Recently, a thriving, 200-plus Whatsapp group for Kenmore Middle School’s Spanish-speaking parents received unexpected membership requests.
They came from Ethiopian and Mongolian parents, who told the group’s moderator, Janeth Valenzuela, they could find ways to overcome the language barrier.
Valenzuela — who has spent years organizing the Hispanic parents so they can navigate and volunteer in Arlington Public Schools — let them in.
“One thing I’ve noticed in all these years in advocacy is that if we only focus on Hispanic parents, we miss out on the parents who are in need, but they don’t have leaders who represent them because their community is smaller,” she said. “Parents need to belong to the school community.”
So she and another parent, Marianne Talbot, decided to expand the parent group and rename it Kenmore Community Families in Action. The group, which launched this fall, provides low-budget family and community events, a family support group, an after-school student club, a speaker series and regular Zoom conversations with Principal David McBride.
“Education goes hand-in-hand between the schools, the parents and the community,” Valenzuela said. “If the three don’t work together well, we don’t accomplish anything.”
Recently, the group invited a representative from a tutoring service APS uses to help a few dozen students set up tutoring accounts on their iPads. But it also does fun things, like hand out certificates to students after they completed a mile run for P.E. class.
“We wanted to show the students who don’t have it easy… that we may not understand and we can’t walk a mile in their shoes but we appreciate them doing it,” Talbot said.
Talbot says the group is a non-competitive alternative to the local Parent-Teacher Association. She resigned as president of the Kenmore PTA after not seeing eye-to-eye with other parents on how it should be run. The PTA did not return a request for comment.
The co-founders said Kenmore Community Families in Action meets the needs of caregivers who don’t typically attend PTA meetings, aren’t used to their structure or don’t feel welcome there.
One reason for low attendance rates among immigrants is lack of representation, says Elder Julio Basurto, who provides Spanish-language interpretation at PTA meetings.
“I have seen as an interpreter that we are underrepresented throughout the county… I went to Drew School, which is almost 50% Latino, and in the last meeting there wasn’t one parent for me to interpret for. That tells you a lot.”
The rebirth of the group comes amid a broader conversation about whether PTAs are representative. School Board-elect Bethany Sutton recently said PTAs and their influence in advisory groups create an “echo chamber.”
“I don’t think PTAs are representative of parents, generally speaking,” Sutton said in an Arlington Parents for Education candidate forum ahead of the election on Nov. 8. “It’s a small microcosm of people who have availability, energy and commitment to do certain things at certain times of the day, week or year.”
Parent-Teacher Associations are how students get new spirit wear or go ice skating with their class. They host staff luncheons during Teacher Appreciation Week and help to pay for classroom supplies.
These independent organizations play a pivotal role in the kinds of enrichment opportunities to which students, primarily elementary schoolers, and teachers in Arlington Public Schools have access.
And a PTA’s ability — or lack thereof — to pay for these activities varies dramatically by zip code. Some PTA leaders tell ARLnow that they know the money their organizations raise can exacerbate existing inequities among Arlington’s schools, and are trying to raise awareness and effect change.
“We already have schools that are unequal and on top of that — like really thick icing on a cake — it’s making disparities bigger,” said Emily Vincent, a member of the Arlington County Council of PTAs.
ARLnow requested and obtained copies of the 2018-19 budgets from a sampling of elementary school PTAs in northern, central and southern portions of Arlington. Individual PTA revenues ranged from $30,000 in South Arlington to more than $125,000 in North Arlington. PTA expenditures ranged from $18,000 to $139,000, a nearly eight-fold differential
While t-shirts and luncheons form the bread-and-butter of PTA expenses, other common expenditures improve the school through new furniture and books, or add to the curriculum with outdoor education and field trips.
Many PTAs did not respond to our requests for comment or for a copy of the budget.
Vincent said she saw similar discrepancies in the 2017-18 school year budgets she collected. PTA revenue at individual schools ranged from $20,000 to $200,000, and as a whole, Arlington PTAs spent $2 million. About 75% of that spending happened north of Route 50, she said.
The Arlington County Council of PTAs is trying to tackle these entrenched discrepancies among its chapters. For about six years, the council has operated a grant fund: PTAs donate to the program and those who need extra funding apply for a grant. A 2019 report on the fund said most recipient schools use the money to pay for books, furniture and field trips.
But the grant fund can only go so far, especially because the requests are outpacing donations, Vincent said. Establishing a new policy could help address systemic inequities, particularly around PTA purchases that — if they were borne by APS — would result in a fairer distribution of resources, she said.
“We’re hoping for a culture shift,” Vincent said. “I do think a lot more of our PTA leaders understand that their decisions are not limited to their school.”
No school is an island
Over the last decade, outgoing Tuckahoe Elementary School PTA president Allison Glatfelter said APS has transitioned from a federation of schools that operated quasi-independently to a united school system. That transition, she said, revealed the extent to which some PTA budgets support school operations.
It was common for schools to improve their grounds through PTA funding without going through APS, she said. Budgets indicate that some associations have laid down track, installed sun shades or repaved their courtyards. Tuckahoe’s PTA once paid for a pond that the parent organization continues to maintain, she said.
Nowadays, she said wealthier PTAs spend money “on things that are hard to see.”
The budgets ARLnow reviewed indicated large expenses such as teacher training or, in the case of Jamestown Elementary in the 2015-16 school year, a dedicated horticulturalist.
PTAs get funding from donations and membership dues, but the bulk comes from fundraisers: from “no frills” fundraisers to auctions to restaurant nights in which a local eatery donates a percentage of sales.
According to the budgets that ARLnow obtained, the wealthier PTAs in north and central Arlington set aside tens of thousands of dollars for educational opportunities and capital improvements. Not all of that money gets spent, meaning the same schools have reserves exceeding $100,000.
Tuckahoe, for its part, is trying to change its relationship to fundraising and maintaining reserves, Glatfelter said.
“We definitely pared down fundraising. We don’t need the extra things that we were spending money on. Our kids don’t need extra field trips to places to which we can take them on weekends,” she said. “None of our schools should have giant budgets because we are an excellent school system with a lot of money.”
Vincent said she is not sure APS understands how much PTAs can contribute to school budgets. A policy that caps fundraising or redistributes donated furniture could equalize student experiences and ensure administrators keep tabs on school budgets that rely heavily on their PTA, she said.
Through the initiative — part of the council’s pandemic relief efforts — the CCPTA is partnering with FRESHFARM Markets to provide fresh food to about 900 families who have been receiving food through seven PTA and school-based distribution sites. Fundraising will go until Dec. 4, with an extra push today (Dec. 1) for Giving Tuesday.
The food will be given out at the regular distribution times during the week of Monday, Dec. 14. So far, the council is more than halfway toward its goal: $11,851 of $20,000 has been raised as of publication time.
“We must ensure that children and their families do not go hungry,” said Emily Vincent, the CCPTA President in a statement. “Addressing food insecurity is essential to both well-being and education, as it is difficult for children to learn when they are hungry.”
Families have been able to access food, school and cleaning supplies, baby items and masks at the distribution sites since the spring, Vincent said. During the summer, these sites served approximately 2,500 families.
The work supplements the meal distributions organized by Arlington Public Schools.
“Our volunteer efforts are committed to serving their school communities and they are hopeful for a more sustainable and robust support system coordinated by Arlington County in the new year,” Vincent said.
The drive also supports local farmers, who have struggled to profit from their produce this year due to the pandemic.
In addition to running farmers markets in the D.C. area, FRESHFARM distributes local produce to small institutions such as daycares, which often lack the money and bulk needed to buy from larger distributors.
The arm of the nonprofit responsible for this program, Pop Up Food Hub, will purchase the food for the CCPTA fundraiser. A $22 donation to this food drive covers a week’s worth of produce for a family of four.
“While families have been grateful for the various types of food assistance that are available in the neighborhood, many have requested assistance with obtaining fresh food beyond the non-perishable pantry food products and single serve meals,” the donation page said.
Many food drives focus on packaged goods because they last and can be bought cheaply, said Sebastian Muenchrath, an operations manager for Pop Up Food Hub. But that pushes fresh fruits and vegetables to the side for hungry people who need a balanced diet, too.
The bags will rely on long-lasting winter staples such as squash, onions, apples and potatoes, with some leafy greens, although they are scarcer these days.
The CCPTA has “been great at understanding what the local supply looks like right now,” he said.
Black Lives Matter Protest Held Saturday — “As protests continue around the nation following the death of George Floyd, the Black Parents of Arlington group welcomed families and neighbors on Saturday for a special gathering and vigil for the man who died in police custody in Minneapolis in May. Over 100 people gathered at Drew Model Elementary School, some bringing signs while others wore shirts and face masks showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.” [WUSA 9]
Dorsey Discusses ‘Defund’ Demands — “‘We’re getting a lot of letters with the ‘defund the police’ calls,’ says [County Board member Christian Dorsey, on the WAMU Politics Hour]. He says that over the past few years, the police budget has only risen slightly above inflation. He said he’d be open to cutting tactical weapons and gear.” [Twitter]
Pentagon Entering ‘Phase 1’ Today — “Pentagon and Pentagon Facilities Employees: This Mon., June 15, begins Phase One of re-entering the buildings. Welcome back! Don’t forget your face covering and to social distance while inside.” [Twitter]
Current COVID-19 Hospitalizations Fall — “Fewer than 1,000 Virginians are now hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19, and the number of cases continued to slow both statewide and in Northern Virginia, according to reports Saturday morning. The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association reported only 959 coronavirus patients in state hospitals, the lowest number since the organization began providing data in early April… Only 342 of those patients were in Northern Virginia, down from a high of 818 on April 30.” [InsideNova]
County Expanding Free Wi-Fi Spots — “Arlington residents can now access free Wi-Fi in the parking lots of the Charles Drew Community Center and Barcroft Sports & Fitness Center as part of the County’s ongoing effort to help residents without reliable internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with these two new locations, public Wi-Fi is available via the ArlingtonWireless network in the parking lots at Aurora Hills, Central and Columbia Pike libraries.” [Arlington County]
PTAs to Distribute Face Masks — “County staff from a variety of departments packing up more than 4,300 cloth face covers for [Arlington Public Schools] PTAs to distribute to families. Face covering is required in Virginia public indoor spaces. ” [Twitter]
Restaurants Seek Expanded Outdoor Dining Spaces — “Arlington County has allowed 19 restaurants to add new space for outdoor dining or expand existing options, as part of the growing trend of shifting tables outside and allowing safer dining while the Covid-19 pandemic persists… Through June 9, the county has seen a total of 66 applications and approved just under a third of them.” [Washington Business Journal]
Photo courtesy Jean and James Knaack
Schools may be closed, but Arlington PTAs have stepped up and supported local families in their school communities through the coronavirus pandemic.
At K.W. Barrett Elementary School in the Buckingham neighborhood, the school PTA has gone through two rounds of grocery gift card distribution to families in need.
“To date, we have distributed a total of $19,500 worth of grocery gift cards for Harris Teeter, Safeway and Giant,” Melanie Jones and Will Le, representing the Barrett PTA, said in an email. “In the first round (in early April), we distributed or mailed out $8,350 in $50 grocery gift cards (128 distributed; 39 mailed to families). In the second round (in early May), we distributed or mailed out $11,150 in $50 grocery gift cards (203 distributed; 20 mailed to families).”
The PTA has also distributed 275 school supply kits, paid from PTA funds totaling $1982.
The pair said in the email the PTA has received a total of $25,235 in donations and gift card contributions from families and friends and through the One Pantry at a Time GoFundMe set up by Arlington teachers.
The PTA’s goal is to do another gift card distribution in early to mid-June.
“Based on our past distribution (and with $5,735 and 40 gift cards to work with) we believe that another round of $50 grocery gift card distribution will require an additional $4,000 of donations,” the pair said.
Additional donations can be made to the PTA’s efforts through:
- PayPal to [email protected] (with the note “gift cards for Barrett families” and sent as friend and family)
- Venmo to @Melanie-Jones-10
- Givebutter, though donations here have a fee
- Gift cards donated to the Barrett PTA in $50 denominations.
The Barrett parents said the plan is to shift towards the distribution of groceries and other items of need rather than gift cards. This would require more volunteers and logistical support, but Jones and Le said it would be less costly and let the PTA utilize their own funding.
Other school PTAs have been organizing similar efforts.
“We have heard that families are being threatened with eviction, despite the governor’s stay on evictions,” the PTA said on the donation page. “Our goal is to have rent covered for these families through June. We would like to provide rent relief for families as soon as possible. When you pledge to make a contribution, a volunteer will get in touch with you via email within 24 hours regarding details. Checks will be written directly to property managers or landlords.
Emily Vincent, Vice President for Communications for the County Council of PTAs in Arlington, said these PTAs are continuing their missions to help their communities despite school being closed for the rest of the academic year. Such efforts are on top of Arlington Public Schools’ meal distribution program for families in need.
“Despite Arlington County’s wealth, a significant portion of our families experience economic difficulties,” Vincent noted in an emailed statement to ARLnow. “As of October 2019, 8,083 students (29% of the APS student body) qualified for free or reduced meals (FARM). Of those, 6,376 qualified for free meals, which means that their family is living on less than $36,000 a year.”
Vincent’s full statement is below.
The Glebe Elementary Parent-Teacher Association says it’s managed to recover more than $88,000 raised in its spring auction, after initially fearing that a Crystal City company that collected the funds wouldn’t hand them over.
PTA President Kristen Johnson warned members in late August that the group’s vendor to collect payments for the auction — Student Info Hub, a subsidiary of ConnectUs, LLC — had only transferred over about $11,200 of the more than $98,000 the PTA raised at the April event. Johnson and PTA leadership consulted with law enforcement about the discrepancy, and even considered legal action over the incident.
But it seems the two sides have managed to come to a resolution. In an email to PTA members today (Tuesday) obtained by ARLnow, Johnson wrote that “the contract dispute between Glebe PTA and ConnectUS has been resolved to the satisfaction of Glebe PTA.” She subsequently confirmed the email’s contents to ARLnow, but wouldn’t discuss the issue in more detail.
“We have cashier’s checks in the amounts of $80,000 and the remaining funds in escrow pending any remaining chargebacks which will be accounted for in November,” Johnson wrote her email to the PTA.
The PTA previously feared that losing out on the money would mean the group would have to severely curtail the programs and events it offered this year, but this resolution should alleviate those concerns.
Johnson also would not say whether the PTA was considering additional legal action against ConnectUS in the wake of this outcome. This was the first year the PTA had worked with the company to collect payments for its annual spring auction.
Representatives with the company have not responded to requests for comment on the dispute.
Photo via Glebe ES PTA
The Glebe Elementary Parent-Teacher Association is now in dire financial straits, alleging a local company that collected payments for a PTA fundraiser won’t hand over tens of thousands of dollars to the group.
In an email to members Friday (Aug. 17), obtained by ARLnow, PTA President Kristen Johnson said that as a result of the dispute, the group is out more than $88,350 raised in the PTA’s annual spring auction.
Consequently, she says the PTA is “beginning the school year with significantly less funds than we have had over the last several years” and “will not be able to fund all of the initiatives, programs and activities that the community has come to enjoy.”
“Needless to say, this is an enormous blow to our community,” Johnson wrote.
Reached via email yesterday (Monday), Johnson declined to offer more specifics on the incident, only saying that the “PTA is consulting with legal counsel about taking legal recourse at this time.” Representatives with the group’s vendor — Student Info Hub, a subsidiary of Crystal City-based ConnectUs, LLC — did not respond to a request for comment.
Johnson wrote in the email to parents that this was the PTA’s first year using the new vendor, after opting to switch to the local business last year.
“Last year, on a recommendation, we considered a local small business as a new vendor,” Johnson’s email said. “The Auction Committee vetted the vendor and proposed it to the Executive Board. After thoughtful review, the Executive Board voted to use the new vendor for the April 2018 Glebe PTA Auction.”
While the company did hand over more than $11,200 collected in the April auction, Johnson claims that’s the only money the PTA has received, despite months of back and forth.
“In subsequent exchanges with the vendor, we continued to demand that the money be transferred,” Johnson wrote. “The vendor did affirm that the funds were Glebe PTA’s, as well as the amount, and represented that all funds would be transferred by the end of June. However, the funds were not transferred. Throughout the summer we have continuously pursued the payments directly from the vendor.”
Johnson added that the PTA has contacted a variety of law enforcement entities about the dispute, including the state attorney general’s office and Arlington County Police.
Police spokeswoman Ashley Savage confirmed that her department did receive a report on the dispute, and “did attempt to assist by facilitating conversations with each party to help mitigate the issue.”
“Ultimately, this was determined to be a civil issue and police are no longer involved,” Savage wrote in an email. Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Mark Herring, added that her office similarly judged that “the situation did not appear to be one that would be subject” to state law, also recommending that the PTA pursue a civil suit instead.
In a second email to parents Monday, also shared with ARLnow.com by a concerned parent, Johnson said the PTA recently hired a lawyer and is contemplating legal action, with next steps yet to be revealed.
“We are doing everything we can to secure our funds,” she wrote.
Johnson also urged parents to try to keep the situation out of the public eye.
“We have had a lot of media requests as I am sure the community as a whole wants to help us,” she wrote. “For now, please refrain from posting on social media and speaking to the media… We don’t want to inadvertently harm our legal position with misinformation.”
Photo via Glebe ES PTA
Some members of the Washington-Lee High School Parent-Teacher Association are concerned that the Arlington School Board may re-purpose the adjacent Arlington Education Center into an elementary school instead of adding high school seats, as was previously decided.
The concern stems from a working session on April 12 centered on the Arlington Public Schools Capital Improvement Plan, in which School Board members briefly discussed the costs of potentially converting the Education Center into elementary school space rather than up to 800 high school seats.
John Chadwick, Arlington Public Schools assistant superintendent of facilities and operations, said that the cost determination was done in anticipation of the possible need for swing space in the future, to make sure the numbers are correct from the get-go.
The Washington-Lee PTA circulated an email last week noting that changing the Arlington Education Center plans would make it “extremely likely that boundaries will be redrawn.” If a boundary re-working were to occur, it could knock some Washington-Lee families out of the school’s district, the PTA stated.
At the April 12 working session, School Board members Nancy Van Doren and Tannia Talento both voiced concern about confusion within the community about actions that the School Board may take.
“I’m very concerned that we have two months to make this decision,” said Van Doren at the working session. “This is a compacted time frame and a very complex set of decisions… I’m worried that we need to take the community along as we make that set of decisions.”
Talento added that the Board “cannot be vague” about its future plans, and that the community should be kept apprised of the entire process, even just casual discussions about future facility repurposing. She noted that many families might have already tuned out of school planning discussions because they assumed that nothing would change dramatically, which could cause confusion for those just hearing about a possible Education Center plan change. In fact, Talento said that she herself is unclear on where the Board stands on the matter at this point, and she asked for direction.
“I’m happy to consider, if we’re reconsidering the use, I just need to know and we need the community know that we’re reconsidering,” Talento said.
The email from the WLHS-PTA added that if a re-worked Education Center plan were to come to fruition, the future of and use guidelines for certain facilities — like sports fields and the planetarium — is an open question.
More from the PTA’s email:
In June 2017, the School Board voted to create 500-600 high school seats at the site of the Ed Center building, next to W-L by the planetarium and to create 700-800 high school seats at the Career Center. While the program details for the Ed Center site was not decided at that time, there was a strong possibility that they would have been added as an expansion of WL. If this occurs, W-L would likely get additional benefits such as a black box theater (which YHS and WHS have today, but we don’t) and the capacity to expand our IB program to offer it to any Arlington student who wants it. (Note: For the freshman class entering W-L in 2018, we could accept less than half the students who applied.)
During the April 12 School Board work session, it was revealed that APS staff has been working to determine costs for using the Ed Center site as a Middle School or an Elementary School and to move ALL the new high school seats to a comprehensive neighborhood school at the Career Center school. If this actually happens, it is extremely likely that boundaries will be redrawn such that some W-L families will no longer be in the W-L district. Furthermore, it is not known whether W-L students who can currently take advantage of classes offered at the Career Center would still be allowed to do so. There are questions about facilities such as fields – will we have to give up some of our sports fields to be used by a Middle or Elementary School? What other ramifications are there if a MS or ES is built at this site? Will the planetarium remain or will that be destroyed to make room for parking, a playground, or something else?
It is urgent that W-L’s community be aware of this possible change in plans because the timeline for finalizing decisions is extremely short, and the board is bypassing the typical community engagement process to which we are accustomed. The school board vote to finalize its decision is June 21.
School Walkouts Today — Student walkouts are planned at Arlington’s high schools today, part of a national demonstration against gun violence. The walkout is happening at 10 a.m., is expected to last 17 minutes, and is being treated as an excused absence by Arlington Public Schools. Middle schoolers at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, meanwhile, have organized a 2:30 p.m. prayer service to honor the victims.
JBG Talks HQ2 in Quarterly Earnings — Property owner JBG Smith has stayed largely mum about its wooing of Amazon — until now. In its quarterly earnings report, JBG said it believes that its Crystal City properties are well-positioned to win the bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. The D.C. area’s tech prowess “combined with our blend of walkable places, in-place infrastructure and low-cost housing makes Crystal City a compelling location,” the company wrote. “Our holdings alone can accommodate Amazon’s entire long-term space requirement and we have a cost advantage over our competitors given the existing in-place parking and substantial infrastructure.” [Washington Business Journal]
Lobbyist Claims Attack at Local Hotel — Jack Burkman, a “conservative lobbyist known for his controversial positions” who in January told police he was pepper sprayed outside his house near Rosslyn, is alleging another attack. Burkman claims, in a press release, that he was “run down by a large, black SUV” last night while “working with an FBI whistleblower” at the Key Bridge Marriott in Rosslyn. [Twitter]
Two Charged in Murder of Arlington Man — Two suspected gang members from Maryland have been charged in the fatal stabbing of an Arlington resident in Oxon Hill, Md. on Feb. 25. [Town of Morningside]
Arlington House Closing for Rehab Project — Arlington House, the iconic historic mansion at Arlington National Cemetery that was formerly home to Gen. Robert E. Lee, “is closing to the public beginning Monday, March 19, so it can undergo a monthslong rehabilitation project… part of a $12.35 million restoration plan.” [WTOP]
National PTA Meeting in Arlington — The National Parent Teacher Association is holding its annual legislative conference at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Crystal City this week. The conference runs from March 13-15 and kicked off yesterday with a keynote address by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. [National PTA]
The scam attempts “have been ongoing for several months,” a tipster tell ARLnow.com. It involves official-looking emails asking the organization’s treasurer to wire money.
On Friday, the Virginia PTA sent the following warning about the fraud to local organizations:
Please note there are fraudulent emails going to PTA units asking treasurers to transfer (wire) money to unknown accounts. Because they look to be sent from your PTA’s officers email addresses, please do not respond or wire money to unknown accounts without first doing due diligence on the request. This is happening quite often — even I receive them. They get names and email addresses from websites.
The tipster, who did not want to be identified, said that civic associations are also now receiving the scam emails.
“Recently the scammers have branched out to neighborhood associations,” said the tipster. “The citizens association that I am involved with has also gotten these emails.”
Last year, Oakridge Elementary parents used donations and sponsorships to buy pedal desks, standup desks and yoga ball chairs to help fidgety kids learn while staying active.
Now, parents are back trying to raise money to expand the program, which received both local and some national attention.
On Tuesdays this month, starting tomorrow, the Oakridge PTA is hosting four evening fitness programs for adults, featuring local fitness and wellness businesses like SpecOps Fitness and Mind Your Body Oasis.
“These adult May fitness classes are one of two fundraising efforts we are currently doing to raise additional funds for the kinesthetic equipment,” explained Dana Dougherty, a mother of three and substitute teacher. “All donations will go toward our mission, all classes are sponsored by the individuals teaching.”
“We have had incredibly positive feedback from parents, students and teachers — they want more!” she told ARLnow.com. “Depending on the funds raised, we will look at adding pieces the teachers would like to add. You can see tons of different options at www.kidsfit.com… there are several great options under kinesthetic classroom desks.”
Money for the initiative will also be raised at the PTA’s Spring Fling on May 22, where teachers and administrators will be dunked for the cause.
“We will have a dunk tank with favorite teachers, principal and perhaps even a school board member participating,” said Dougherty.