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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Elementary School Boundaries Advancing, Prompting Some Concerns at Drew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Audit Finds No Cause for Alarm Over APS Construction Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The audit found similar trends in elementary school construction costs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via Arlington Public Schools

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Young Democrats Plan Push to Change APS Sex Education Policies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via YouTube

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Morning Notes

Lubber Run Project Budget Boosted — “Arlington County Board members on Sept. 22 agreed to add about $1.4 million to the budget for rebuilding Lubber Run Community Center, which will push the construction cost to $41.14 million and the management fees to $4.11 million.” [InsideNova]

Clarendon Circle Construction Begins — “Things will start looking different in Clarendon and not because of too many cosmos at Don Tito’s. The long-awaited Circle intersection improvements project kicks off today.” [Twitter]

Neighborhoods Want in on W-L Name Discussion — “The president of the Buckingham Community Civic Association thinks Arlington school leaders may need some remedial work in geography. Bernie Berne used the Sept. 20 School Board meeting to complain that his community had been shut out of the committee set up to suggest new names for Washington-Lee High School, even though it is closer to the school than another civic association that has been included on the panel.” [InsideNova]

Fire at Columbia Pike Building — On the 5100 block of Columbia Pike: “First arriving units found a fire contained to an appliance. The fire was extinguished. All occupants are safe & accounted for.” [Twitter, Twitter]

Tree Advocates Increase Pressure — “Another month has brought another round in the ongoing dispute between tree activists and the Arlington County Board – and much of the give and take on both sides is beginning to sound familiar to the point of repetitious. Activists in support of expanding the county’s tree canopy were among a number of advocacy groups that descended on the Sept. 22 County Board meeting. Among their chief complaints: The county government hasn’t done anything to prevent the removal of trees during an upcoming expansion project at Upton Hill Regional Park.” [InsideNova, Twitter]

Fox News Highlights Lucky Dog — Arlington’s Lucky Dog Rescue continues to get national attention for its work rescuing dogs from areas flooded by Hurricane Florence. Over the weekend Fox News broadcast from Shirlington to bring attention to the dogs that are now available for adoption. [Yahoo]

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School Board Warns of More Budget Challenges Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos via Arlington Public Schools

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Washington-Lee Renaming Committee Now Set to Start Its Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via Google Maps

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APS Plans to Swap Arlington Science Focus and Key Buildings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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School Board Presses for Dismissal of Lawsuit Challenging Washington-Lee Name Change

Arlington’s School Board is asking a judge to toss the lawsuit challenging the renaming of Washington-Lee High School out of court.

Attorneys for the Board and the school system filed a motion Friday (Aug. 31) pressing for the dismissal of a case brought by three current students at the school, who are looking to stop the Board from following through on its plans to strip Robert E. Lee’s name from the school later this year.

The Board argues that the attorney for the students made a series of legal missteps in crafting the suit, and that the students don’t have standing to sue in the first place. Accordingly, they want to see an Arlington Circuit Court judge dismiss the case with prejudice — Jonathon Moseley, the attorney representing the students, didn’t immediately return a request for comment on the Board’s latest motion.

Chiefly, the students argue that the Board didn’t follow its own stated procedure for renaming the school, when it voted this June to change its policy governing all school names and immediately initiated the process for renaming Washington-Lee. They even introduced a recording of Board member Tannia Talento as evidence earlier this month, claiming that her admission that “there was never any intentional engagement to the community about specifically changing [the name of] Washington-Lee” helps support their claims.

But attorneys for the Board and Arlington Public Schools countered in their motion that the “internal guidelines adopted by the School Board do not establish any legal mandate on the part of the School Board,” making claims about how the renaming process proceeded irrelevant.

Even still, they add that the students failed to prove that the Board even “failed materially” in following its own procedures — name change opponents claim the Board promised an additional round of community engagement before deciding to change the name, which is now set to be ready in time for the 2019-2020 school year. The Board circulated a variety of potential timetables for such a change, including one calling for a lengthier debate on the change, but did ultimately follow the stipulations of a September 2017 memorandum from Superintendent Patrick Murphy on the process.

Additionally, the Board points out that the three students involved in the case are all seniors at Washington-Lee, meaning the name change won’t take effect until after they’ve graduated. The attorneys argue that means they don’t have standing to sue in the first place, as they won’t be impacted by change.

“Any alleged damage after graduate is entirely speculative,” the lawyers wrote. The students have claimed that any name change would hurt their prospects for college admission, as schools might not associate Washington-Lee’s strong academic reputation with its new name, and that “developing students psychologically identify their school as a source of personal identity and security and are harmed by feeling that their school is bad.”

The Board’s lawyers even point out that Virginia law only allows for “parents, custodians or legal guardians” to ask a court to overturn a school board’s decisions as further evidence showing that the students don’t have any legal standing on the matter.

A judge has yet to schedule a hearing on the Board’s motion, but the renaming process is moving ahead, in the meantime.

The Board is set to appoint members of a renaming committee on Thursday (Sept. 6), which will meet several times over the coming months to determine possibilities for new names for Washington-Lee. The Board is aiming to vote on a new name in December.

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Morning Notes

HQ2 Odds Ever in Our Favor — Business Insider says it has “long seen the evidence pointing to the DC area” as the eventual destination for Amazon’s second headquarters. Online betting odds, meanwhile, favor Northern Virginia, and ARLnow.com hears that Crystal City is the far and away the most likely Northern Virginia locale for HQ2. [Business Insider]

High School Football Season Underway — “For the second straight season, but this year at a different venue, the Wakefield Warriors opened their high-school football campaign with a victory over the Washington-Lee Generals.” Yorktown, meanwhile, gave up a lead and lost to Wilson 37-29. [InsideNova]

McCain and Vietnam Vets Calls Nam Viet Home — A group of Vietnam War veterans, including the late Sen. John McCain, who was laid to rest over the weekend, regularly met up at Nam Viet restaurant in Clarendon. [Cronkite News]

First Day of School Reminder — Today is the first day of school for Arlington Public Schools and the school system is reminding residents that passing a school bus with its stop arm out is a traffic infraction punishable by a $250 fine. Police, meanwhile, are participating in a back-to-school safety campaign that includes extra enforcement of such traffic laws. [Twitter, Arlington County]

School Board: Don’t Go Over Building Budget — “Should Arlington Public Schools hold firm, no matter what, to budgets on upcoming construction projects? Or allow a little maneuvering room, if the opportunity arises, in an effort to get more bang for their buck? That question played out again Aug. 30, as School Board members split 3-2 in directing an advisory body to not even think about returning with a plan that exceeds the $37 million budget for turning the Arlington Education Center’s administrative offices into classroom space.” [InsideNova]

Police Prepare for Plane Pull — “The public is invited to cheer on the Arlington Police and Sheriff Team during the Plane Pull at Dulles Airport on Saturday, September 15, 2018.” [Arlington County]

New MU Prez Focuses on Real-World Experience — Irma Becerra, Marymount University’s new president and the first person of color in that role, plans “to further connect the Arlington university with its surrounding business community, making internships an equal pillar of her vision as enrollment, graduation and retention rates.” [Washington Business Journal]

Empanada Thief Caught on Camera — Arlington squirrels, apparently, are now blatantly stealing and eating empanadas in broad daylight. [Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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W-L Name Change Opponents Claim New Recording Strengthens Legal Challenge

The students suing to block the renaming of Washington-Lee High School believe they have a powerful new piece of evidence to offer in support of their case.

The three W-L students behind the legal action claim that one School Board member, Vice Chair Tannia Talento, admitted in a recent conversation to a key contention of their lawsuit: that school officials failed to solicit enough community feedback on the name change before the Board’s June 7 vote on the matter.

An attorney for the students submitted a transcript of a recording of that conversation as evidence in Arlington County Circuit Court earlier this month, arguing that it helps prove that the Board didn’t follow its own public engagement process ahead of the W-L decision.

Arlington Public Schools officials have been adamant that the renaming process was conducted properly, even as some W-L alumni have expressed increasing frustration about the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s name from the building. The transcript also shows that Talento noted in the conversation that the Board circulated several different timelines for how the renaming might proceed, meaning that there may not be an easy answer to the question of whether the Board followed its own guidelines for the process.

But name change opponents are confident that her admissions amount to yet more proof that a judge will someday halt the Board’s plans to have a new name for W-L ready for the 2019-2020 school year.

“They skipped over the community involvement that they’d planned on, and Talento discussed that with them,” Jonathon Moseley, an attorney for the students, told ARLnow. “It adds to the same allegations that were there before, but we think it’s important.”

Through a Board spokeswoman, Talento said that the transcript “reflects my initial overall recollection of the discussion” with the students, which she believes occurred during one of her regularly scheduled “open office hour” sessions. She says the students didn’t inform her in advance that they’d be attending, or that they wanted to discuss the name change.

“It is important to share that the students did not ask or let me know that I was being recorded during the meeting,” Talento said. “I do not have anything to add to the discussion I had with the students.”

Moseley said he was unsure of the exact circumstances of the conversation in question, but he believes it happened immediately before the students decided to file the lawsuit and that they informed Talento that they wanted to discuss the name change in advance of the meeting. The students have asked the court not to reveal their identities, though two gave on-camera interviews to WUSA 9 about the suit.

Moseley believes the key section of the transcript comes when Talento tells the students “there was never any intentional engagement to the community about specifically changing [the name of] Washington-Lee.”

The students and other W-L alumni argue that the Board moved too quickly by voting to change its policy guiding how all schools should be named, then kicking off a process to change W-L’s name specifically that same night.

In legal filings, and the conversation with Talento, the students point to a Jan. 30 document released by APS that calls for a separate community engagement process on W-L, culminating in a final decision on the name by sometime this winter. To the students, Talento’s statement is a clear admission that the Board ignored its stated processes by agreeing to change the name in June.

However, Talento also notes in the conversation that the January document was a “back-up” plan, in case APS couldn’t meet its original timeline for the process.

She pointed out that Superintendent Patrick Murphy penned a Sept. 19, 2017 memo back when the Board first contemplated a name change, stating that the Board could direct APS staff “to begin a renaming process for any school(s) that may need to be renamed to conform with the new School/Facility Naming Policy.” That more closely mirrors the procedure the Board ultimately followed.

According to the transcript, the students told Talento that those dueling timelines confused them, and they were taken aback when the Board voted to concurrently change the name policy and W-L’s name. Talento expressed some sympathy for the students, and suggested that they could still advocate for the Board to “send [the name change] to committee for consideration.”

She also discussed the possibility of that APS could “find another Lee” to take Robert E. Lee’s place in the school’s moniker. One option the group discussed was Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Robert’s father and a famous officer in the Revolutionary War.

“That would have to be determined by the [naming] committee and the school, but it minimizes costs,” Talento told the students.

As it stands now, the committee Talento alluded to will indeed have the final say on advancing new names for the Board to consider later this year. Unless a judge intervenes on the side of the students, that committee will start meeting sometime this fall.

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Morning Notes

Arlington Has Some of the Oldest First-Time Mothers Nationwide — A new analysis suggests that the average Arlingtonian mother has her first child at 31, putting the county sixth in the nation in terms of the oldest average age. Falls Church ranks fourth. [New York Times]

School Board Approves Final Reed School Design — After reviewing plans last month, school leaders have signed off on new schematics for an elementary school in Westover. [InsideNova]

Arlington Planetarium Faces Temporary Closure — The facility could be closed for a year or more in 2020-2021, as the school system renovates the Education Center to allow for more high school seats. [InsideNova]

Pentagon City Rescue — Firefighters rescued an injured worker from a rooftop near the 400 block of 11th Street S. The worker suffered non-life threatening injuries. [Twitter]

Pentagon Set to Ban Fitness Trackers — Military and other DoD personnel soon won’t be able to take their Fitbits onto bases or other secure facilities, or even use step-tracking apps or other GPS functions on their phones. [WTOP]

Back to School at Barcroft Elementary — The school welcomed students and teachers back to class Monday (Aug. 7). Barcroft offers a “modified” calendar, reducing the summer break but not eliminating it. [Twitter, Twitter]

Flickr pool photo via wolfkann

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APS Presses Ahead With W-L Renaming Process, Despite Lawsuit

Arlington Public Schools is pushing ahead with the process of renaming Washington-Lee High School, just a few weeks after three current students filed a lawsuit to block the move.

The school system opened up applications last night (Thursday) for anyone looking to serve on the committee charged with finding a new name for the high school. The School Board voted two months ago to effectively strip Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s name from the building, after calls for a change intensified in the wake of last summer’s violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

The Board will ultimately have the final say on a new name, with a vote planned for sometime in December, but the committee will be tasked with developing recommendations on a new moniker. In addition to Principal Gregg Robertson, APS wants the committee to include:

  • Three parent/family representatives
  • Three teacher/staff representative
  • One student for each grade level
  • One representative from each of the four civic associations closest to the school
  • Four alumni, each representing a different decade for the school’s graduating classes, and who are current residents of Arlington County
  • One representative from the Arlington Historical Society who is not an alumni or parent of a current student
  • A staff liaison and facilitator (both non-voting)

APS noted in the announcement of the new committee that “all applications will be considered and applicants will be selected to provide a balance of diverse members on the committee.”

But even the most well-constructed renaming committee is unlikely to satisfy opponents of the change. Some school alumni have fiercely opposed the renaming proposal ever since it was first introduced, culminating in a lawsuit filed in Arlington County Circuit Court on July 9 asking a judge to reverse the Board’s decision.

The students argue in the suit that the Board “violated its own procedures” during the June 7 meeting when it voted on the change — the Board first voted to change its naming policies for all schools, then immediately proceeded to a vote on the W-L renaming.

The suit singles out then-Chair Barbara Kanninen as the Board member who “led the process of changing the name” of the school, and for tinkering with the agenda to allow for the immediate vote, a move they argue constitutes a “denial of the procedural opportunity to participate in the promised, and required, community involvement.”

The students also claim that the name change will damage their future prospects for college admission or future employment, as “Washington-Lee has an excellent reputation for academic quality, but… some will not recognize the new name.”

Linda Erdos, an APS spokeswoman, declined to comment on the suit, other than to say that the Board and school system believe the renaming decision was “appropriate.”

“Arlington Public Schools will respond in greater detail in the future and in accordance with the court processes,” Erdos told ARLnow.

The Board is hoping to have a new name ready for the school in time for the opening of the 2019-2020 school year next September.

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