, by consequence, segregated schools.

We have “socially engineered” ourselves into a situation whereby some schools require a broad range of supportive services not traditionally provided by a public school. To support families, Community in Schools programs are implemented in high-needs, high-poverty schools. Arlington has done so at Carlin Springs Elementary School, and there is support for expanding that model to others.

Some argue it is more efficient to bring services and resources to the schools near where many people in need live and where their children are enrolled. This is not necessarily a bad idea. But even if this is the preferred model, what about children and families in need at more affluent schools where a Community in Schools program is unlikely to be implemented?

A more equitable approach would be to ensure that all services and supports are accessible by any student in need at any school in the district. Intentional segregation should not be implemented for the sake of efficiency. People should not have to live in low-income neighborhoods zoned to a specific school offering the unique services they need. Affordable housing should be sufficiently available throughout the County. Disadvantaged families should be able to send their children to any school and receive the same assistance in accessing the services and programs they need.

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

The word “equity” derives from the Latin aequus, meaning “equal,” or “fair.”

Arlington Public Schools’ (APS) strategic plan refers to “equity” this way: Eliminate opportunity gaps and achieve excellence by providing access to schools, resources, and learning opportunities according to each student’s unique needs.”

Arlington County defines “equity” as “…all populations having access to community conditions and opportunities needed to reach their full potential and to experience optimal well-being.”

APS’ reference implies an individual approach to equity, whereas the County’s definition suggests a systemic approach. Indeed, APS consistently employs a non-systemic approach to matters: targeting programs and community partnerships at individual schools; relying on principals and PTAs to identify and fulfill each school’s needs, instituting exemplary projects to create a unique focus for each neighborhood elementary school, and supporting diversity through option schools rather than promoting diversity in all schools.

This approach has resulted in strikingly different academic experiences from school to school, notable disparities in perceived school quality and student achievement, exaggerated anxieties about potential boundary changes, and divided communities.

Whereas, with a systemic approach to equity:

  • Every school should be able to meet the needs of any student at any time;
  • No middle or high school teacher would know which elementary or middle school a student attended based on their academic preparedness in any given subject; and
  • Boundary discussions would be void of phrases like “lesser than,” “worse,” or “less desirable.”

Any student should be able to transfer from any neighborhood school to another for any reason – moving, boundary change – and pick-up right where they left off. No student should find themselves notably behind their new classmates academically, or conspicuously ahead and repeating instruction. No student should be obliged to live within a particular school’s attendance zone in order to receive the educational or social support they need, or struggle because they live where those supports are not readily available in their assigned school.

Instructional consistency across the district helps ensure students from every school are similarly prepared for middle and high school coursework so that there is no distinguishable correlation of students’ preparedness in math, or level of achievement in a world language, with the school they previously attended.

An equitable school system offers fewer reasons for pushback against boundary changes and, therefore, more civil discourse. All APS schools are good, but they are not equal. Academic and social experiences and opportunities differ widely, fueling divisive rhetoric and pitting neighborhoods against each other.

What is the pathway to equity? De-segregation.

The most effective way APS can ensure equity is to create a reasonable balance in socioeconomic demographics across schools.  Economic diversity facilitates equality in available resources such as PTA funding, parent and community volunteers, and other community assets. This in turn enables each school to sufficiently support its teachers and students and vastly narrows the range of disparities between schools.

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

Arlington Public Schools (APS) is moving forward with the implementation of a Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer (CDEIO).

APS posted the vacancy in early October and hopes to have the position filled by January. There is a sense within the Arlington community that this process is being rushed – unnecessarily and to the detriment of APS’ own efforts.

Whether you believe the position is unnecessary or you consider it essential to eliminate systemic biases, there are legitimate concerns about the circumstances under which APS is pursuing its implementation:

  • APS has not indicated the specific situations or problems it is aiming to solve with this position;
  • A lack of explicit objectives and measurable goals to be achieved may be setting the stage for certain failure;
  • Filling a new, high-level position in the absence of a permanent superintendent may create inconsistency or incompatibility in expectations when leadership changes; and
  • The work of the CDEIO would likely be guided by APS’ policy on diversity, equity and inclusion, which APS is still developing and the School Board has yet to adopt.

Adding to concerns that this process is being rushed is the uncertain degree to which the School Board is committed to the continued investment needed to enable a CDEIO to succeed. After the recent successive budgets that have precluded the addition of other important personnel, will the future Superintendent and Board members commit the necessary funds in subsequent budgets for staff support, training programs, or other resources the CDEIO requires?

If the Board does not invest sufficient resources, opponents who argue a CDEIO is unnecessary or will be ineffective will be proven correct.  Community fears that creating this position is nothing more than checking a box to reassure the community of the Board’s commitment to diversity and equity will be confirmed. It will merely serve as distraction while the Board forges ahead with boundary changes, capacity solutions, and instructional program decisions without a sense of obligation or responsibility to address diversity or equity within those processes and decisions.

It is noteworthy that the Arlington County Board adopted an equity resolution this past September. Despite the County’s intention to establish an interdepartmental task force that includes Arlington Public Schools, the County did not consult with APS as it developed its resolution. A joint policy on diversity, equity, and inclusion would ensure consistency in terms and definitions used by County and Schools, a shared vision and uniform practices across County and Schools, and an acknowledgement of County policy impacts on APS’ ability to provide equitable educational and social opportunities to all students.

Nevertheless, APS’ policies on equity and inclusion and diversity will be driving factors in all aspects of administration and instruction. Therefore, this position must not be allowed to fail and APS must make every effort to maximize a new CDEIO’s chances for success.

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