Press Club
Gunston Bubble, deflated (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

The Arlington County Board is likely to vote this weekend on providing another $140,000 to fix the Gunston sports “bubble” due to issues related to the soil beneath the structure.

Renovations started last year on the Gunston Bubble, the covered, all-season county synthetic athletic field at Gunston Park behind the middle school of the same name. The two-decade-old bubble had reached “the end of its useful lifespan,” reads a county report, and needed to “be constantly monitored and inflated.”

During the summer, the bubble would sometimes get overly hot while, in the winter, snow would build up on top. Both situations were considered hazardous enough that the bubble would have to close on numerous occasions.

Work on the bubble began last year with the renovation project calling for a new frame-supported fabric structure that would make the bubble functional in any weather. Plus, ceiling fans, vents, and LED light fixtures will make it more “more energy efficient and reliable.”

The project was initially set to cost $867,000 and be completed in the second quarter of this year.

But issues arose almost immediately after work began in January, notes a County Board agenda report, due to the soil.

“Upon commencement of the work, the Contractor encountered unsuitable soil conditions that were not known at the time of design and need to be remediated, for proper installation of the building footings. Based on recommendations from the County third-party Geotechnical Contractor, Hillis Carnes, a series of additional undercuts are required to remove the unsuitable soil and bring in new material for the base foundation. This work is critical to ensure the structural stability of the new fabric structure.”

To complete the needed work, contractors IMEC Group, LLC are requesting an additional $140,000.

At the meeting this Saturday, the County Board is likely to vote on if it will allow for an amendment to the original contract that authorizes this extra money.

County officials that if the $140,000 is approved, the Gunston Bubble renovations should be completed later this year.

“We are excited to be updating the Gunston Bubble so that it will be able to support our community year-round with a strong frame structure to keep it open in the winter, and enhanced ventilation to make it more comfortable in the summer,” a county spokesperson tells ARLnow. “We noticed issues in the soil in January and are mitigating the issues. The work will cost us a bit more than expected and will delay the project.  We should have it all ready no later than early fall or sooner. When complete this will be a much better indoor experience than before.”

The bubble isn’t the only thing at Gunston Middle School that is set to being renovated. Earlier this month, the Arlington School Board approved $1.6 million in safety upgrades to the entrance of the school. The work includes moving the main school entrance and office closer to S. Lang Street. That project is expected to start in June and be complete by mid-August, right before the start of the new school year.

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Gunston Middle School (file photo)

The Arlington School Board is set to consider a $1.6 million contract for safety upgrades to the entrance of Gunston Middle School.

At its meeting on Thursday, Board members will also consider approving a preliminary budget of $2.7 million for three other entrance projects.

In 2020, Arlington voters gave the thumbs up to safety renovations for five schools: Gunston, Thomas Jefferson and Williamsburg middle schools, Taylor Elementary School and Wakefield High School.

Construction at Gunston would start in June and be completed in mid-August before school starts on Aug. 29.

Work includes moving the main school entrance and office closer to S. Lang Street, which will require two science rooms to be relocated. The entrance will feature a vestibule where visitors will check in with office staff.

Planned Gunston entrance change (via APS)

The project scope has also expanded to remediate structural issues related to how the building has settled into the ground over time. APS is budgeting $2.5 million, including contingencies, for the Gunston project and any unspent funds will be used for other capital projects.

This summer, APS will also be making upgrades to Wakefield’s entrance. This project will not have to go out to bid and the school system can move forward without School Board approval.

Design and Construction Director Jeffrey Chambers says the Taylor and Williamsburg projects, meanwhile, have fallen behind. Design work is currently just over halfway complete and staff aim to find a contractor this fall and start work next summer.

“We’re very concerned putting those out to bid or getting pricing or trying to get them constructed this summer because… both from references from our consultants and our experience with regard to projects we’ve recently finished, there are some serious issues still in the supply chain,” he told the School Board last month. “We don’t want to start projects, especially with administrative offices, and not be able to finish them.”

APS staff are recommending that work at Jefferson be deferred until APS is ready to make substantial renovations to the school.

“It was going to require a lot more renovations to that building than what we had budgeted for,” he said. “We felt it was better to defer that to a future, larger project.”

The public schools system is staggering these projects, all part of the adopted FY 2021 Capital Improvement Plan, because “rapid construction price escalation and supply chain delays [have] impacted the anticipated construction cost and completion,” according to the presentation.

APS has made security upgrades to more than half of its school buildings and aims to complete this work “within the next few years,” Chambers said.

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Screenshot from video of a fight at a cafeteria in Arlington Public Schools (courtesy anonymous)

Over the last four days, fights involving kids and weapons broke out near Gunston and Thomas Jefferson middle schools, while Wakefield High School had multiple trash cans set on fire.

Those are the most recent incidents in what some parents — mostly to middle schoolers — say is a rash of fights, threats of violence and other concerning behaviors happening in the public school system.

Earlier this month, for example, a mother told the School Board her daughter at Gunston Middle School was attacked by other students.

“My daughter’s eye is messed up,” Shana Robertson told the Arlington School Board on March 10. “She was jumped by two boys and two girls, and nothing has been done.”

A parent, Shayna Robertson, speaks out about unsafe conditions in Arlington Public Schools (via APS)

ARLnow spoke to multiple parents who say these issues are happening across the school system. We also reviewed several videos of brawls on school grounds, or near them, recorded by students this year.

Arlington Public Schools confirms to ARLnow that the school system has, in fact, noticed an increase in the number of reported fights and incidents this school year.

“This rise in concerning behaviors follows the national trend that is not unique to Arlington, as students re-acclimate to being back in school and face increased stress and anxiety, as well as other mental health and social-emotional challenges due to COVID and the trauma students experienced as a result,” APS spokesman Andrew Robinson said.

The trend has prompted some parents to call for more disciplinary actions for students and a renewed conversation about whether to reinstall Arlington County Police Department School Resource Officers, who were removed over the summer out of concern for racial disparities in juvenile arrests.

Opinions on reinstalling SROs are mixed. Some say this would help keep students in line and some say they may help — but they will not address the root cause. Others say SROs would not only fail to address the root cause, but they would also needlessly drive up the number of arrests.

“This is happening across the country, even at schools with police officers,” says Symone Walker, a member of the Arlington branch of the NAACP’s education committee and a former ARLnow columnist. “You really have to start addressing the emotional needs, the physical needs, the academic needs. Of course, there’s stuff going on at homes where families are stressed. Parents are angry and the kids are soaking it all up — it’s a much deeper problem.”

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Arlington School Board candidate Brandon Clark, left, and the Clark family, right (courtesy of Brandon Clark)

(Updated at 11:55 a.m.) The first Arlington School Board candidate has stepped up — and he is a current teacher in Arlington Public Schools.

Gunston Middle School world geography teacher Brandon Clark says he is running to provide a point of view he says is missing on the School Board. Most of the five members are current and former parents, while some have past experience as educators.

“What we don’t have is someone who is a current APS employee,” he tells ARLnow. “We don’t have someone who understands how these decisions impact our students, families and community.”

He will vie for the seat that opens up when School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen steps down in December. So far, he is the only candidate on the ballot for the November general election. If elected, he would resign as a teacher.

Clark has been an APS teacher for five years. He and his wife both teach at Gunston, where she is a math coach. They have young twins who will one day go to APS, says Clark, a graduate of Wakefield High School.

Since joining the school system, he has taken on leadership positions at Gunston and on the Teachers’ Council on Instruction, which advises the superintendent. In these roles he says he saw systemic problems in how APS communicates and allocates resources.

“I’m running because I believe we have to do better — and do better now,” he said. “We can’t wait until we have to do damage control. We have serious systemic issues that need to be fixed and we need strategic ways to deploy our resources to fix them.”

Clark had mulled running for three years, but a communications mishap two months ago tipped the scales for him.

In January, APS notified him some of his students had tested positive for Covid. He received two communications from APS, each telling him to quarantine for two different lengths of time.

“The more I communicated with people, the more I learned it was happening all over APS,” he said. “I figured they had it all figured out, but they didn’t. I realized how bad things were. It was a symptom of a greater systemic problem — a mismanagement of policies, communications and resources.”

If elected, he said, Clark intends to direct Superintendent Francisco Durán to review how APS sends information to staff and families and find more efficient, centralized alternatives.

To the extent that is legally possible, he said, people “should be able to see what was sent to teachers and parents on a single landing page that is convenient and easy to access. There are too many avenues of communication. When you get that, you breed confusion.”

The number of siloed committees for parents and teachers makes it harder to be heard by APS administrators, he asserted.

“Parents and teachers need to realize they have power together and they can actualize that by meeting,” he said. “If you really want feedback, you have to streamline all these committees — parents and teachers should be in the same room.”

Beyond communications, APS can be more strategic is in its budget, selecting just one or two priorities per year and showing how every expenditure aligns with them, Clark said.

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Police are investigating another reported sexual battery incident against a female student, this time in South Arlington, a few blocks from Gunston Middle School.

Police say two boys tried to rob the girl of her AirPods headphones along S. Glebe Road, then touched her inappropriately.

More from an Arlington County Police Department crime report:

ROBBERY, 2021-12030180, 2900 block of S. Glebe Road. At approximately 3:49 p.m. on December 2, police were dispatched to the report of a sexual assault that had recently occurred. Upon arrival, it was determined that the juvenile female victim was walking in the area when she was approached by the two juvenile male suspects who demanded her air pods. The victim refused, placed the air pods on her person and the suspects then allegedly touched her inappropriately. The suspects fled the scene on foot when a witness approached. The investigation is ongoing.

A police spokeswoman declined to say which school the victim attends, citing policies around victim privacy.

More than 35,000 people have signed a petition calling for Arlington Public Schools to ramp up education on sexual misconduct, after a girl told police she was inappropriately touched outside of Yorktown High School’s homecoming football game in October. The incident, along with reports of sexual harassment at the game, also prompted walkouts at several Arlington schools.

The Arlington School Board during the Nov. 16 meeting (via APS)

The Arlington School Board will vote on boundary changes tomorrow (Thursday) targeting two overcapacity schools in South Arlington.

This fall, Superintendent Francisco Durán launched a “limited” fall 2021 boundary process to relieve overcrowding at Abingdon Elementary School, Gunston Middle School and Wakefield High School.

The newest version of the plan postpones changes to Abingdon, where enrollment is currently manageable for next year, according to Durán. Students would have been moved from the school in Fairlington to Charles R. Drew Elementary School in nearby Green Valley, echoing a similar proposal in 2018 that became controversial.

Gunston and Wakefield are still over-capacity, so some planning units will be moved to Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Washington-Liberty High School.

“The proposed changes are manageable among the identified schools that we’ve talked about and we’ve engaged with. The planning units included in this process should not need to be moved again in the next few years, and this limited process provides some additional to understand enrollment fluctuations we’re seeing caused by the pandemic, and any shifts in projects we may see,” he said during the Nov. 16 School Board meeting.

APS also proposes to change which neighborhood schools feed into Arlington’s Spanish-immersion schools, following previous boundary changes and the relocation of one immersion program, Key School.

“We want to make sure access to immersion schools is convenient to families and students nearest the location,” Durán said.

Relief for Gunston and Wakefield

The boundary changes for Gunston and Jefferson will reassign 140 third- to fifth-graders while the Wakefield and W-L changes will reassign 162 students.

The changes will impact the Penrose, Foxcroft Heights, Arlington View and Columbia Heights neighborhoods.

The proposal to move Wakefield students to W-L comes as the latter is about to unveil a new wing of the school — the former Education Center administrative offices — with room for up to 600 students.

APS says the extra space at the Education Center will provide enrollment relief for Wakefield and cut down on W-L’s waitlist for the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

“The number of applicants to the IB Lottery and number on the waitlist has increased each year over the last four years,” according to the 2021 boundary process website.

APS may consider targeted transfers from Wakefield to Yorktown if forthcoming enrollment projections for 2022-23 suggest unmanageable levels at Wakefield — even with the boundary adjustment.

The new high school boundaries would reverse moves made in 2016 to address overcrowding at W-L, but those who were moved away from W-L in 2017 will not be moved back.

In 2017, APS redirected Boulevard Manor kids from W-L to Yorktown High School. Students say when they graduate from Kenmore Middle School and head to Yorktown, they lose many of their middle school friends. To avoid that, they apply for W-L’s IB program or for a neighborhood transfer.

“I can make new friends, but the point is that it’s completely reasonable that I want to go to high school with my friends — just like all the middle schoolers in Arlington,” said Kenmore eighth-grader Xavier Anderson, during the Nov. 16 meeting.

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Arlington Public Schools is preparing to redraw boundaries for a half-dozen schools to relieve high enrollment and over-capacity at three of them.

The boundary process, which will go into effect next fall, is “limited in scope” and will target Abingdon Elementary School, Gunston Middle School and Wakefield High School.

“The boundary process will bring enrollment at these three schools to more manageable levels for the 2022-23 school year by re-assigning some planning units to neighboring schools with capacity to accommodate additional students,” APS said in a School Talk update to parents last week.

For each school, staff will focus on planning units where neither school is in walking distance, according to APS’s 2021 boundary process webpage.

APS says it will move some planning units from Abingdon to Drew Elementary School, which is two miles away. As of Sept. 30, Abingdon has 688 students and a projected capacity utilization rate of 119%, compared to the 433 students and use rate of 76% at Drew.

This direct step to balance enrollment comes on the heels of a less successful attempt to alleviate the overcrowding without redrawing boundaries. During the 2020-21 school year, APS set up a program encouraging families zoned for Abingdon to choose to send their children to Drew, with transportation provided.

Only 12 students took the “targeted transfer” option. School Board members said a dozen students would not make a dent in the schools’ enrollment imbalance and predicted the need for a boundary process.

“[The option] did not come out with numbers that were able to solve the problem,” Board Member Monique O’Grady said during an Aug. 26 School Board meeting. “I did want to point out that we have given the community the choice to go to what I think is a phenomenal school. After trying that, I think we’re at a different point in time, where we maybe need to take more intentional action.”

The renewed focus on Abingdon and Drew also comes three years after another boundary process that would have moved students at both Abingdon and Henry elementary schools to Drew proved controversial.

Some Gunston planning units will be moved to to Thomas Jefferson Middle School, but current Gunston students will not be affected. Gunston has 1,109 students and a projected capacity rate of 112%, compared to Jefferson’s 849 students and 101% use rate.

APS intends to move some planning units from Wakefield to Washington-Liberty High School, but the moves will not impact current Wakefield students. Enrollment and capacity rate margins are closer for the schools: 2,241 versus 2,174 students, and 108% versus 102%, respectively.

APS says the move will also make better use of the additional 500 or so seats at the former Arlington Education Center (1426 N. Quincy Street), which is set to open September 2022.

Despite the limited success of targeted transfers at the elementary level, APS plans to offer them so that current Wakefield students can opt to attend W-L next fall.

During the same August meeting, Executive Director of Planning and Evaluation Lisa Stengle said APS is offering the option because she’s “not sure moving ninth graders will be enough” to balance out Wakefield’s rising enrollment.

“With boundaries we want to be cautious, because we may have to come back and make changes in the future, and we don’t want to have to redo things,” Stengle said. “This way, it’s a choice.”

Community engagement sessions on the boundary process will begin with a virtual meeting on Saturday, Oct. 16. Engagement will run through the end of October.

Superintendent Francisco Durán will propose a more detailed plan during a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 16. Two weeks later, on Tuesday, Nov. 30, there will be a public hearing. The School Board is expected to vote on his proposal on Thursday, Dec. 2.

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A D.C. man was arrested Monday after police say he was found in possession of a stolen car, a rifle and ammunition near Gunston Middle School.

The arrest was made Monday afternoon along 28th Road S., next to Gunston Park and within the school zone, but not on the actual school grounds.

“At approximately 4:01 p.m. on October 4, patrol officers were alerted to a vehicle reported stolen from Prince George’s County, MD, and initiated an investigation,” said an Arlington County Police Department crime report. “The suspect, who was working on another vehicle in front of the stolen vehicle, was detained and determined to have the keys for the stolen vehicle on his person.”

“During an inventory search of the vehicle, a rifle, magazine and ammunition were recovered,” the crime report continues.

Police say the 26-year-old suspect was arrested and charged with numerous crimes, including “Possession of Stolen Goods, Possession of a Firearm on School Grounds, Possession of a Firearm and Ammunition by a Convicted Felon and Removing/Altering the Serial Numbers of a Firearm.”

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(Updated 4:25 p.m.) Local firefighters handle all sorts of hazards. Today, one such hazard was a flaming pile of garbage.

The rubish’s rapid oxidation happened around noon today in front of Gunston Middle School, near Arlington Ridge. The blazing bags of refuse were reportedly dumped by a trash truck after the driver noticed smoke and flames coming from the back.

“He dumped his load that was on fire,” a witness tells ARLnow. “He did the right thing. Saved his truck.”

The quick thinking spared the truck and a bigger conflagration, but it left big mess in the Gunston parking lot. Arlington and Alexandria firefighters worked to douse the combusting crud, leaving a soggy heap of waste to be cleaned up.

The trash fire, no doubt seen by a metaphor by some, was caught on camera by Washington Post media reporter Jeremy Barr.

Arlington County police blocked S. Lang Street, in front of the school, during the firefighting effort. A fire department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for additional information.

Later this afternoon, the county’s Department of Environmental Services shed some light on what likely caused the fire — rechargeable batteries tossed into a recycling bin — and provided some advice on how to properly recycle such batteries.

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Morning Notes

Pentagon City Suspect Charged With Murder — “Taya Ashton, 20, was found shot to death at an apartment in the 2300 block of Brooks Drive in Suitland on Saturday night, Prince George’s County police said. A day after her slaying, Arlington County police arrested DeAllen Price, of District Heights, for running from officers and going on the Metro tracks at the Pentagon City station, police said… Metro Transit Police and a K9 officer searched the tracks and found a weapon they later linked to Ashton’s murder, police said.” [NBC 4]

Gunston Bubble Going Bye-Bye — “The iconic, yet temperamental, sports ‘bubble’ adjacent to Gunston Middle School will soon be replaced by a barn-like framed structure that will provide more reliability and accessibility, Arlington government officials said. County Board members have approved a contract worth up to $866,800 for installation of the new Clear Span frame-supported fabric structure, which had been purchased previously.” [Sun Gazette]

WeWork, WeLive No Longer Together — “WeWork has washed its hands of WeLive, the co-living brand it launched a half-decade ago with grand aspirations. WeWork handed over management of the two WeLive locations, in Northern Virginia’s Crystal City neighborhood and on Wall Street in Manhattan, to the owners of the buildings, JBG Smith and Rudin Management, a WeWork spokesperson confirmed to Bisnow Wednesday.” [Bisnow]

Cunningham Tapped as AHC’s Interim CEO — “The affordable-housing provider AHC Inc. has tapped Arlington civic leader [and former Arlington County Board candidate] Susan Cunningham as its interim CEO. Cunningham will bridge the gap left by the departure of long-term organization leader Walter Webdale.” [Sun Gazette]

Interview with APS DEI Chief — “We sat down with Arlington Public Schools Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer Arron Gregory to talk about the importance of roles like his in schools… How is the school system’s success in these matters ultimately measured? ‘… if we’re unable to predict student success by identities, such as race, class, gender, socioeconomic status, then we’ve achieved educational equity, but if we’re able to predict those outcomes, then there’s work that still needs to happen.'” [WJLA]

Editorial Lauds Lee Highway Renaming — “The symbolism that attends the struggle for racial justice and recognition could hardly be better served than by paying tribute, as the newly named roadway does, to John M. Langston, a man who, in the words of his biographer, ‘was Obama before Obama.’ A century and a half before, as it happens.” [Washington Post]

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A number of Gunston Middle School students appeared on national TV yesterday.

The students went on air Thursday during the fourth hour of NBC’s Today Show to ask questions of former NASA astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to go into space.

The students asked how to become an astronaut, what it was like in space, and about how difficult it was for Jemison to break racial barriers in her career path.

Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia tells ARLnow that a parent helped to coordinate the appearance for nearly a dozen Gunston students.

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