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Parents Urge APS to Keep the Henry Community Together As Part of Move to Fleet

(Updated Wednesday at 4:10 p.m.) As the heated process of setting new boundaries for eight South Arlington elementary schools lurches forward, parents at Patrick Henry Elementary are trying to deliver a single message to school officials: don’t break up the community in the move to Alice West Fleet Elementary.

Fleet’s planned opening next fall precipitated this process of drawing new boundary lines for the schools in the first place, with most Henry students set to move to the new school and the Montessori program currently housed at Drew Model School will move to Henry’s building.

Parents at Henry have long sought reassurances from Arlington Public Schools officials that the community would move as one to Fleet, without any neighborhoods being redirected elsewhere. The school system has released two different maps for public scrutiny over the last few months, and both have so far stuck firm to that request.

That fact was not lost on roughly a dozen parents who testified at the School Board’s meeting last Thursday (Oct. 18). Though the new boundary proposals have stoked outrage among families at Drew and Abingdon alike, they’ve largely satisfied parents with kids set to make the move from Henry, who are urging school leaders to stay the course throughout the remainder of the boundary process.

“We are a community that lives on Columbia Pike,” Melanie Devoe told the Board. “This will keep our students together, as we’ll have students who are learning together in elementary school all stay on the same campus through middle school.”

Erin Wasiak, co-president of the Henry Parent-Teacher Association, similarly praised the Board for keeping families along the Pike together, noting that the road acts as “our ‘Main Street’ and our town square.” Even still, she would note that the school system’s latest proposal would divert a few neighborhoods on the east side of S. Courthouse Road to Hoffman-Boston instead, a change that would only affect a relatively small number of students, but still struck Wasiak as a bit concerning.

“We’re as close or closer to Fleet as we are to the school you want to put us in,” Nicole Hallahan, a parent of a current Henry student set to move to Hoffman-Boston, told the Board.

APS spokesman Frank Bellavia stressed that officials are working to focus on contiguity as part of the process, though he noted that the school system “cannot guarantee that any individual school community will stay together.” As Lisa Stengle, the APS director of planning and evaluation, put it at an Oct. 17 community meeting, “We don’t want islands in places.”

“Boundary proposals align with the policy considerations, reflect what serves all students, and explore how changes to one school affect other schools,” Bellavia wrote in an email. “Change will be continual within APS due to ongoing enrollment growth, and APS is responsible for ensuring equity for all students across schools and programs.”

Nevertheless, between the changes with the Henry boundaries and the proposal to send some South Fairlington students to Drew instead of Abingdon, parents say the county hasn’t always managed to meet that particular goal.

“You just have to look at the map to see it’s oddly gerrymandered,” Claire Kenny, a parent of an Abingdon student, told the Board. “Please don’t punish our children to fix past redistricting efforts, or to fulfill promises to other communities.”

APS planners only proposed those Fairlington changes in the first place to create a more even spread of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, a measure of their families’ economic means, at schools across South Arlington. Some parents worried too many economically disadvantaged students were being lumped in at Drew, and Henry parents also urged the Board to keep the issue as a prime focus throughout the rest of the boundary-setting process.

“It’s important to have racially and culturally diverse schools that prepare our students to effectively relate with others,” said Megan Haydasz, a parent of a Henry student who’s been active on other school equity issues in South Arlington in the past. “Yet high concentrations of poverty limit a school community’s resources and may unconsciously limit student outcomes compared to other schools.”

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APS Draws Ire of Abingdon Parents With Boundary Tweaks Designed to Satisfy Drew Concerns

Arlington school officials have hit a bit of a snag in the complex, contentious process of setting new boundaries for the county’s southern elementary schools — changes they’ve proposed to address concerns from Drew Model School parents have generated a new backlash from the Abingdon Elementary community.

Some parents living in the Nauck neighborhood initially raised concerns that proposed boundary tweaks at Drew would drastically change the school’s socioeconomic make-up, leading to a substantial boost in the number of students receiving “free and reduced lunch,” a measure of each family’s economic means, at the school. They feared such a shift would amount to packing poorer students into a single building, rather than maintaining a more balanced percentage at each South Arlington school.

Accordingly, Arlington Public Schools planners offered a change to the new boundary map, which is being crafted as the school system prepares to open Alice West Fleet Elementary School ahead of the 2019-2020 school year. The zoning change would send a few neighborhoods in the southernmost reaches of Fairlington, an area roughly bounded by N. Quaker Lane and King Street, to Drew instead of Abingdon in order to better balance out the “free and reduced lunch” population at each school.

However, that suggestion was immediately met with fierce criticism from the Fairlington community. A petition protesting the change launched on Friday (Oct. 12) has already garnered more than 1,000 signatures, and the Fairlington Citizens’ Association fired off a pointed letter to the School Board on Sunday (Oct. 14).

“Shifting South Fairlington students to another school will weaken the fabric of the community, diminish the cohesiveness of the community, and disrupt social and educational connections that currently exist,” Citizens’ Association President Guy Land wrote. “It runs counter to the community-centric focus Arlington has for years promoted.”

Beyond even that broad criticism, Land and the petition’s authors argue that the change would be an inefficient one from a transportation perspective, charging that it would increase the number of students forced to ride the bus to school instead of walk.

“Bus rides from Fairlington to Drew would significantly lengthen the ride for kids,” the petition reads. “This would put a greater strain on APS transportation, which is not a luxury APS has.”

Yet APS staff pointed out in a presentation to the Board last Wednesday (Oct. 10) that such a boundary change would have substantial benefits in balancing out the free and reduced lunch divide between Drew and Abingdon.

They noted that Abingdon had 41 percent of students living in its attendance boundary eligible for free and reduced lunch, as of last October. Meanwhile, Drew stands at 66 percent, a number that is a bit deceiving, as it reflects the move of the Montessori program to Patrick Henry Elementary next year, and the program generally includes kids from wealthier families. With Montessori students included, Drew’s free and reduced lunch percentage is closer to 52 percent.

The first boundary proposal would’ve dropped Abingdon’s free and reduced lunch percentage down to 34 percent, while moving Drew to 60 percent. The newly revised proposal would bump Abingdon up to 45 percent, compared to 49 percent for Drew. And, in a bid to ease some worries over the boundary change, APS could allow rising fifth grade students and their siblings to be exempt from the switch, with APS transportation provided.

The newest boundary map would also address the concerns of parents at Drew that students could be zoned to matriculate to one of three middle schools, instead of just one, under the first APS proposal. The new map would have Drew students eligible for two middle schools instead.

Parents and community members now have until Oct. 29 to offer comments on the latest boundary proposal. APS plans to release a final map on Nov. 5, with the School Board expected to take a final vote on the matter on Dec. 6.

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Privately Funded Science Lab Set to Be Included in Planned Arlington Science Focus-Key Building Swap

County school officials are reassuring nervous parents at Arlington Science Focus School that a state-of-the-art science lab, built thanks to nearly $200,000 in private funding, will be included as part of a controversial building swap with the Key Immersion School in the next few years.

Arlington Public Schools is still sorting out the logistics of the move, which is designed to ease overcrowding at both buildings and address the fact that ASFS is the only neighborhood school in the county to sit outside its own attendance boundaries. The school system has yet to even nail down an exact timetable for the swap, with the change on tap for either 2020 or 2021.

But the building swap is already prompting criticism from parents, including several who have spoken at recent School Board meetings to register their frustration with the process. Superintendent Patrick Murphy has said he does not intend to seek the Board’s approval for the change, arguing it’s within his power to authorize the change on his own.

Among the issues raised by parents is what will become of the ASFS “Investigation Station,” a science lab the school added in 2015. The school’s Parent-Teacher Association successfully raised more than $177,000 to fund the lab over the course of a year, and was described by the school system at the time as a tool for students to “explore the natural world with the aid of hands-on learning tools and cutting-edge technology.”

While there are plenty of details left to be worked out about the swap, APS spokesman Frank Bellavia told ARLnow that “Board members and administrators have assured ASFS staff and families that we recognize that moving equipment and other teaching materials will be inherent in any building move for both schools.”

It remains unclear, however, just how the process of swapping the buildings will actually work. APS has yet to work up a cost estimate for the process, and Bellavia said that “it’s still too far out” to know how much work on each building will be required to retrofit each school’s equipment to its new home.

“Questions about the building swap will be addressed as part of the community engagement plan that will be developed and shared with the community in January 2019,” Bellavia said.

In a memo from APS staff in response to School Board questions on the swap, staffers suggested that the school system could “refresh” each building ahead of the change, rather than shelling out for a full renovation.

Notably, Key’s current building has room for about 100 more students than ASFS, and school officials plan to add additional trailers at the Science Focus site to make up for the difference. The staff memo also notes that ASFS’ “two science classrooms will be converted back for regular classroom use” ahead of the swap.

Superintendent Patrick Murphy reassured parents at the Board’s meeting last Thursday (Oct. 4) that APS would continue to engage with the community about the issue. But the school system is also hoping to sort through its contentious elementary school boundary process first, meaning that more detailed discussions of the Key-ASFS swap will have to wait until next year.

“There still needs to be a lot more information and perhaps background around the rationale for the recommendation and I know staff will be doing that from late winter into the spring,” Murphy said.

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JUST IN: Wakefield High School Lets Out Early Due to Power Outage

The courtyard in the center of Wakefield High School

Students and staff at Wakefield High School are heading home early today, thanks to a power outage in the neighborhood.

Arlington Public Schools announced the dismissal around 12:30 today.

According to an email sent to Wakefield parents and forward to ARLnow, the building currently has “no power, running water or phone service.” Students will be dismissed as bus service becomes available, the email said.

APS added in the announcement that power outages are impacting surrounding homes as well. A Dominion Energy outage map only shows three outages in the area, with two along nearby S. Carlin Springs Road.

File photo

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New Elementary School Boundaries Advancing, Prompting Some Concerns at Drew

The ever-contentious process of setting new elementary school boundaries is picking up steam in Arlington, with the school system spending the next few weeks collecting community feedback ahead of a School Board vote before the year is out.

Arlington Public Schools will hold an “open office hours” with planning staff tonight (Oct. 3) to let parents discuss the proposed boundary maps, and will accept online comments on the redrawn boundaries through next Wednesday (Oct. 10).

This latest boundary adjustment, designed to accommodate the opening of Alice West Fleet Elementary School ahead of the 2019-2020 school year, is set to impact a total of eight elementary schools in all. The current list proposed by staff includes:

  • Abingdon
  • Barcroft
  • Drew
  • Fleet
  • Hoffman-Boston
  • Long Branch
  • Oakridge
  • Randolph

Abingdon, Barcroft and Long Branch are also set to be impacted by boundary changes in the fall of 2020, as will 12 other schools.

But, in the meantime, school officials hope to sort how to best tweak boundaries around the South Arlington elementary schools, in order to equitably reduce overcrowding and move students into Fleet in an orderly way.

Current estimates show that five of the schools involved in the process will see substantial decreases in student populations as part of the change. Abingdon, Barcroft, Long Branch, Oakridge and Randolph are all currently over their designed capacities, and all will see population drops by anywhere from 13 percent to 40 percent.

Even still, some parents are wary of the proposed boundaries, particularly those with students at Drew Model School.

Miranda Turner, a parent who lives in Drew’s attendance zone in Nauck, told ARLnow that she was particularly concerned that the school “seems to get the short end of the stick” under the current proposal.

“It’s really complicated, and I get that… but, in a world that involves necessary trade-offs, it’s not clear to me that there are any tradeoffs here to make up for the negatives,” said Turner, who has two kids currently in the school’s Montessori program and a third who could someday attend the school.

Turner is primarily concerned that the proposed changes would mean that Drew students could advance to three different middle schools, instead of just one, which might separate students from classmates they’ve befriended over the years. She chalks up part of the problem to the way the new boundaries extend out a bit to grab areas that won’t be within walking distance of Drew, another disturbing factor to Turner.

She also notes that the school system’s data show that Drew would see its possible population of students eligible for “free and reduced price lunch,” a measure of their families’ economic means, jump up to 83 percent.

The school system presents figures show that 85 percent of students at the school are currently eligible, but Turner points out that’s only because APS staffers aren’t considering the demographics of the Montessori program, which features students from much wealthier backgrounds. Drew officials reported in October 2017 having just over 51 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch, when considering the whole population.

With the Montessori program set to move to Patrick Henry Elementary School next year, Turner feels the current boundaries are a missed opportunity to keep the school’s current demographic mix a bit more like it looks currently.

“This change is going to make Drew one of the most low-income schools in Arlington, where it’s relatively balanced right now,” Turner said. “And that’s going to present real challenges when it comes to things like funding the PTA.”

APS planner Robert Ruiz isn’t sure that such a comparison is wholly appropriate, however. The figures APS staff are using in the boundary process represent the possible universe of students who are eligible to attend Drew by dint of living within its boundaries, but they could end up heading elsewhere. Meanwhile, the 51 percent figure Turner is pointing to is indicative of the students who actually attend Drew in practice, so it’s no guarantee that the change will be as drastic as the one Turner describes.

By the school system’s data, Drew’s attendance zone would actually see a 2 percent decline in the number of students eligible for a free and reduced price lunch. It’s a drop that Lisa Stengle, the APS director of planning and evaluation, points out is a small one, but could always change the more planners talk to the community and Board members.

“We’re really still working through and talking to the Board about: are there other options?” Stengle said.

Turner is hoping that school officials will listen to some of the Drew community’s concerns, perhaps by leaving some students in the Columbia Forest neighborhood set to be sent to Drew remain zoned for Abingdon instead. She’s well aware that tinkering with the current map in any way will prompt a domino effect for other neighborhoods, but she’s hoping that APS will be able to come up with a proposal that presents fewer problems for Drew, specifically.

“There is no answer that will make everybody happy, but we think there are improvements that can be made,” Turner said.

The open office hours are set to run from 7-8:30 p.m. tonight at Kenmore Middle School. The Board is also planning to hold a work session on the issue on Oct. 10, where APS officials are hoping to get a bit more insight into what the Board hopes to prioritize.

A public hearing on the boundaries is set for Nov. 27, then the Board plans to pass a new map on Dec. 6.

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New Audit Finds No Cause for Alarm Over APS Construction Costs

Arlington may spend slightly more on school construction than some of the county’s peers around the D.C. region, but a long-awaited audit report suggests that the school system has done a decent job holding costs down in recent years.

Prepared by an independent firm for the School Board’s internal auditor and released today (Monday), the new analysis commends Arlington Public Schools for matching other dense urban areas like Alexandria and D.C. when it comes to the cost of new school construction. The audit found that the county does tend to spend more on architectural and engineering work than some of its neighbors, but analysts chalked up that discrepancy to Arlington’s challenges finding space for new schools.

APS has earned plenty of criticism for its spending on construction projects in recent years, particularly after a state analysis showed that the school system spent significantly more on the new Wakefield High School than other counties around the state did on comparable projects. The Board hired an internal auditor, John Mickevice, in 2014 as debate raged across the county about the costs of major construction efforts of all sorts, and he commissioned this review of costs last October.

In general, the audit found that the school system is hardly perfect when it comes to managing big projects — for instance, the analysts note that Arlington’s lengthy public engagement process does inevitably tend to drive costs up — and includes some suggestions about how APS might streamline some of its design and acquisition practices. But it also does not contain any sweeping indictment of the school system’s methods, finding that Arlington has often paid less per seat for its elementary and high schools than its neighbors.

“Even with our challenges, this shows we’re still in the ballpark with everyone else,” School Board member Barbara Kanninen, the chair of the Board’s audit committee, told ARLnow. “This idea that somehow we’re too extravagant is simply not confirmed… and it is a little bit validating.”

In all, the audit found that the county’s high schools cost less to build than nine of the 14 other schools around the region that analysts examined. The firm, Bethesda-based O’Connor Construction Management, primarily focused on schools in Loudoun County, Fairfax County, D.C., Alexandria and Montgomery County, Maryland.

For instance, the group found that the new Wakefield High School, opened in 2013, cost a total of $118.6 million, or about $60,500 per seat. Meanwhile, the new Wilson building (set to open next year and house the H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs) will cost around $101 million, or $130,300 per seat.

For comparison, similarly sized high schools in D.C. ranged in cost from $129,000 per seat to $248,000 per seat. High schools in Montgomery County ranged from costs close to $51,900 per seat to $76,500 per seat, while Loudoun’s cost hovered between $51,800 and $59,800 per seat.

Fairfax County had the lowest costs of the bunch, with prices ranging from $33,100 per seat to $40,400 for new high schools.

The audit found similar trends in elementary school construction costs.

Arlington paid about $64,000 per seat at the new Discovery Elementary School, and is set to finish the new Alice West Fleet Elementary at a cost of $62,500 per seat. D.C. schools ranged in cost from $100,000 to $124,000 per seat, while Montgomery came in at $41,400 to $65,100 per seat. Loudoun’s schools ranged from $27,900 to $34,300 per seat.

But the analysts noted that Fairfax, Loudoun and Montgomery all benefited from working with considerably more open space than similar projects in Arlington or D.C. Not only has that forced the county to pay significantly more to build underground parking structures at some schools, but APS can’t simply replicate the same school designs at each site.

“APS does not have the luxury of developing uniform design specifications, due to the dense urban location of its schools,” the analysts wrote. “Thus, each school is designed to meet the particular needs of the community’s students.”

As Kanninen puts it, the school system can’t simply take a design “off the shelf” and use it over again the exact same way — the audit estimates the additional design work can bump up the costs of Arlington’s projects by as much as 1.5 percent of the total construction cost, compared to the county’s neighbors.

That being said, the analysts found that “the increased staff involvement — in time and resources — during the community engagement process” does also tend to edge the county’s costs a bit higher. But they also awarded APS high marks for its energy efficiency standards, which should help generate savings in the long term.

The report recommends a whole host of new contracting practices for APS to adopt, and suggests that the school system tweak some of its methods for buying things like school furniture.

Kanninen says the Board plans to take a close look at all of those recommendations, particularly one suggesting that APS emphasize “value engineering” throughout the design process to keep costs down. She added that the Board specifically asked the analysts to include those recommendations for changes in the report, which delayed its release slightly.

School leaders had initially hoped to have the audit in hand this summer, prompting some grumbling about the report’s delay, but Kanninen wants to assure the community that were no ulterior motives at play.

“People think we were trying to figure out how to pitch this story, but that was not the case at all,” Kanninen said.

Kanninen, the Board’s lone member up for re-election this year, said she is acutely aware that the subject of school costs has become a hot-button political issue. Even though she expects the report won’t quiet all the school system’s critics, she hopes it reassures taxpayers that their money is being well spent.

“There are always going to be people who believe we’re spending too much… but I think it’s going to lend some confidence to the community that we’re spending wisely,” Kanninen said. “The School Board took this proactive step to look into this and it’s a positive thing. There’s a lot to be proud of here.”

Now, county and school leaders are trying to schedule a joint meeting of their respective audit committees to discuss the report in more detail, according to County Board member John Vihstadt. As co-chair of the county’s audit committee, he hopes to use that gathering to gain “a collective understanding of the audit findings and look to collaborative next steps to address them.”

Photo via Arlington Public Schools

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Young Democrats Plan Push to Change APS Sex Education Policies

(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) The Arlington Young Democrats are weighing a new push to convince the county school system to change its sex education policies, though state law could limit the scope of their advocacy.

The concern of some of the group’s members is that Arlington Public Schools still includes abstinence as part of its “family life education curriculum,” a focus that researchers believe does little to address teen pregnancy or the spread of sexually transmitted infections. Any eventual lobbying effort could center on urging the School Board and Superintendent Patrick Murphy to do away with any mention of abstinence in APS sex education, and concentrate primarily on contraceptives and sexual health instead.

The specifics of what changes the AYDs may ask for and how they might advocate for them is still unclear, however. Tania Bougebrayel, the group’s president, told ARLnow that “sex education policy is on our agenda of important issues this year” and members are still “gathering information” before launching a formal effort in the coming months.

Yet the group could well run into one important roadblock: the strictures set by state law.

Virginia’s “Standards of Learning” gives school systems some latitude to design their own sex education curricula, but it does come with basic requirements they all must meet — among them is an emphasis on “abstinence education” and “the value of postponing sexual activity.” And as school spokesman Frank Bellavia points out, “APS does not have the ability to change state SOL curriculum that is set by the commonwealth.”

“However, we do broaden the scope to be more open and to teach more comprehensively,” Bellavia said. “For example, when the SOL states, ‘abstaining until marriage,’ our instruction also references ‘mature/committed relationships,’ not just marriage. Families also receive a letter annually in the first day packet and have the ability to ‘opt-out’ of any part of the FLE curriculum.”

However, Graham Weinschenk, a Yorktown High School alum who has worked with the AYDs in the past, believes the school system may have more flexibility than it’s letting on.

He’s tracked the issue of sex education closely since working with local state lawmakers to introduce legislation on the subject, and he points out that the Board agreed to revise its FLE policies just this June. The Board agreed to remove a good many of the details from its old policy in favor of broad guidelines, giving Murphy the chance to create a new “policy implementation plan” and sketch out new specifics in the coming months.

“Arlington is kind of at a pivotal moment, and I think [the AYDs] can do a lot in shaping that policy,” Weinschenk said. “There’s more room to make changes now than there was under the old policy.”

Bellavia said staff are currently working on the policy specifics, and they “don’t have a timeline for when it will be completed.”

But Weinschenk is optimistic about the prospect of committed advocacy making a difference in bringing more “medically accurate sex ed” to Arlington. He fully expects that APS could remove any mention of abstinence from its curriculum as part of the policy revision process, noting that the state standards for sex education “are really just guidelines.”

Such a change would be well worth the effort, in Weinschenk’s mind. He points to research suggesting that even mentioning abstinence in sex education classes “undermines the entire process” by sending mixed messages to students” and can stigmatize students who are having sex.

“I totally understand that it makes complete logical sense to at least mention abstinence, I hear that from parents all the time,” Weinschenk said. “But if you look at the science and believe the science, then we shouldn’t have this in our program.”

That’s part of why Weinschenk worked with lawmakers to introduce bills last year to remove references to abstinence in the state guidelines. But with Republicans controlling both chambers of the General Assembly, that legislation has yet to make it out of committee.

Weinschenk is hopeful that he’ll have more success in next year’s legislative session, especially with Democrats just one seat short of a majority in both chambers, but he believes local action is the surest path toward progress in the near term.

Depending on the exact avenue the AYDs decide to pursue, such an effort could require the backing of the School Board, and there’s no telling how they might lean on the issue. For her part, Board member Barbara Kanninen, the lone member up for re-election this year, said through a spokesman that she supports “the Young Democrats’ advocacy at the state level for factual, inclusive, best practice teaching,” but wouldn’t address efforts at the local level.

Weinschenk acknowledges that these changes can be difficult, even in progressive communities like Arlington, but he expects politicians and parents alike could eventually be convinced.

“This problem seems solvable, so I’m trying to solve it,” Weinschenk said.

Photo via YouTube

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School Board Warns of More Budget Challenges Ahead

The School Board is warning of more tough budget times ahead for the county’s school system.

In a memo to Superintendent Patrick Murphy to be discussed at the group’s meeting tonight (Thursday), the Board urges Murphy to be wary of the fact that the county’s planned revenue transfer to Arlington Public Schools “is not sufficient to meet our critical needs” as “cost pressures” for the system only continue to increase.

The school system only narrowly avoided class-size increases as it set its last budget, thanks to the County Board finding some additional money to keep classes at their current levels. But as APS gears up to start the budget process for fiscal year 2020, the Board expects that, as the school system opens five new schools and programs over the next two years, the change will “increase baseline operating costs significantly.”

“We anticipate that, as budget deliberations continue, additional funding for APS’s critical needs will be a top funding priority,” members wrote.

As Murphy works up his new budget, the Board is also directing him to “if possible” avoid additional class size increases, and find funding for other cuts the school system was prepared to make if the county hadn’t come through with the additional revenue last year.

“No new, major initiatives should be presented,” the Board wrote.

The Board expects that its decision this year to cut back on devices offered to second graders will save some money, and it’s also directing Murphy to “explore longer-term strategies for efficiencies, such as collaboration with the county on swimming pools reimbursement and Transportation Demand Management funding.”

County Board members have frequently spoken about their commitment to finding more money for schools, yet the county’s own tight budget picture, brought about by complications stemming from the Metro funding deal and persistently high office vacancy rates, will likely complicate the debate. County Manager Mark Schwartz has repeatedly warned that more tax hikes will likely be on the table in 2020 and beyond.

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Wilson School Construction Moves Forward Ahead of Fall 2019 Opening

According to Arlington Public School (APS) officials, construction is on track for the new secondary school at the Wilson School site in Rosslyn (1601 Wilson Blvd).

In August, much of the steel and concrete work on the site was completed. Throughout September, construction will be occurring on the following, according to APS documents:

  • Façade wall framing will begin.
  • Curtainwall installation will begin.
  • Door Frames and Interior Framing will begin.
  • MEP rough-in (ductwork, electrical, plumbing) will continue.

Meanwhile, Washington Gas will continue replacement of a gas main on Wilson Blvd to allow for the construction of a new electrical vault under the road.

The $100 million building is set to open in fall 2019, and will someday be home to both the H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs.

Photos via APS

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Working Group to APS: Career Center Should Open as an Option School

The Arlington Career Center could someday be home to more students than any of the county’s three comprehensive high schools, but a group studying the site is urging school leaders to keep the campus open to all students countywide for the foreseeable future.

Within the next decade, Arlington Public Schools plans to add 800 new high school seats at the site to meet the demands of an ever-growing student population — but there are still endless details to be worked out around how to accomplish that task, and what the center’s long-term future might hold. After nearly a year of deliberations, a working group convened by the School Board is attempting to provide some answers with a final report released last week.

Though the 35-member group can only offer recommendations to the Board, the report repeatedly reiterates the value of the center accepting students from across the county as an “option school,” at least until APS can build enough amenities on the site to match Arlington’s other three high schools.

“All Arlington students, regardless of the type of school they attend, deserve an educational experience that includes quality indoor and outdoor spaces, including access to (un-programmed) green space,” the group wrote.

The Board has yet to make any decision on the very thorny question of whether the Career Center will be open to students countywide or only draw in nearby students from set attendance boundaries. That’s prompted some fierce advocacy from local parents over the past few months, who argue that making the center a “neighborhood school” without a full complement of facilities and athletic fields would be unfair to South Arlington students.

As part of updating its 10-year construction plan in June, the Board did commit to constructing a multi-use gym, a “black box” theater, a performing arts wing, a synthetic athletic field and a parking garage at the site, all in time for 800 new students arrive in 2025. Yet the “lack of an on-site pool in the near-term” remained a “sticking point” for some members, the group said. The report recommends that APS build a pool on the site at some point, a feature backed by some county officials, but budget constraints make such an amenity unlikely, for now.

Most of all, however, the group expressed “frustration” about a lack of clarity on the option versus neighborhood question, noting that “the distinction in seats would have a direct impact on whether the Career Center site could become a de facto fourth neighborhood high school.”

Whatever the center’s ultimate status, the group repeatedly stressed that school leaders should see the site’s long-term future as a “high school campus.” While APS doesn’t yet know how many students it will need to educate at the center, the group expects anywhere from 2,200 to 2,800 could someday attend school there — for context, just over 2,200 students were enrolled at the county’s largest high school, Washington-Lee, as of this June.

Accordingly, the group recommended that the school system design any changes to the center in a way that “supports potential growth and maintains maximum adaptability.”

APS isn’t sure whether it will someday demolish the current structure in its entirety or simply renovate it to accommodate the new students, but the group wrote that staff repeatedly assured them that “utilizing the core structure of the Career Center is the most environmentally friendly approach and one which can lower construction costs by up to 20 percent through limiting the amount of demolition required.”

However, the group does suggest that APS knock down some structures currently used for career and technical education classes, in order to free up space for a new, six-to-seven story “multi-level education space” near 9th Street S. and S. Walter Reed Drive. Those classes would then be moved to a new structure built along S. Highland Street.

The report also recommends adding a third floor “on top of the existing Career Center building for classrooms,” which could then connect to the new S. Highland Street structure.

Looking a bit further into the future, the group also urged APS to someday relocate the Columbia Pike Branch Library from its current home within the Career Center.

To do so, it suggests that the county acquire some properties owned by the Ethiopian Community Development Council just behind the center, running along S. Highland Street from its intersection with 9th Street S. to where it meets the pike. The group wrote that the nonprofit has already “signaled an interest in selling to the county,” and the land could help Arlington to build an expanded library on the site that “fronts Columbia Pike” to increase its visibility.

Ultimately, the group envisions that such a change would be transformative for the area, and it reasons that Arlington Economic Development officials could take the lead in pulling in developers, local universities and even art groups to chart a new future for the property. And it helps that all of those entities “could provide financial support necessary to acquire and develop” the properties, which surely won’t come cheap.

Photos via Arlington Public Schools

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APS Teacher Wins Regional ‘Teacher of the Year’

Tim Cotman received two big pieces of news on Wednesday (Sept. 5).

One was the surprise announcement by Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni that Cotman was chosen as “Teacher of the Year” for the state’s Region 4, covering all of Northern Virginia.

The other was that his daughter was being born.

Cotman is an English teacher at Jefferson Middle School and the school’s minority achievement coordinator, a specialist in working with minority students to close the achievement gap in public schools. Cotman has been working in APS for 22 years, both with students and behind the scenes developing training for staff.

Cotman’s daughter was born at 5:30 a.m. and so was unable to attend the assembly held at the school, but FaceTime’d in to receive congratulations from Qarni and the students and staff of Jefferson Middle School.

In April, Cotman was chosen as Arlington’s Teacher of the Year. The award particularly noted the effort he put not only into teaching, but into coaching, facilitating, mentoring and parent outreach.

Cotman is one of eight teachers from regions across Virginia under review next week to be selected for Virginia’s Teacher of the Year award. An announcement is expected to come Sept. 14. The winning teacher will then be put forward by Virginia for the National Teacher of the Year program.

Should Cotman win statewide, he’d follow in the footsteps of Wakefield High School’s Michelle Cottrell-Williams, who won in 2017.

Photo Courtesy Arlington Public Schools

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Washington-Lee Renaming Committee Now Set to Start Its Work

Arlington’s School Board has signed off on members of a committee to guide the renaming of Washington-Lee High School, tasking 23 people to suggest new names for the school over the next three months.

The Board quickly agreed to form the new committee at its meeting last night (Thursday), and the group will soon begin meeting to offer up options ahead of a planned December vote on a new name for the school. The Board decided in June to strip Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s name from the building as part of a broad review of the school system’s naming policies, though a trio of Washington-Lee students are challenging that move in court.

The new committee will be led by a professional facilitator and the school system’s assistant superintendent for school and community relations, Linda Erdos — neither will have a voting role on the committee. The remaining members, selected following an open application process, include the following:

  • John Holt — Current Student (Grade 12)
  • Chloe Slater — Current Student (Grade 11)
  • Ana Regina Santos-Caballero — Current Student (Grade 10)
  • Thornton Thomas — Current Student (Grade 9)
  • Patrice Kelly — Current Parent
  • Allison Chen — Current Parent
  • Duane Butcher — Current IB Transfer Parent
  • Hiromi Isobe — WLHS Staff
  • Jackie Stallworth — WLHS Staff
  • Dave Peters — WLHS Staff
  • William Moser — WL Alumni Representative (Class of 1952 – 1970)
  • Julia Crull — WL Alumni Representative (Class of 1971 – 1985)
  • Peter Strack — WL Alumni Representative (Class of 1986 – 2005)
  • Dana Raphael — WL Alumni Representative (Class of 2006 – 2018)
  • James Rosen — Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association
  • Allan Gadjadhar — Cherrydale Civic Association
  • Nikki Roy — Lyon Park Civic Association
  • George Keating — Waverly Hills Civic Association
  • Melissa Perry — Arlington Civic Coalition for Minority Affairs
  • George Wysor — Arlington Historical Society
  • Gregg Robertson — WLHS Principal

Erdos told the Board during an Aug. 28 work session that applicants looking to serve as student or parent representatives to the committee were selected via “random, double-blind lotteries” conducted by the leaders of the school’s student government association.

She added that the committee will now meet once every two weeks, leading up to the planned December vote on the matter.

However, Board Chair Reid Goldstein questioned Erdos on whether there’s a true “drop-dead date” for the renaming process to wrap up. He’s frequently questioned the timing of the school’s renaming, arguing in the work session that “whether the committee is done in this month or that month, it doesn’t impact anything.”

Erdos did stress, though, that the school system is hoping to have the new name in place in time for the 2019-2020 school year and the school will need to know the new name soon to start purchasing new athletic uniforms.

“They need to have that in place so they can begin planning,” Erdos said.

While Washington-Lee is the only school in the county being renamed, the Board also appointed naming committees for several new schools Thursday: the building on the former Wilson school site in Rosslyn that will one day house the H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs, the new middle school on the Stratford site and the school system’s new Montessori program.

Photo via Google Maps

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APS Plans to Swap Arlington Science Focus and Key Buildings

(Updated at 1 p.m.) The Arlington Science Focus School and Key Immersion School will swap buildings sometime in the next few years — school officials just need to hammer out the details on when.

After the School Board decided last year to convert Key into a countywide option school, meaning it would no longer have set neighborhood attendance boundaries, the school system was faced with an unusual dilemma.

Parents in the area could once choose between Key and Arlington Science Focus, should they not want to send their students to the school’s Spanish immersion program. But after making the change, neighborhoods throughout Northeast Arlington were directed into only ASFS by default. That meant that many students newly mandated to attend ASFS actually lived closer to the Key Immersion School at 2300 Key Blvd, as ASFS now sat outside its own attendance boundaries.

With a new round of boundary changes approaching to prepare for the opening of Alice West Fleet Elementary School next year, Arlington Public School planners are taking another look at ASFS’ status to ease some of that confusion. Instead of adjusting its attendances lines this year, however, Superintendent Patrick Murphy is planning a building swap between Key and ASFS, to take place in either 2020 or 2021.

“This decision is a wise decision because we’re a growing school division, we’re adding capacity, and we really have come to this point,” Murphy told the Board at an Aug. 28 meeting.

He added that he doesn’t see any need for the Board to formally sign off on the plan, which would move the Key program to the ASFS building at 1501 N. Lincoln Street and vice versa, but the Board will get to help APS decide when the move happens.

That prompted a bit of unease among Board members. While no one openly opposed Murphy’s plan, some members did express some reservations about how exactly the process might work.

“I know some people will be excited about the prospect, because for some it means they can walk to school more easily,” said Board member Monique O’Grady. “For others, the walkability is tougher… and when there’s uncertainty about the future, it creates a lot of angst and people will feel unsettled.”

For instance, Board Chair Reid Goldstein pointed out that both schools are currently over capacity — as of 2017, ASFS had 128 more students enrolled than it was designed to hold, while Key is 86 students over its designed capacity. ASFS and Key required six and four trailers last year, respectively, and the division is projecting that both buildings will be even more overcrowded this year.

“It’s a tough nut to crack,” Goldstein said. “That’s going to create problems if and when boundaries are drawn.”

Additionally, Key’s building is designed to hold about 100 more students than ASFS, and 58 more students attended Key than ASFS last year, another area of concern for Board members.

“If the Arlington Science Focus building is smaller and the immersion program is bigger, we’re not going to be able to grow immersion program,” said Vice Chair Tannia Talento. “So we need to think about: what’re our goals for the long term with the immersion program?”

But APS officials argue that the current ASFS site has room for additional trailers to accommodate the larger number of students coming over from Key. The school system also hopes to control enrollment there moving forward, because the immersion program is based on student applications, rather than neighborhood populations.

Lisa Stengle, APS director of planning and evaluation, added that the new Reed school will add additional capacity when it opens in Westover in 2021 and ease some of the strain. She also noted that the school system’s initial plans suggest that “students and staff at both schools could largely remain intact,” though that will depend on when APS executes the swap.

If the school system switches the buildings in time for fall 2020, Stengle points out that ASFS would see its boundaries adjusted immediately afterward, as staffers draw attendance lines to cope with the opening of the Reed school. But if APS waits until 2021, she said officials “might not be able to move everybody together,” scrambling each school’s enrollment a bit more.

By January, the school system plans to publish a “community engagement timeline” to collect feedback on when, exactly, to make the swap.

In the meantime, the Board is set to approve new boundaries for eight other elementary schools later this winter.

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Commuter Incentives Suspended for APS Employees

(Updated at 10 a.m.) Arlington Public Schools is indefinitely suspending its incentive program to push employees out of their cars, after the effort proved to be a bit too successful — and expensive.

The school system’s Transportation Demand Management (TDM) Commuter Program provides stipends to employees for turning to public transit, walking, bicycling, carpooling and other options to limit the number of cars going to and from schools.

It was budgeted for $222,600 last year, but School Board spokeswoman Linda Erdos said actual expenses were over $389,000. While the difference was covered in last year’s budget, Erdos said the budget for the program remained the same for FY 2019 without the same flexibility.

“No one wanted to make any changes, but we also had to find a way to reduce the growing deficit,” said Erdos in an email. “Carpoolers and transit users also receive stipends, and staff believed that maintaining those programs was important because it immediately reduces an employee’s direct costs for commuting (fares, toll fees and fuel) and keeps the number of cars in school parking lots lower.”

Erdos said the school system looked at reducing the stipend for walkers and bicyclists, but were still left with a $50,000 deficit.

At last Thursday’s School Board meeting (Aug. 30), Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Operations John Chadwick stated that part of the reason the bicyclists’ and pedestrians’ incentives were targeted was because the data showed they’d be more likely to continue using those methods to get to school.

“Looking at numbers and usage, those members of staff who used to bike and walk would be most likely to continue using walking and biking to school,” said Chadwick. “If we applied the benefit to users of the carpool, we would likely get more people returning to single use cars and have more cars around our schools, more congestion, which causes safety concerns and issues of air quality. Faced with a difficult decision, we determined it would be most useful to suspend bike [and] walk benefits.”

Teachers at the Aug. 30 meeting said they dismayed by the decision.

“Two years ago, the incentive program helped me change my habits,” said Aaron Schuetz, a physics teacher at Yorktown High School. “Now, biking to work is my primary mode of transportation… [it was] disappointing to get email that it was cancelled.”

The suspension of the motor-free benefits was effective Sept. 1, which some teachers noted was an abrupt change.

“I was surprised to see benefits eliminated with three days notice,” said Jeffrey Bunting, an english teacher at Yorktown High School. “I found the process maybe a little cynical how it was eliminated… I fully agree there are probably improvements that can be done, but I encourage the Board and Mr. Chadwick not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Erdos said the Office of Multimodal Transportation Planning in the Department of Facilities & Operations will continue to work on reorganizing the program and will release more information later this year about the changes.

Photo via Arlington Public Schools

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County SOL Test Scores Dip Slightly, Remain Above State Averages

Pass rates for standardized tests held steady or dipped slightly among Arlington students last year, though the county still boasts success rates well above state averages across all subjects.

According to test results released yesterday (Wednesday), county students exceeded state pass rates on 25 of the 29 subjects included on the Standards of Learning tests for the 2017-18 school year. Arlington Public Schools expects the results will mean all of its schools earn state accreditation for the fourth straight year.

In all, county students recorded slight dips in pass rates in four of the five broad subject areas covering the SOL tests. Reading pass rates dipped from 87 percent a year ago to 84 percent; history and social sciences declined from 88 percent to 86 percent; math went from 86 percent to 83 percent; and science moved from 86 percent to 84 percent. Writing pass rates held steady at 86 percent.

APS recorded steeper declines among English learners and economically disadvantaged students, though most rates also held steady. The reading pass rate for low-income students dipped from 70 percent to 63 percent, for instance, while it fell from 69 percent to 61 percent for English learners.

The year came with some notable successes for APS students as well. A full 100 percent of county eighth graders passed their history test, matching a feat the county last managed in the 2015-16 school year.

“These results reflect the continued dedication of our teachers and staff who focus on ensuring that the individual needs of all students and families are being met,” Superintendent Patrick Murphy wrote in a statement. “I recognize that partnerships with families and community organizations will further strengthen our efforts to ensure success for all students; a core focus of our 2018-24 Strategic Plan.”

Statewide, students also recorded slightly lower pass rates than they did a year ago. Scores in all five subject matter areas dipped from last year, though state officials note that pass rates have increased overall since the state introduced more difficult tests five years ago.

File photo

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