Kids dance around tables full of books outside of Arlington Science Focus Elementary School on an overcast December afternoon. There are stories in Spanish, books about Black history, and novels about being the next president, all waiting to be picked up and read.
And parked a few feet away from the book fair is a bright blue “book bus” with a dragon painted on the side.
In the middle of it all is “Pajama Mama,” aka Jennifer Sauter-Price, dressed in her best dog pajamas. She’s the executive director of the Arlington-based nonprofit R.E.A.D. with a mission of providing brand new books to young children who may not have access to them.
R.E.A.D stands for “read early, and daily” and it’s the brainchild of Sauter-Price.
“We want to help [kids] grow libraries and encourage their families to read to them on a daily basis,” she tells ARLnow.
There’s ample research that there’s immense benefits in constantly reading to kids prior to them entering kindergarten. It improves their vocabulary and helps them associate words with feelings along with a number of other benefits, studies show.
Sauter-Price’s R.E.A.D program is simple: Families sign up and get to choose one new book a month for each kid under the age of five in their family.
“It would be really easy for me to just hand them a book, but we learned that families are more engaged when they choose their own book,” says Sauter-Price, who is a mom herself and lives in the Arlington Forest neighborhood. “They feel more empowered.”
Currently, there are about 200 children enrolled.
The books available, Sauter-Price notes, are intentionally chosen to reflect Arlington’s community.
“We have a diverse population of young children here. We have kids who speak English, Spanish, Arabic, Mongolian,” she says. “I search high and low to find those books as well as one that have a diverse set of families.”
These are what are called “mirror and window” books, ones that reflect the child themselves (mirror) and ones that show the community they live in (window).
Sauter-Price describes a time, pre-COVID, when she showed up to a community event with a book featuring a mom wearing a hijab.
“There was a group of Muslim moms and when one of them saw [the book], they started crying,” she says. “She was like, ‘I’ve never seen this before. Thank you.'”
When asked what are the most popular books, Sauter-Price says that’s universal.
“I would probably say anything about transportation or things that go ‘vroom’,” she laughs.
The book fairs across the county that Sauter-Price puts on, like the one held at Arlington Science Focus Elementary, are revenue generators for R.E.A.D, allowing her to buy more books for more families who are in need.
In 2021 alone, Sauter-Price says the fairs have done about $125,000 in sales, much of which goes back to the program. The hope is to double those sales numbers next year.
Community donations and grants also help to finance R.E.A.D. In the summer of 2019, the program received a $50,000 grant from the newspaper publisher Gannett to spruce up an old school bus.
Sauter-Price drives this bus around, brings it to fairs, while families can also shop out of it. She always dress in pajamas because, she says, “it breaks down barriers.”
Future aspirations for R.E.A.D. are high. Sauter-Price just got her peddler’s license meaning she can do “pop-up” book fairs on weekends in commercial areas like Ballston and Clarendon. She’s planning to start doing that this month. Additionally, beginning sometime early next year, the nonprofit is partnering with Virginia Hospital Center to provide a bag of books to uninsured and underinsured moms-to-be.
If R.E.A.D. is able to reach all of those moms, Sauter-Price estimates that it could mean the program could be working with as many as 1,800 babies and young kids a year.
That’s okay by Sauter-Price, who says some of her best memories are reading to her own kids. While they are both grown now and likely don’t want their mom reading to them, reading remains a huge part of Sauter-Price’s life.
She says, “I just feel like my whole life has just been sort of leading to this.”
This feature article was funded by the ARLnow Press Club and was previously published in the Press Club’s weekend newsletter.
Blue Line Reopens — “On Friday, October 15, normal service will resume on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines. Intermittent delays are possible as the investigation into Tuesday’s derailment continues.” [WMATA, Twitter]
New County Website Launching Soon — “Arlington County Government is launching a new website, the first major refreshment of the County’s online presence in more than seven years. The site will launch Monday, Oct. 18. Users will continue to access the site by visiting www.arlingtonva.us.” [Arlington County]
Spotted: Bizarre Banner Bedecked Bus — From Nicole Merlene: “Outside the Courthouse today… What in the world? Civil service sure ain’t for wimps with crazies like this.” [Twitter]
New Utility Vault Near Clarendon — From Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services: “Behold the 40-ton concrete utility vault installed under Washington Boulevard yesterday between N Kirkwood and Wilson. That stretch’s big safety upgrades and lane-shift makeover continues into next year.” [Twitter]
National Airport Getting Busier — “New data suggest the airport, which has had one of the most sluggish returns to normal(ish) performance in the COVID era, may be seeing better times for the rest of the year. New data from the trade group Airlines for America suggest that the airport will see just 11 percent fewer flights during the fourth quarter than during the same period in pre-pandemic 2019. That projected performance also is less than the 14-percent drop reported nationally, based on current flight schedules.” [Sun Gazette]
Water Main Break Closes School — Updated at 9 a.m. — Arlington Science Focus School is closed today due to a 6-inch water main break on the 1400 block of N. Lincoln Street that’s affecting about 200 water customers. [Twitter, Arlington Public Schools]
New Taco Restaurant Eyeing Arlington — Wild Tacoz, which recently opened in the Falls Church area, is aiming to become a local chain with future locations in Arlington and elsewhere. [Tysons Reporter]
Pedestrian Struck Near Clarendon — “A woman was just struck by a car on N. Pershing Drive at Fillmore Street in Lyon Park. Only minor injuries reported. Police and firefighters on scene.” [Twitter/@ARLnowDOTcom]
Dems Push for Higher Wages at DCA — “Delegates have signed a letter urging the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority to ensure contracted workers at Reagan National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport reach $15 per hour by 2023. Their $12.15 hourly wages are far lower than D.C.’s $15 minimum wage and many East Coast airports.” [Press Release]
Crystal City Hilton Sold — “Starwood Capital Group has made its second acquisition in the area around Amazon HQ2 this year. The Miami-based firm acquired a 393-room hotel in Crystal City from a fund affiliated with JBG Smith for $73M.” [Bisnow, Washington Business Journal]
Housing May Dominate Budget Discussion — “Board members directed, as part of their fiscal 2021 budget guidance to County Manager Mark Schwartz, that budget plans include an option to increase affordable-housing funding to as much as $25 million, a 56-percent increase from the $16 million Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF) funding approved for the current fiscal year…. [but] raising expectations of affordable-housing advocates could pit them against proponents of other budget priorities.” [InsideNova]
Local Defense Attorney to Serve as Fairfax Prosecutor — “Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney-elect Steve Descano… announced last Wednesday (Nov. 27) that he intends to have Terry Adams, a private defense attorney in Arlington, take on the role of Chief Deputy, lauding his 14 years working on criminal and civil cases in Virginia.” [Tysons Reporter]
ACFD Assists With School Project — “Tower 104 assisted students [at] Science Focus School today with their annual egg drop. The students were able to collect some data & a good time was had by all.” [Twitter/@ArlingtonVaFD]
Photo courtesy Dave Statter
Arlington schools officials are pumping the brakes on a controversial plan to swap the Arlington Science Focus School and Key Immersion School buildings, after new projections revealed an unexpected increase in the county’s elementary school students in the coming years.
The school system had previously planned to move Key’s Spanish immersion program to the ASFS building, and vice versa, sometime in the next two years. The move was designed to solve some complex boundary issues in North Arlington neighborhoods, as some students currently zoned to attend ASFS actually live closer to Key.
But the school system’s plans have attracted some fierce community pushback since Superintendent Patrick Murphy rolled them out in September, with parents criticizing the logistics of the move and Murphy’s decision to press ahead with the decision without putting the matter to the School Board for a vote.
Yet Arlington Public Schools officials say the decision to “pause” the swap was driven instead by the newest data about school enrollment growth in the county, which staff presented to the Board last week.
APS planners previously believed that the county’s student population growth was finally beginning to level off after years of large jumps, but they’re now expecting a 24 percent jump in the student population between now and 2028.
Notably, elementary schoolers account for most of that change. Officials are forecasting a 21 percent increase in the elementary school population alone, which translates to about 2,778 more students over the next decade — that’s about 1,000 more kids than they expected the school system would add just a year ago.
“Given this projections update and the strong commitment APS has to the dual-language immersion program, the location for elementary immersion will be reevaluated to best meet the needs of our students,” APS staff wrote in an announcement on the school system’s website. “APS will reevaluate where the immersion program can grow, either at ASFS or other locations, while providing equitable access for all students in the immersion option.”
Both schools are currently overcapacity, and each one requires several trailers to educate those students. Some parents were already concerned that the swap would pose space problems even before these projection updates, as Key is both larger and currently holds more students than ASFS. A petition urging the Board to stop the swap has already garnered more than 800 signatures.
But with this new information in hand, the school system says it plans to keep studying the issue, with the goal of maintaining the “50/50 student balance of native Spanish speakers with speakers of English” for the immersion program wherever it might land.
“It’s important to consider the best locations for the immersion program at the elementary level to ensure equitable access for all students, and encourage participation by English learners along with native English speakers,” APS staff wrote. “This is critical to the integrity of the dual-language model and helps ensure that the academic benefits of the program are fairly distributed within a community.”
School officials hope to deliver a recommendation on a path forward to the Board by December, in order to include any adjustments as part of the next round of elementary school boundary adjustments. That is set to impact 14 schools in all, coming on the heels of the Board’s boundary changes for eight South Arlington schools at the end of last year.
More broadly, the new elementary school projections are igniting some big questions for the Board.
Planners reassured school leaders at their meeting last Thursday (Jan. 24) that this sort of surprise jump in student population is “not unprecedented,” and largely driven by the relentless pace of development in the county. But it’s concerning nonetheless for Board members, who only just signed off on a biannual update of the school system’s construction plans for the next 10 years.
“Our growth is continuing long-term,” said Board member Barbara Kanninen. “Until this update, the county and our data were kind of projecting we were going to level off at some point, probably around 32,000 students. You’re going beyond that… It really shows we have continual growth.”
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.
(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.
(Updated at 4:25 p.m.) Jonathan Blyth, a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve who spent the last nine months overseas, promised his son he’d be home by the time school let out.
Blyth made it home today (Tuesday), with one day to spare.
He arranged to surprise his son, David, just before class let out at Arlington Science Focus School. Staff led the second grader away from the room briefly, giving his dad some time to sneak in and wait for David to return.
“I was very shocked,” David Blyth told ARLnow. “I was just expecting books.”
Jonathan Blyth says seeing his son again after nearly a year apart “gives you a greater appreciation of the United States of America,” particularly because this was his first deployment.
He was stationed at NATO’s Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan for the last seven months, so he finds himself appreciating even the little things like “the ability to walk and be outside.”
“It’s amazing to be back,” Blyth said. “It’s great to be back.”
He brought with him a preserved scorpion — David’s verdict: “It’s creepy looking,” but he still showed it off to his classmates — as well as a Washington Nationals baseball cap.
David will head back to school for his last day of class tomorrow (Wednesday), then the family will take off for a lengthy summer vacation.
“I promised him if he did well in school, he’d get a trip to Disney World,” Jonathan Blyth said.
The following Letter to the Editor was written by former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and his wife Rohini. The Chopras are Arlington residents and parents of Arlington Public Schools students.
While many Arlingtonians are mobilizing to protect much needed science investments in the wake of proposed Trump administration budget cuts, a more pressing local threat has emerged that needs our immediate attention: the June 1st Arlington School Board vote that, if passed, will unnecessarily weaken our best shot at helping lower-income kids succeed in science and, thus, prepare for the jobs and industries of the future. And it does so without adding a single new seat to handle APS-wide over-crowding challenges.
The School Board notes that the proposed changes to its enrollment and transfer policy are to “make it easier for families to understand the school options available.” However, what the proposal actually does is arbitrarily change those options – re-classifying some schools to eliminate neighborhood access and others to eliminate choice or lottery access. How the Board re-classifies each school appears arbitrary with no published explanation, justification or criteria including whether it is a reflection on school quality, student demand, or any other factor.
Absent School Board transparency, a group of families have “crowd-sourced” as much publicly available data to piece together the net impact and the answer is bad news for families interested in boosting their child’s performance in science, especially for lower-income families. Roughly 20% of Arlington Science Focus enrollment is via choice/lottery, a figure that falls to zero if this passes. Worse, by eliminating the neighborhood zone for Key Elementary, up to 240 students who could lose in the lottery, including native Spanish speakers, will be forced into an already overcrowded ASFS (runing today at 120% capacity).
Why should this matter? For a low-income family wishing for their child to succeed in science, here’s the bad news: unless you live in the Key Zone neighborhood, you will not have access to ASFS, an award-winning school that delivers, for 93% of low income kids, proficiency or higher on the 5th grade science exam, a rate that places ASFS among top 5% of elementary schools statewide.
The School Board COULD have proposed to treat Key Elementary and ASFS similarly to allow that low-income family to apply for enrollment via lottery, but without justification as to why, they are poised to choose to limit access for ASFS while expanding it for Key.
More insidious is the risk to ASFS’ impressive results. Despite a taxpayer-funded evaluation of APS science results in 2014, not a single publicly available evaluation explains why ASFS is so successful. A fellow Obama White House policy maker and neighbor, Ben Harris, notes that children benefit–or suffer–from being in a classroom with children at a different educational level as their own. Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby found that economically disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic children in Texas showed marked benefits from being in a classroom with kids who had higher test scores.
In other words, diversity matters. And this policy hits right at the diverse enrollment mix currently at ASFS. Coupled with its award-winning integrated curriculum that embeds science and discovery in all classroom instruction, ASFS results need further study before materially changing its composition, curriculum, or level of parental engagement on account of family choice.
I urge you to call, write, or show up to the June 1st School Board meeting and demand a return to evidence-based policy-making that we have so loudly called for at the federal level when attempting to fight back the Trump Administration’s attacks on science, health, and the social safety net. Such a call will result in a call to expand access via choice/lottery slots to Arlington Science Focus. Anything less would be irresponsible.
(Update: APS just posted this FAQ which includes this depressing quote: “Ensure that no students who live outside of the current Science Focus/Key boundary zone are enrolling in Science Focus for the first time, beginning with the 2017-18 school year.”).
ARLnow.com occasionally publishes thoughtful letters to the editor about issues of local interest. To submit a letter to the editor for consideration, please email it to [email protected]. Letters may be edited for content and brevity.
Photo via Arlington Public Schools
As Arlington Public Schools continues to grapple with ever-increasing enrollment, the school system is continuing to add relocatable classroom trailers to over-capacity schools.
Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy included $2.6 million in his proposed budget for the purchase of relocatable classrooms next school year. As the trailers are parked outside of schools, there is increasing concern about the loss of open, recreational space.
At Arlington Science Focus School, near Virginia Square, the PTA recently expressed concern that two additional relocatables, slated to be added next school year, would have to be placed on the school’s blacktop — thus resulting in the loss of a recess and phys ed area. (Four relocatables are already placed on a field outside the school.)
The PTA, working with APS, came up with a solution already at place at some other schools: a “six-plex” modular school unit that houses six classrooms and a common space, not unlike this one. The consolidated unit would cut down on the amount of open space taken up.
There are already five “six-plexes” in Arlington: two at McKinley Elementary and one each at Claremont, Oakridge and Taylor elementary schools.
APS spokesman Frank Bellavia says the school system works with schools, parents and neighbors to figure out the best way to place relocatables at schools. But the need for the modular classrooms, he said, points to the need for APS to continue building new schools and school additions expeditiously.
“We work with school leadership and the neighboring community to find the best location for the relocatables,” Bellavia said. “This is why we need more seats for more students.”
After the jump: the letter from the Science Focus PTA to parents.
Photo via Google Maps
Gas Leak Causes Evacuation in Clarendon — A Saturday gas leak forced the closing of Clarendon Blvd. near the Clarendon Metro station. Approximately 50 people evacuated six nearby buildings during the incident. Nobody was hurt. [Washington Post]
Proposal to Turn Basement into Classrooms — On Thursday, Arlington School Board members are expected to approve a $2 million project to turn basement crawl space into classrooms at Arlington Science Focus School. The project would end the need for the four relocatable classrooms on the school’s property, as well as a planned fifth. [InsideNova]
No GOP Treasurer Candidate So Far — The Arlington County Republican Committee doesn’t have any contenders so far to run in the special election for county treasurer. If no names are added by the August 15 deadline, Treasurer Carla de la Pava will be unopposed. [InsideNova]
U.S. Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner paid a visit to the children and faculty of Arlington Science Focus Elementary School this afternoon to campaign against underage drinking.
Wagner, sporting the bronze medal she won this year as part of the U.S. figure skating team, told the hundreds who gathered in the school’s gymnasium that after she started training to become a figure skater when she was 5 years old, she vowed to do whatever it took to get to the Olympics.
“When you’re an athlete, your body is a machine,” she said. “You want the ultimate machine, so you want to take care of it. So I made a lot of important decisions. I ate my fruits and veggies, I drank a lot of water and, when the time came, I said no to underage drinking.”
After the crowd of kids answered questions on the basic facts of underage drinking, they got a chance to ask questions of their own. One student asked how old the 22-year-old is –“someone should teach you not to ask a lady that,” she gamely replied before answering question — and another asked how much her medal weighed, which led to Wagner giving the little boy her medal to hold.
“This medal stays in a sock,” she said when asked where she keeps her hardware from Sochi, Russia. “I should probably find a better place for it.”
In addition to students and faculty, attendees at the event included state Sen. Barbara Favola, Del. Patrick Hope and Ralph Blackman, president and CEO of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibly.