Arlington, VA

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

To paraphrase The La’s, “There they go! There they go again!”

APS has again embarked on an elementary boundary process that dismisses student demographics, one of the six guiding principles in APS’ boundary policy. This isn’t surprising. But it is disheartening that APS’ new Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer (CDEIO), Arron Gregory, supports APS’ approach.

Mr. Gregory explains that “diversity” comes from our differences in culture, heritage, and upbringing. At the same time, he states that we need to shift our focus from the free- and reduced- lunch (FRL) aspect of diversity to the programs and services APS offers because “free- and reduced lunch is not going to create diversity within our schools,” that we can have diversity in any school because it is “about our thought process (and) cognitive diversity.”

Mr. Gregory reasserts Arlington’s long-standing “separate but equal” approach – or in today’s parlance, “separate but equitable.” There is just one problem with Mr. Gregory’s argument: the FRL aspect is precisely what produces the “cognitive diversity” he wants to focus on.

Like it or not, economic status is highly correlated with race in our society and in Arlington. It is the economic part of diversity that is critical to achieving the equity Mr. Gregory and APS profess is at the forefront of their decision-making. Since race legally cannot be used as criteria in designating school boundaries, FRL is our primary measure of diversity and is the logical and practical aspect on which to focus.

He is right that boundaries are but one in a series of steps toward equity. The problem is, APS is not actually using the boundary process to affect equity in our schools. Ignoring student demographics, or FRL eligibility, is misguided for several reasons:

  1. It hasn’t worked so far. Arlington’s high FRL schools have had highly qualified teachers and extra resources for years; yet the disparities in students’ opportunities, achievement, and experiences relative to those of students in low FRL schools has persisted;
  2. It runs counter to decades of social science research demonstrating that disparities are more effectively narrowed by providing economically diverse learning environments than by increasing investment and resources in high-poverty schools.
  3. It completely disregards so-termed “social capital” that enables true equity.
  4. It is shortsighted and does not consider the implications for disadvantaged students beyond their APS years.

Been there done that

Arlington has maintained a district of high- and low-FRL schools for decades, focusing on programs and services. My children attended one of Arlington’s highest FRL elementary schools and now attend high-FRL middle and high schools. I can attest to the high quality teaching that goes on in these schools and have seen the valuable extra resources and supports that these schools provide. Yet achievement and opportunity gaps persist. Vast disparities in the academic and social enrichment PTAs are able to provide remain. Those high-FRL schools continue to be disparaged and avoided by many in our community.

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

Since APS announced its decision to begin this school year 100% remotely, many parents and perhaps students – maybe even a few teachers – have been anticipating a disastrous start, if not a disastrous year.

We’re closing out week two of the distance learning year. Despite some significant technological issues and individual challenges adjusting to the new format, it has not been the initial overarching catastrophe many predicted.

For our family, our first day’s glitches were all rather quickly resolved. Admittedly, our middle schooler is using a personal laptop rather than the school-issued iPad. (Yes, I read your message, Dr. Duran; and I understand that you are encouraging all students to use the APS-issued device. But this time, we’re going rogue. Even if our middle schooler had never experienced the consistent connectivity issues with the iPad over the past two years, we prefer an actual keyboard and a larger screen for working a full year online. But the fact that it’s time APS swapped out middle school iPads for laptops is another discussion.)

While APS’ technology staff continues to manage the logistics of distance learning, the rest of us need to monitor distance learning itself. To that end, APS should immediately establish (yet another) working group or committee to monitor and collect feedback, data, and other information about academic, social, psychological, and technological matters through the duration of this school year.

Teachers, administrators, parents/guardians, students, school psychologists and counselors, and activities directors should all be represented.  A simple and easy way for people to comment and share personal experiences as they occur during the year is essential. The information gathered would guide decisions and improvements as the year progresses, as well as fuel planning and applying  lessons learned for future instruction when teachers and students ultimately return to the classroom full time.

We should strive to learn about such things as:

  • Effectiveness of APS and PTA communications and ways to improve it;
  • Impacts of distance learning on social dynamics and sense of community within and among schools;
  • How to manage the technical aspects of distance learning and teaching;
  • New skills and additional tools for teachers to reach and inspire every single student;
  • Which students are most successful with which methods of learning (online v. in person v. combination), why, and how to provide top quality programs to best serve each beyond the pandemic; and
  • Developing consistency in policies, curriculum, and instruction across schools.

Two particularly valuable lessons may be in the areas of how to excite students about learning, whether in-person or virtual, and the role of technology in education.

To prepare for remote teaching, teachers have had to redesign their curriculum for a whole new format and will hopefully continually improve their skills and techniques over the course of the year.  As my husband attests, teaching a college-level course in a classroom is very different from teaching it online. That phenomenon applies even more so to preschool – 12 education.

It requires different ways of presenting material and new skills for “reading” students, to elicit their participation, to motivate and draw out the best from each one. Mental health professionals face challenges as they meet with patients online where engagement is often lower or in-person with masks which obscure the facial expressions vital to contextualizing and interpreting comments and reactions – things trained professionals rely on in order to help their patients. Teachers use facial cues, student participation, and class behavior in the same way.

This year will offer ongoing opportunities to consider how students learn, what makes a teacher effective, and new ideas for the context of the traditional classroom experience. A major factor in teaching this year – and another key matter for APS and a committee to consider – is the role of educational technology.

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

News articles and social media chatter are inundated with information and discussion about back-to-school plans for this fall.

Arlington Public Schools has decided that all students will begin the 2020-2021 school year virtually. Teachers have spent much of their summer vacation working to convert their in-class instruction to virtual formats and are “heading back to the classroom” next week for training and final preparations to begin the year.

Most reports and discussions focus on such issues as the safety or logistics of returning to the classroom, the quality of virtual instruction, and screen time. One will also find frequent expressions of concern about the socioemotional well-being of students, yet one will struggle to find many specific ideas for addressing students’ social needs outside the virtual classroom or the role extracurricular clubs can play despite school buildings being closed.

Fortunately, sports leagues have made decisions regarding organized athletics and APS is currently considering guidelines for other extracurricular clubs and student activities. How — or if — a club will proceed likely depends upon the nature of the club as well as the determination of the club leaders to make it happen. Knowing that teachers — who comprise the majority of club sponsors — are rightfully focused on planning and training for the virtual classroom, parents and students could use this time to turn their attention toward ways to adapt clubs for a socially distanced school year. Students may have some of the best and most creative ideas as to how to transform their traditional group into an active, community-strengthening, pandemic-era extracurricular activity.

This new environment may provide an opportunity for community organizations or private business enterprises to become more involved in schools or for individual families to form groups among themselves for their own children. However, it is important to continue offering accessible, free, school-based extracurricular opportunities for students. Organized sports are a primary driver of school pride; but extracurricular clubs and activities expand the number of students engaged outside the classroom. They bring students together, build friendships, form memories, spark passions and careers, and help shape the school community’s character, spirit, and sense of school pride.

Given the likelihood that any club or activity will begin the year virtually like everything else, this is the perfect time to take inventory of existing clubs at each school, begin visioning how these groups will function this coming year, and consider potential new groups.

If there are clubs at one school that do not exist at another, consideration should be given to opening membership to students at other schools where a similar club may not be offered and how those students can continue to participate upon returning to an in-person school schedule. Merging clubs from different schools can foster a broader sense of community. Joining forces may increase participation or even strengthen the impact of some clubs such as those with a community service or environmental focus. At the same time, opening membership or joining forces can help chip away a bit of the opportunity disparities across the district.

It is often left to students to recruit members and solicit a sponsor to create a club. To ensure the clubs they are interested in will be offered this coming year students should:

  1. Consider ways to publicize the club and recruit members, appeal to administration and solicit potential teachers to sponsor them;
  2. Think creatively about ways to adapt club activities, meetings, and publicity efforts within a modified format to ensure members are engaged and the club remains active;
  3. Offer and solicit ideas for new clubs or activities.

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

It is increasingly important in today’s world of global interaction and social media that our youth have the tools they need to thoughtfully discern their individual beliefs and political positions.

While Webster’s dictionary simplistically defines “education” as “the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools,” this definition from dictiontary.com better reflects what we need from our educational institutions today: “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.”

To build and maintain a strong democracy, public education in a democratic society should both impart a breadth of knowledge to students and teach them to become independent thinkers. Arlington Public Schools should ensure the “acquiring general knowledge” and “developing the powers of reasoning and judgment” aspects of education by:

  • Building upon existing practices for teaching or incorporating “media intelligence” to help students discern the sources of social media posts and the credibility and biases of information they find online or read in print;
  • Implementing a curriculum that includes general social media use, political use of social media, analysis of political campaign tactics, and international influences;
  • Renewing the emphasis on civics and elevating its importance in the required curriculum;
  • Requiring debate classes and/or the incorporation of more debate-style assignments and activities that require students to understand, explain, and defend opposing positions on a range of topics;
  • Ensuring an atmosphere of inclusion and an environment that does not politicize opinions or surround students with only one set of political positions.

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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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