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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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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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Video: Navy Reserve Commander Returns Home, Surprises Son at School

(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.

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Letter to the Editor: Arlington Public Schools Turns Its Focus Away from Science

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

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“Six-Plex” Relocatable Classroom Complex Coming to Arlington Science Focus School

Relocatable classroom trailers are Arlington Science Focus School (photo via Google Maps)

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

Dear ASFS,

As many of you know, we will need at least one more classroom next year, if not two, to house the projected number of students at ASFS. As announced at last week’s PTA meeting, Arlington Public Schools staff (APS) suggested placing two relocatables on our blacktop, in addition to the four we currently have on our greenspace. While this would meet our needs for classrooms, it would take up what is left of our children’s playspace for recess and PE instruction.

Many of you contacted me after this announcement and expressed this was simply not reasonable for our kids. I received many creative solutions and am grateful for all the input. One solution that was discussed was replacing the four relocatables we currently have with a 6-Plex unit (one relocatable that houses 6 classrooms and a common space). APS considered our proposed solution and found that this was the best option for ASFS.

Thank you to all who shared their opinions with me, as well as those who showed up at a meeting on very short notice on a Friday night to let our school board know this is the best option. Thank you also to all those that offered to get in touch with school board members’ to speak with them if necessary.

At this point, the 6-Plex unit has been approved by APS. If for some reason anything changes I will let everyone know but for now we look forward to receiving this 6-Plex unit this summer!

Thanks,

Brandi Bhojwani
ASFS PTA President

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Morning Notes

Sunflower on N. Stafford Street

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]

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Photos: Ashley Wagner Visits Arlington Science Focus ES

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.

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Morning Notes

"Wonderland" by Damiec

Ft. Myer Daycare Investigation Widens — What started as allegations of assault against two workers at a daycare center on Ft. Myer has widened into a worldwide probe of military child care hiring practices. At least 31 daycare staffers at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall have been suspended after investigators found “disqualifying factors in their records, including history of drug use and past allegations of assault.” One official called it “a severe lapse in the background checks system.” [Washington Post]

DoD Relaxes Security Standards for Some Buildings — A loosening of the Department of Defense’s security standards for commercial office buildings may make it easier for the DoD to lease office space in Arlington (and elsewhere). Earlier this month, the Pentagon reversed a policy put in place in response to 9/11 that required that leased office space meet stringent anti-terrorism security standards, even for administrative offices within the DoD. [Washington Business Journal]

Marymount Seeking to Redevelop Ballston Property — Marymount University is pushing ahead with a plan to redevelop its 50-year-old “Blue Goose” building at the corner of N. Glebe Road and Fairfax Drive in Ballston. The university has proposed replacing the aging building with an office building and an apartment building. [Sun Gazette]

Science Focus Teacher Wins Recognition — “Arlington Science Focus School Principal Mary Begley was named Administrator of the Year by the Greater Washington Reading Council at its annual conference in Fairfax” on Wednesday, says a school press release. [Arlington Public Schools]

Flickr pool photo by Damiec

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Stolen Pickup Truck Crashes into Park Fence

A pickup truck that was reported stolen crashed into a fence in front of Hayes Park on Wednesday evening.

The incident happened just before 5:45 p.m., when police received a call for a truck that had crashed into a fence and a utility pole on the 1500 block of N. Lincon Street. The crash happened in front of Hayes Park and across from Arlington Science Focus school, in the Virginia Square neighborhood. The driver of the truck ran off after the accident, police were told.

After a short investigation officers determined that the truck’s owner had parked it with the keys still inside, and had just noticed that it was missing, according to police radio traffic. Police dogs were called in to try to track the suspect, but as of this morning there was no report of an arrest in the case.

Courtesy photo

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Arlington Teacher Named Va. Lottery “Super Teacher”

Elizabeth Abraham, a second grade teacher at Arlington Science Focus School, was the surprise recipient of a Virginia Lottery “Super Teacher” award at a school-wide assembly yesterday.

Students, faculty, PTA representatives, school board members, Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy, and Del. Patrick Hope — along with Abraham’s husband and two children — were on hand when Abraham was told she was the first of eight teachers statewide who will receive the award this year.

Abraham will receive a $2,000 cash prize from the lottery, as well as $2,000 classroom supply credit.

“Beth’s commitment to students of all levels is unmistakable,” said Arlington Science Focus School PTA President Noah Simon. “Whether it is the differentiated guided reading groups she established or her firm yet supportive classroom management style, her students develop and keep the will to learn and excel.”

Simon also noted that Abraham has been working beyond her contract hours to help an at-risk student “whose behavior has not only improved, but is serving as an example classmates can follow.”

Funds raised by the Virginia Lottery provided more than $430 million last year for Virginia public schools, representing about 8 percent of state funding for public education.

Photo courtesy Frank Bellavia/Arlington Public Schools

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