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

Arlington is the home of the Pentagon, headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, and of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, which comprises three main installations that were combined during the last round of Base Realignment and Closure: Fort Myer (Army), Henderson Hall (Marines), and Fort McNair (Army). Many of the students living on and off JBMHH attend Arlington Public Schools.

The Virginia Purple Star Designation is awarded to military-friendly schools that have demonstrated a major commitment to students and families connected to our nation’s military. Disappointingly, despite its proximity to the heart of the military, only one APS school (Discovery Elementary) earned the Purple Star designation in 2019-2020. None has earned it for 2020-2021. By contrast, 34 Fairfax County public schools and 21 Prince William County public schools earned the Purple Star designation between 2018-2021. In the other military mecca, 59 Virginia Beach City public schools and 11 Norfolk public schools earned the Purple Star designation between 2018-2021.

To qualify for the Purple Star designation, a school must have a staff point of contact for military students and families who, (i) serves as the liaison between the military family and the school; (ii) completes two online Virginia Department of Education training modules titled “Supporting Our Military-Connected Children in School Settings: Moving them from Risk to Resilience;” and (iii) conducts school-wide professional development that informs staff of the unique needs of and supports available to military-connected students.

In addition, the school must maintain a student-led transition program to include a student transition team coordinator. This program should provide peer support for newly enrolled and withdrawing students to include those that are military-connected. Finally, the school must maintain links to an APS division-wide page dedicated to military student and family supports that includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Clear and concise information on the enrollment and remote registration process for persons to whom public schools shall be free, including enrollment of military children living in temporary housing
  • Information on educational records requests and transfers
  • Information on gifted services, advanced academic programs and application deadlines, graduation requirements, diploma options, and home instruction
  • Information on the Compact Rules and their application under the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunities for Military Children
  • Information on Special Education services and parental rights, including parental consent
  • Other important information such as Impact Aid Student-Parent Survey (Impact Aid programs and grants are designed to assist local school districts that enroll federally connected students), PTA membership, school advisory committees, participation in extracurricular activities and local community support

In addition to the aforementioned site-based requirements, APS would need to assign a central office staff member to be the contact for the school-based liaison and military families and complete at least one of the following:

  • Division-wide professional development regarding special considerations for military students and families or
  • The School Board passes a resolution publicizing the school division’s support for military students and families or
  • The school division hosts a military recognition event designed to demonstrate a military-friendly culture across the school division community

The average child in a military family will move six to nine times during a school career. That’s an average of three times more frequently than non-military families. The majority of moves occur over the summer months, even as late as August. A number of military families shared the following challenges with me:

  • Missed deadlines for Extended Day, resulting in a childcare crisis
  • Missed opportunities for desired electives. APS doesn’t allow students to select their electives or classes until fully registered, so electives may be unavailable
  • Missed deadlines for high school sports tryouts and/or missed leadership opportunities on sports teams and clubs. No reciprocity for prior experience
  • Although SB 775 allows incoming military students to fully register for school based on the zone the family intends to reside in (with documentation provided within 120 days), some APS families have been asked to meet onerous requests for documentation before registering their children
  • Lack of social-emotional supports: (i) No dedicated counselors equipped to support students with issues of deployment, combat, PTSD, etc.; (ii) no cohorting of military peers to support each other; and (iii) no special recognition or celebration of military students for Month of the Military Child
  • Having to start over with a new Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan. No reciprocity given for an IEP or 504 from the last school district
  • Difficulty keeping track of (or meeting) the additional classes/credits needed for an advanced diploma
  • Enduring additional disruptive school changes with boundary changes or program moves while on temporary orders

Many of these challenges could be resolved if APS was a Purple Star school district to better support the children whose parents are laying their lives on the line for us. Let’s do better by our military families.

Symone Walker is a federal attorney and an APS parent. She is Vice President of the Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee (ASEAC), serves on the Commonwealth Attorney’s Community Advisory Board, and is an Executive Committee Member of the Arlington NAACP and Co-Chair of the NAACP Education Committee. Symone is a former candidate for the Arlington school board.

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

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that requires that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) be provided to eligible children with disabilities and ensures special education and related services to those children. Despite those requirements and assurances, special education (SpEd) students in Arlington Public Schools are in crisis. The system that should be supporting and reinforcing them is broken.

Often, a parent must wait for their child to fail in order to get school administrators, referred to as the Local Education Agency (“LEA”), to refer their child for an evaluation. Preventive measures are virtually nonexistent. This “wait-to-fail” model results in extensive collateral damage to students academically, psychologically, emotionally and physically. The fallout is not only borne by these students and their families, but also by their teachers and classmates. Everyone is impacted — directly or indirectly.

Some assessments APS conducts to identify whether a student has a learning disability are incomplete, outdated, not comprehensive or not aligned with best practices and as such, are inferior to private evaluations. Resulting determinations about eligibility are therefore inaccurate or flawed. This presents an enormous equity issue. Parents who can afford a private evaluation (3K-5K avg.) will have a deeper, more comprehensive lens into what is going on with their child and what academic support and accommodations are recommended. Parents who cannot afford this get whatever APS presents them with, unless they know to request an Independent Education Evaluation (IEE) at public expense. Even then, APS significantly limits which assessments and costs they will approve, often leaving parents to pay the difference if they want more.

How hard a parent must fight to get an evaluation and how much pushback a parent receives from LEAs are grossly inconsistent from school-to-school, down to the quality of assessments and expertise of the school’s psychologist. It is quite literally, “the luck of the draw.” None of this is standardized or consistent. What is consistent is the utter anguish and stress many APS parents endure trying to hold APS accountable to its legal obligation to provide FAPE.

Once a student is found eligible for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the “wait-to-fail” model then shifts to one of “continue-to-fail” in order to retain SpEd services. In many cases, when the student stabilizes or improves given the appropriate supports, or is seemingly doing well, APS will try to remove those supports on the premise that they are no longer needed. At triennial reevaluation meetings, some parents are misled to terminate their child’s IEP altogether or transition to a 504 plan instead, based on the narrative that “special education isn’t designed to be permanent,” or being congratulated that their child is doing so well, they no longer needs special education.

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

Schools should be teaching the truth. Truth, as fact and reality, is not theory. The attack on truth is percolating in Arlington.

At the June 24 School Board Meeting (at the 19:56 mark), a former APS parent implored the board to reject not only Critical Race Theory (CRT) — which APS doesn’t even teach — but specifically to reject anything rooted in equity, social justice, anti-racism and culturally responsive teaching.

You read that right. I was alarmed, but since there was only one such speaker and our Board meeting didn’t devolve into the melee that occurred just two days earlier at the Loudoun County School Board meeting, I convinced myself that this was an isolated effort in Arlington by a lone wolf, and I thought to myself, “thank God I don’t live in Loudoun.” I couldn’t have been more misguided.

Parents Defending Education (PDE), a seemingly innocuous group by its name and mission statement, deceptively masquerades itself as a “grassroots” nonprofit organization. Their website — plastered with stock photos of Black and Brown students in staged “diverse” school settings, fooling no one — misleadingly purports that: “Parents Defending Education is a national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas. Through network and coalition building, investigative reporting, litigation, and engagement on local, state, and national policies, we are fighting indoctrination in the classroom — and for the restoration of a healthy, non-political education for our kids.”

In fact, PDE is a national movement funded largely by political right wing moguls like the Koch brothers and the Walton family. By their own standards, PDE is a case study in hypocrisy. They exist to accomplish the very ends they are purporting to subvert.

PDE is engaging in political activism. PDE is promoting the harmful agenda of whitewashed history. PDE is indoctrinating its members to believe that CRT is being taught in APS and is about teaching students to hate. This is hypocritical race theory. It’s an attack on the truth.

On June 9, PDE’s Director of Advocacy filed a FOIA request with APS seeking documentation about the procurement and distribution of the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning and speaker fees paid to co-author Jason Reynolds.

Armed with that data, PDE lambasted APS and Amazon for the $16,000 it spent on the books and speaker engagement fees “instead of donating hot spots for remote learning.” Now, there are a plethora of legitimate reasons to be critical of Amazon and APS, but this one isn’t credible. It’s laughable. Perhaps if the PDE leadership lived here and paid taxes to Arlington, they would have known about the $500,000 grant APS received to provide MiFis to low-income families. They will not stop at this though. We need to be paying attention.

Quite frankly, I am growing tired of the political bastardization of CRT, how it is being efficiently misused as both boogeyman and straw man to distract and disarm us in a disguised quest to destroy truth and score political points. This kind of gaslighting is the mortar that has cemented white supremacy for over 400 years. We cannot afford to ignore this fake controversy or take it lightly. We must fight back. We must defend and protect our teachers and administrators who are teaching the truth.

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

May 17 marks the 67th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark Supreme Court case that overturned the doctrine “separate but equal,” which became law in 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities, as long as the segregated facilities were “equal” in quality.

In Brown, the Court unanimously held that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment. However, the Court declined to specify remedies for school segregation, asking instead for further argument.

The following year, in Brown v. Board of Education II, the Court remanded future desegregation cases to lower federal courts and directed district courts and school boards to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed.” Although Brown has been the law of the land for much longer than Plessy was, little has changed in our schools vis-à-vis segregation and inequality.

To commemorate the 67th anniversary of Brown, the Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division considered it paramount to host a joint symposium, Brown 67 Years Later: Examining Disparities in School Discipline and the Pursuit of Safe and Inclusive Schools, to highlight strategies for addressing racial and other disparities in the administration of school discipline.

Three panels composed of legal and education experts discussed the impact of exclusionary school discipline policies and practices such as suspensions and school-based arrests on students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQI+ students. They shared strategies for addressing harmful and discriminatory school discipline practices and creating more positive school climates.

Two main strategies emerged for achieving this; removing School Resource Officers (SROs), and implementing restorative practices, neither of which APS has managed to accomplish yet as neighboring districts have. As a result, Black students are suffering irreparable harm. The school board has convened a community-based SRO Work Group to consider and recommend in June whether to keep SROs.

APS’s 2019-2020 suspension data in a partial pandemic year shows that Black students accounted for 27% of all out-of-school suspensions despite comprising 11% of APS’s population. By contrast, white students accounted for 16% of suspensions despite comprising 41% of APS’s population.

The 2018-2019 suspension data, more consistent with the 10-year average, shows that Black students accounted for 34% of all out-of-school suspensions despite comprising 10% of APS’s population. By contrast, white students accounted for 18% of suspensions despite comprising 44% of APS’s population. The disparities by school are even more stark.

Not surprisingly, the word “restorative” does not appear anywhere in APS’s discipline policy (J-7.4) or its accompanying policy implementation plan (PIP) (J-7.4 PIP-1), nor does it appear in the Draft Student Rights & Responsibilities: Code of Conduct Handbook. When these documents were circulated for revision and amendment, stakeholder groups deemed them retributive in tone and advised that restorative practices be added. The discipline policy is scheduled for “action” by the school board in August. Whether the school board will adopt the recommendations remains to be determined.

Notwithstanding Restorative Arlington’s Strategic Plan, there is no-one in the county with expertise in school-based implementation. While APS blithely promised a one-year pilot, that promise remains unfulfilled as APS disregards the only operational restorative practices program for school-aged youth in Arlington — Promoting Empathy through Equitable Resolution (PEER) — operated by a community-based organization.

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

Esther Cooper started the Arlington branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1940 to fight for educational equality of Black students in Arlington Public Schools (APS).

Under her leadership, the NAACP sued the school board challenging the inequalities in the county’s Black high schools. In Carter v. School Board of Arlington Co. (1950), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that Arlington’s separate high schools constituted unlawful discrimination.

Today, 81 years after Ms. Cooper began her advocacy, 71 years after the Carter decision, and 67 years after Brown v. Board of Education, we still don’t have education parity for Black students, or fully integrated schools.

Over the decades, both the county and the school board have intentionally, through policies and boundaries, kept our neighborhoods and schools segregated. Consequently, Black students have been redlined out of education parity by neighborhood, by school, and by classroom.

Not surprisingly, the academic gap has not closed in decades. In fact, the literacy gap between Black and White students increased within the last decade. The fact is, we have Black students entering high school reading on a third grade level, or below. The inability to master all five pillars of reading (phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) adversely impacts a student’s ability to access the curriculum in all other content areas, causing the gaps to widen as students “progress” through school.

Through a prolonged practice of social promotion and failing up, APS has a sordid history of graduating generations of Black students who are functionally illiterate. Many of these students grew up in Arlington, attended APS schools, and are now relegated to low-wage jobs — some in the very schools that failed them.

This is the school-to-poverty pipeline.

While there are many Black students who excel academically in APS, there are far too many others who do not. For the 13 years I have lived in Arlington, I haven’t heard any school board members or school board candidates acknowledge this problem, let alone commit to addressing it — not even the ones who purport to be “educators” or feign concern about “equity.” Instead, year-after-year, decade-after-decade, superintendent-after-superintendent, and school board-after-school board, APS continues to fail Black students with impunity.

This miseducation of Black students is the school-to-prison pipeline.

APS is miseducating Black students by under diagnosing learning disabilities and misidentifying them with emotional and intellectual disabilities;

APS is miseducating Black students by failing to utilize the most current and recommended psychological testing for accurate evaluations;

APS is miseducating Black students by under-identifying them for gifted and twice-exceptional (“2e”) services;

APS is miseducating Black students by underfunding training and procurement for evidence-based literacy instruction and intervention;

APS is miseducating Black students by tracking them into low-level courses in pursuit of standard versus advanced diplomas;

APS is miseducating Black students by allowing disparities in opportunities to persist;

APS is miseducating Black students by levying harsher discipline and disproportionate referrals to law enforcement;

APS is miseducating Black students by failing to sufficiently recruit and hire teachers that look like them;

APS is miseducating Black students by perpetuating a culture of low expectations and unchecked bias;

APS is miseducating Black students by downplaying or ignoring acts of racial violence perpetuated against them; and

APS is miseducating Black students by failing to talk about and recon with all of this.

In the 81 years since Esther Cooper commenced her fight for equality for Black students, APS and the school board have dodged accountability and maintained the status quo. How much longer must we wait for them to course correct? How many more generations of Black families will be lost to poverty or prisons in the meantime? APS deserves no more grace. The time for change is now.

Image courtesy of Project DAPS, Arlington Public Library, Community Archives

Symone Walker is an Arlington Public Schools parent and federal attorney. She is an At Large Executive Committee Member of the Arlington NAACP and Co-Chair of the Education Committee. She serves on the Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee, Superintendent’s Advisory Committee for Equity and Excellence, School Resource Officer Working Group, Destination 2027 Task Force, and the Commonwealth Attorney’s Community Advisory Board. She is a former candidate for the Arlington school board.

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

The pandemic has shown us that reopening schools safely should not be left solely to school districts. Local governments have a critical role to play both financially and logistically in helping with reopening.

On March 2, APS began a phased return of additional students for the hybrid in-person option two days per week, since Level 1 students returned on November 4.

For nearly an entire year since schools closed, our County Board members have been either silent, reluctant to engage on reopening, or have been outright dismissive when pressed for their involvement in helping APS with the necessary infrastructure to ensure a safe return to schools. Their callous responses that reopening schools is not their responsibility and not within their legal authority — while technically accurate — is morally wrong. It is outrageous.

While virtual learning is working well for some students, it isn’t for many others. Some students are suffering mentally, emotionally, and academically. The most vulnerable students are losing ground they may never regain. The academic and economic impact of nearly one year of school closings on these families is dire and may be lifelong. While APS and the school board bear the responsibility for reopening schools, the failure of our County Board to help stem this tide of inequity is an abdication of its moral responsibility.

The real blame for the tepid COVID response lies with the federal government, but where national and state governments fail, local governments must step up, improvise, and lead. Schools alone cannot bear this burden and it is shameful that our County Board has turned its back on our students.

A global pandemic requires all hands on deck, and our county leaders neglected to do their part to take all reasonable and feasible measures to contain community spread. Over the past year, there is so much more they could have done in addition to food distribution — that they were asked to do — to help our schools reopen sooner. They simply ignored the pleas.

They could have enforced mask-wearing in crowded public spaces, but they failed to. They could have enforced social distancing in public spaces and outdoor dining areas, but they failed to. They could have required appropriate ventilation inside restaurants and bars, but they failed to. They could have limited capacity, alcohol, and operating hours in bars on popular nights like New Year’s Eve but they failed to.

Moreover, the county could have partnered with APS to provide COVID-19 testing and nurses so our schools could reopen long before now, but they failed to. They could have provided supervised indoor and outdoor spaces for virtual learning, but they failed to. They could have formed public-private partnerships with corporations, churches, and other organizations to assist with childcare needs and space, but they failed to.

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