Seven years after the initial rollout of Arlington Public Schools’ digital learning initiative, and after a year of heavier use due to distance-learning, opinions on tech in schools remain divided.
For today’s students and parents, virtual learning during the pandemic only highlighted the benefits of and exacerbated the drawbacks to iPads and laptops. Parents say their kids struggle to focus, navigate programs and engage with the material. Students tell ARLnow that the devices can make their learning easier, more efficient and more interesting, but some have also outsmarted controls to watch TV and play games.
“They help you out. You can just search up anything you need there,” said Liam, a rising seventh-grader in APS. He added that it’s easier to stay on top of work and grades online using Canvas, the division’s learning management system, saying “you can see if you have any missing assignments, and if you’re doing well in school or not.”
Views appear to remain as entrenched as they were in 2019, when North Carolina State University studied tech use and support for devices in APS. At the time, 55% of parents supported the initiative, compared to the 85% of teachers and 75% of students who said devices improved the learning experience.
Through its initial rollout, APS aimed to give each 2nd-12th grade student a tablet or laptop for school use by 2017. From 2017 up until the pandemic, APS provided iPads to all students between third and eighth grade and MacBook Airs to high school students.
Today, the school system uses approximately 34,000 student devices, including both individual devices and shared computers, according to an APS spokesperson. This includes all K-2 students, who were given iPads during the pandemic to facilitate virtual learning when schools were closed. This year, K-2 students will continue to have access to individual devices.
Most students will be in-person this fall, using their devices in the classroom setting. About 890 will be learning fully at a distance, due to the pandemic and personal preference. That preference is set to eventually give rise to a full-time, APS-run virtual learning academy for those who want the flexibility provided by learning at home on their own time.
Over the last year, iPads and MacBooks were how students interacted with teachers and classmates and completed assignments via Microsoft Teams and Google Workspace apps, along with apps such as Dreambox, which offers interactive math lessons and games, and Seesaw, which is like the digital equivalent of a homework folder that both teachers and parents can access.
“Our kids are using their iPads for content delivery, for collaboration, and for writing, reading, and simulation. Creatively, they’re also doing activities and learning through research and creating projects,” Arlington Traditional School instructional technology coordinator Marie Hone said.
Rising fourth-grader Spencer suggests that without iPads, virtual learning would have been more difficult.
“We were able to have calls with our teacher and meet together for school, unlike the year before that,” he said.
Pre-pandemic, high schoolers Anthony Doll and Wyatt Shoelson say that they used their MacBooks in just about every class.
“MacBooks make it easier to keep everything in one place. Typing everything out and going on websites for classes is easier. It’s better to do it electronically than on paper,” Doll said. “My high school experience would be a lot more disorganized without MacBooks.”
Still, concerns remain. Rising second-grader Cecilia Leonard tells ARLnow that the approximately three hours she spent on her iPad throughout the school day hurt her eyes. Experts say that kids who spend too much time on screens may experience eye fatigue and sleep problems.
Middle and elementary school students also tell stories of classmates circumventing device restrictions to play video games and stream videos.
“There are these websites that are pretty much educational, but there’s also a non-educational twist to them, and you can play games on them. We also figured out you can watch Hulu on certain websites,” Spencer said.
And parents? Some have been critical of the program since 2014, when they said it was put in the budget with little public input. After watching their kids learn online for a full year, some parents are not convinced they help. Whether during Arlington School Board meetings or on online forums, some parents continue to be concerned about whether iPads and MacBooks help students or hurt them.
“Devices are not the answer to teach kids. Many kids craved paper and were denied. The iPad was a wonderful connection device but difficult for production and navigation of several tabs for middle school kids,” said parent Kelly Alexis, who manages the Facebook group Arlington Education Matters, where much discussion over iPads and laptops has taken place.
After suffering a career-ending injury playing college football, Graham Kelley stepped off the field for a while and spent several years working in software sales.
Last year, he decided to return to sports — this time turning his attention to helping young athletes and former athletes like him working desk jobs.
At Capital City Sports Academy, his new gym just over the Arlington County border in Bailey’s Crossroads, Kelley is helping young athletes train safely and encouraging adults to get back into shape. The 4,500-square-foot facility at 3431 Carlin Springs Road had its grand opening on Saturday after a soft opening for a handful of new members last month.
“[The gym] is designed for young athletes in two focuses: speed and agility to develop athleticism, and strength and conditioning to develop core stability and muscle mass necessary for younger athletes as they grow,” he said.
Kelley said his location, close to several high schools in Arlington and Fairfax counties, as well as Alexandria, will benefit a large number of athletes who are requiring more intense, specialized training at younger ages.
“I wish I had a facility like Capital City when I was in high school,” Kelley said. “Thinking back to when I was 10, 11 years old and developing my athleticism, a place like Capital City to learn the fundamentals would have been instrumental in my development. I think the opportunity could have helped me avoid the injury I incurred.”
Training will be overseen by Head Coach and General Manager Chad Ward, who Kelley described as “the most positive person I’ve ever met.”
“Our athletes have responded well, parents are extremely happy with him. It’s been really exciting to see,” he said. “We want to build something special and help local kids shine.”
The facility also offers boot camp-style and circuit-based classes to help former athletes get active again.
“Getting the adult to move again like they’re the athlete they were in the past has shown tons of positive health benefits to counteract the sedentary lifestyle of sitting at a computer for eight hours a day and staring at our phones,” said Kelley.
These classes are open to adults who have never played a sport as well.
“We don’t discriminate,” said Kelley.
The gym offers team training packages for high schools or organizations and also has monthly membership options. Kelley said costs vary by sport and school, so those interested in getting an estimate can email Capital City through its website.
It will be open Monday and Wednesday from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday and Thursday from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Photos courtesy of Park and Langley Photography
(Updated 5:45 p.m.) Washington-Liberty High School senior James Licato is trying to clean up micropollutants in the Potomac River, and he came up with a solution that vaulted him to the finals of a major science competition.
Licato is one of 40 finalists in the Society for Science’s Regeneron Science Talent Search 2021, the nation’s oldest science and math competition for high school seniors. He developed a sandy substance, using zeolites, that acts as a microscopic net, catching the micropollutants that wastewater treatment facilities miss.
Chosen from 1,760 applicants, top finalists each earn $25,000 in scholarships and can nab between $40,000 and $250,000 if they are named in the top 10. This year’s virtual competition goes from March 10-17.
“Regeneron is definitely prestigious,” Licato said. “It feels great.”
Arlington Public Schools last had a senior — from Wakefield High School — make it to the finals in 1997. Washington-Liberty High School last had two students reach the final round in 1976, and have had four in total since 1942, said Society for Science spokeswoman Aparna Paul. Yorktown High School most recently had a finalist in 1996.
Licato credits the APS science staff with connecting him with extracurricular opportunities to present his work. His teachers also helped him work out the logistics of participating in science fairs and ordered materials he needed but could not obtain.
“The APS science department is awesome and has always been really supportive of everything I’ve done,” Licato said.
Licato said his area of research is a growing one, as more people become aware of the toxicity of these micropollutants. Many known pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) are toxic to aquatic organisms and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAs), found in non-stick and water-resistant coatings, can cause a host of diseases in humans, he said.
“The more we study, the more negative effects we find,” he said.
The benefit of his product is that it could be cheap and scalable because it could use the byproduct of coal fire plants, which normally sits in landfills, he said. It will need more testing and engineering work but Licato believes it has the potential to attract federal funding.
A Boy Scout and avid fisher, Licato has always been passionate about water quality and ecology. He won second place in the Earth and Environmental Sciences at the INTEL ISEF competition, also hosted by Society for Science, for his project removing an anti-diabetic medicine from wastewater.
That project introduced him to Thomas Huff, the Director of the Shared Research Instrumentation Facility at George Mason University, who specializes in researching river pollutants. Licato reached out to him because he needed to access a liquid chromatograph-tandem mass spectrometer.
At first, Huff was “highly skeptical,” but the then-sophomore won him over. He said Licato proved to be more adept with the machine than many senior undergraduate students.
Huff offered him an internship drawing and analyzing environmental samples at the Potomac Science Center in Woodbridge. He and a team of graduate researchers at George Mason University were determining the concentrations of PPCPs near wastewater treatment facilities for multiple grant projects.
Licato became a peer of the graduate student researchers, offering new ideas and mastering the software the team used, Huff said. He also developed methods of analyzing data that the other students and professors still use. The lab received a three-year contract to continue studying micropollutants.
“He was a consummate team member and morale booster,” the professor said. “He even taught tricks and tips to a full professor with 35 years of research experience.”
Sponsored by Monday Properties and written by ARLnow, Startup Monday is a weekly column that profiles Arlington-based startups, founders, and other local technology news. Monday Properties is proudly featuring 1812 North Moore.
Recent Yorktown High School graduate Eva Gary is bringing the magic of princesses, princes and superheroes to kids — from a safe distance and over Zoom.
At the height of the pandemic, Gary, a lifelong performer and musical theater lover, decided to defer college for a year. She wanted to re-apply to competitive musical theater programs that she could not get into and wait until more schools and classes are in-person.
With the extra time she had, she started Princess Wish Parties, granting the wishes of kids who want to see their favorite fairy tale characters.
Over the last year, Gary and her squad of characters have visited virtual art parties, events for school pods, and drive-up parties. The dance, do crafts, play games and perform sing-a-longs with kids.
“I love working with kids, and performing, and this is the most magical combination of those two things, literally,” she said.
Gary started “princessing” for other companies as a sophomore, saying it was the perfect job for a teen who needed improvisation practice and had experience working with kids. She took a break from it to apply for college, but when she ultimately decided to put college off for one year, she picked it back up.
Although she was skeptical of the first socially distanced party she attended, Gary said the experience did not change much: She still could believably embody a princess character, sing, dance and form connections with the kids.
Bolstered by the positive experience and encouraged by her mom, Gary took steps toward launching a princess company. She found second-hand “Snow Queen,” “Mermaid Princess” and “Rapunzel” costumes and wigs — these companies are not affiliated with Disney, for the record — and tested them on neighborhood kids who she said are in “the princess stage.”
“The girls believed it and were so excited about it,” she said. “That was when I realized I can do this. Having had a little bit of experience as a performer, I knew I needed to get my head around the business side, but performing would be the same.”
Since then, she has virtually auditioned and hired actors, many of whom she knew from other “princessing” gigs and the musical theater community. She has quickly added on more princesses and expanded her offerings to include princes and superheroes.
“Every second of free time is spent on this company and recently, applying for schools,” she said.
Working as a princess this year has helped her hone her craft as a princess and a performer.
“I think I’ve grown immensely as a princess performer from my sophomore year until now,” she said, adding that she also has to “be prepared to remind their kid to not put dirt in their mouth — in a friendly, princessy way.”
Now that the company has taken off, she said she plans to manage the company and hire actors from a distance during college, and delegate the logistics of handling parties to one of her younger sisters.
“It’s been harder than I expected, but I could spend every waking moment working on this and I would be happy,” she said
Photo courtesy Princess Wish Parties
High school students in Arlington Public Schools say they are getting too many assignments and not enough time to do them during virtual learning.
Students are encouraged to engage in nightly independent reading of their choice. Beyond that, no additional assignments/homework will be required outside of the expectations for asynchronous work that is part of students’ daily class time, or the 30 minutes per subject of asynchronous work assigned for Mondays.
The volume of signatures caught the attention of the school system. The petition was the first time staff were notified that these concerns are shared by more than just a few students, said APS spokesman Frank Bellavia.
“We take the feedback we receive via a variety of formats seriously,” he said. “All of our high school principals are aware and are meeting with teachers to examine the number of assignments being given and to reduce them where applicable.”
Principals are working at the subject level with instructional supervisors to come up with solutions that reduce the workload on students, he said.
Bellavia said the homework policy that the petitioners are referencing is not policy, but rather, it is guidance for secondary teachers. According to the guidance, teachers of college-level classes may need to assign more work to cover the breadth of their curricula.
One student told ARLnow that for the most part, the types of assignments and the volume are about the same, with the caveat that some teachers are assigning hours of video content.
“I probably spend… three hours a week watching videos for those classes, and I have three or four classes that assign videos,” he said.
That amounts to three to 12 hours a week of videos. For this student — who is taking all college-level classes and admits that more work comes with the territory — the workload did not motivate him to sign the petition.
“The homework itself doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It’s more that there was a policy made and they’re not following it.”
Despite the breakdown he sees between the school system’s expectations for assignments and the reality of distance learning, he commended his teachers for how they have adapted to online-only learning.
“Students like to give them flak, but from an objective standpoint, they’re doing pretty well,” he said.
Another student said, as a reason for signing the petition, that she has been working “15 hours every single day (8 a.m. 10 p.m.) non-stop ever since the beginning of school.”
She added that there are too many assignments and not enough asynchronous time in which to complete them.
“We shouldn’t be getting that much work especially in a learning environment that we aren’t familiar with,” she said. “It’s not because of poor time management, it’s because of so much work we are getting.”
In the petitions’ comments, parents also threw in their support, saying they have watched their students lose lunch hours to additional instruction and devote entire weekends to homework.
Arlington County is considering a plan to host some children of working parents in community centers for supervised learning, while Arlington Public Schools readies its plan for a return to in-person learning.
The use of community centers would be a relief valve for families that are unable to have a parent stay home during the day and do not have the means to pay for daytime child care. It would serve as an interim step until APS again offers full-time, in-person learning — whenever that may be.
“There’s no one silver bullet that’s going to fix the whole situation for schools or for childcare,” Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey said at a virtual COVID-19 town hall meeting on Friday.
“We are looking at opening a couple of our community centers for children to have supervised learning when their parents have to be working,” Garvey continued. “I know that the school system and we too are interested in trying to get students back [to school] or get students into childcare who need it. We’re trying to do it in a priority order for those who are most at risk and having the toughest time with the current situation.”
Asked for more information on any such planning, Deputy County Manager Michelle Cowan issued the following statement to ARLnow.
The County has been exploring multiple options for care for school-aged children with APS and non-profit partners, with the initial priority being at-risk children. All options are being evaluated with the understanding that the County must comply with COVID and safety requirements when these types of services are provided in either County or APS facilities, and in many cases, child care licensure requirements. We are using some community centers for activities related to COVID (e.g., testing at the Arlington Mill Community Center) and for early voting; the County is working to ensure that the mix of uses is appropriate in light of COVID requirements.
Arlington’s public schools remain closed, but the school system is “continuing to plan for returning to hybrid, in-person learning,” Superintendent Dr. Francisco Durán said in an email to families on Tuesday.
Durán is expected to announce a similar plan at tonight’s School Board meeting.
The tentative plan is for some students with disabilities to return by the end of October; PreK-3 students, career and technical education students, and other students with special needs to return by “early to mid-November;” and for all students opting for a hybrid learning model — two days per week in classrooms — to return in early December.
The plan is contingent on there not being a deterioration of health metrics in Arlington County.
“Our teachers and students are doing incredible work to adapt to distance learning, and we are doing everything we can to support their efforts,” Durán wrote on Tuesday. “We are working to bring in small groups of students based on level of need and will define that further at this Thursday’s meeting.”
As a new school year nears, Volunteer Arlington is launching a new fundraiser for students in need.
The “Buy a Neighbor School Supplies” drive follows the group’s previous “Buy A Neighbor Lunch” and “Buy A Neighbor Groceries” programs, which raised a combined $59,000 to help Arlingtonians amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the new effort, community members are encouraged to donate at least $10, which will go to foster care families and vulnerable families in the form of gift cards for school supplies.
Seven other local and regional organizations partnered with Volunteer Arlington for the fundraiser, including Arlington Foster Care/Adoption Program, Arlington Partnership For Affordable Housing and Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR).
The fundraiser is accepting money through August 23. Those interested in donating to “Buy a Neighbor School Supplies” can donate via the Volunteer Arlington website.
“We are asking people of all ages to come together to support this very tangible need, said Lisa Fikes, Executive Director of Volunteer Arlington, which is run by the Ballston-based Leadership Center for Excellence. “The Arlington community continually illustrates its heart and ability to support a worthy cause, and we are now calling on that generosity to support the growing educational and opportunity gaps in our community.”
In its earlier “Buy A Neighbor Lunch” program, Volunteer Arlington raised $50,000 by partnering with area restaurants. With each $10 donation, one of the restaurants would make and deliver a meal to a local resident in need.
“The beauty of this program was that it not only helped people who had become food insecure as a result of the pandemic, it also kept local restaurant employees working,” said Karen Coltrane, President and CEO of the Leadership Center for Excellence. “It allowed those of us still able to give to double our impact.”
Image via Volunteer Arlington
Trash Collection Delays — “Due to truck breakdowns, some residential trash/recycling routes were not completed yesterday and today. If your trash and/or recycling carts have not been emptied, please leave them at the curb for collection.” [Arlington County]
BLM Event Planned on Saturday — The group Arlington for Justice is holding a March for Black Lives on Saturday from 4-6 p.m. The event will start at the Charles Drew Community Center in Green Valley (3500 23rd Street S.). [Facebook]
Pro-School Opening Group Planning Rally — The group Arlington Parents for Education is planning a rally in support of opening Northern Virginia schools in the fall. The event is planned from 9-10 a.m. Saturday at Arlington Public Schools headquarters (2100 Washington Blvd). “Wear green. Social distance and wear masks. Bring banners and friends & families who support this cause,” the group says. [Twitter]
Marymount Offers to Host Int’l Students — Marymount University is currently planning to bring students back to campus in the fall, including international students. With Immigration and Customs Enforcement not allowing international students to enter the country if their school is operating entirely online, Marymount is also offering to host international students from other schools. [Press Release]
Arlington Ranks High for Single Homeownership — A new set of rankings from the website SmartAsset puts Arlington at No. 25 for places “where singles are increasingly choosing to buy over rent.” [SmartAsset]
Startup CEO Facing SEC Lawsuit, Too — “Former Trustify CEO Danny Boice is accused of spending millions of investors’ dollars on private jet flights, vacations, jewelry and mortgage payments on a beach house as part of what’s alleged to be an $18.5 million fraudulent scheme, according to a lawsuit the Securities and Exchange Commission filed Friday against both Boice and Trustify Inc.” [Washington Business Journal]
Va. to Step Up Restaurant Enforcement — “Recognizing an increase in COVID-19 cases in parts of the state, particularly in the Hampton Roads area, Gov. Ralph Northam is increasing enforcement of the state’s rules around the coronavirus… State licensing agencies will be conducting unannounced visits to establishments, as needed, and the state health department is shifting an additional 100 staff members to its existing team of 500 inspectors.” [InsideNova]
Barrels Fail to Stop Rogue I-395 Driver — Someone stopped their car on a highway, got out, and moved an orange barrel in order to avoid a slight delay while driving from Arlington to D.C. on I-395. [Twitter]
County Board to Approve Arts Grants — “Arlington County Board members on July 18 are slated to approve approximately $216,000 in annual grants for arts organizations… Each of the 21 organizations that requested funding saw at least part of their request fulfilled; in addition, two of four individual artists seeking funding garnered a grant.” [InsideNova]
Local National Merit Scholars — Nine Arlington students are among the National Merit Scholarship winners for 2020. [Patch]
Arlington Students Ace Latin Exam — “According to Arlington Public Schools about 130,000 students across the country take the [National Latin Exam] which focuses on vocabulary, grammar, Roman cultural history and mythology. Nineteen students in the school system were among the few who achieved perfection.” [WJLA]
Flickr pool photo by Vincent
Teenage organizers of the Northern Virginia effort say they’re organizing a teach-in about environmentalism from 8-11 a.m. at American University, followed by a rally beginning at 11:45 a.m. outside Arlington County government headquarters (2100 Clarendon Blvd) in Courthouse, to help the planet they’re about to inherit.
“The most important thing is to educate,” said organizer and Yorktown High School student Hannah Knittig. “That goes for government officials and also to the public.”
The students organizers are working with the Northern Virginia chapter of the Youth Climate Strike organization, and is hoping to attract attendees and passersby to the Courthouse rally with speeches, a voter registration table, and posters the local effects of climate change.
“I hope they can see that they can get involved from home where they live,” said another organizer, Cecelia O’Sullivan, 15, at the Potomac School in McLean. “They can see that this is really an accessible moment happening all over the country.”
The teen organizers who spoke to ARLnow cited concerns about global warming raising flood threats and spawning more extreme storms, also noting how activities like fracking pollute the environment and contribute to the problem.
“Our water supply and our excessive need of products in Arlington impacts people who live in Blacksburg and all over Virginia,” said Knitting. “I definitely know that my lifestyle, and my family’s lifestyle, does impact other people.”
“Seeing all these very small occurrences, which at first they don’t link immediately link to climate change. But once you dig deeper, you just see it’s all part of that larger effect of climate change,” said Saahithi Achanta, 17, who is also helping organize the event from Chantilly High School.
Knittig, 16, said that around eighty students from across the Northern Virginia area have signed up to join the Arlington strike, and another 80 students have pledged to attend the same-day sister strike in Richmond.
(Updated at 11:10 a.m.) The achievement gap, overcrowding, an obnoxious name change debate: there’s a lot on the minds of Arlington’s high school students.
Though a few issues tie all of the schools together, the editors of the student newspapers at Yorktown, Wakefield and Washington-Liberty also said there were certain features that make the schools — and the student coverage — unique. The editors shared the inside stories of life for local students.
United by Overcrowding
Across all three of the schools, all of the editorial teams agreed that overcrowding — thanks to an ever rising student population — was one of the biggest problems.
“It’s especially an issue this year,” said Charlie Finn, one of the head editors of the Yorktown Sentry. “We already have overcrowding and the main problem is crowded classrooms.”
Finn and Joseph Ramos, Yorktown Sentry’s other head editor, noted that the Sentry has worked on reporting overcrowding from within the school. Articles from the Yorktown Sentry detail the challenges students face in overcrowded schools and review proposed solutions.
At Washington-Liberty, the school is so crowded the interview with the students had to be held in a corner of a hallway already packed with students eating or doing work.
“I do think overcrowding is an issue,” said Abby, head editor for the Crossed Sabres, the student newspaper of W-L. At the teacher’s request, interviews with Washington-Liberty students use first names only.
“I’m in an English class with 38 people,” Abby said. “Schedules are being changed to deal with the numbers of students, especially in the [International Baccalaureate] program.”
At the Wakefield Chieftain, editor Carla Barefoot said students learned this year that pep rallies would be held outside rather than inside because the gym can’t fit the entire student body.
But each school also said there are also issues central to each school’s community they’re working to cover.
Yorktown: Investigating the Achievement Gap
At Yorktown, Ramos said one of his goals for the upcoming school year is to highlight the school’s achievement gap.
“We want to focus on the achievement gaps [at Yorktown],” Ramos said, citing figures published by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization. “Black students are 11 times more likely to be suspended as white students and white students are twice as likely to take [advanced placement] classes.”
Ramos also recognized that exploring the achievement gap — an issue inextricably tied to racial disparities in Arlington’s least diverse high school — will require thorough research and a delicate touch.
“In covering the achievement gap, it’s going to be important to look at all the whys and hows to tell the full story,” Ramos said. “It’s a sensitive subject — we can’t do a half baked job.”
Wakefield: Covering Diversity in 2019 Politics
Meanwhile at Wakefield, Arlington’s most diverse high school, the editorial team said all eyes are on the upcoming elections — namely the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The Chieftain’s editors said the student population was keenly interested in how minority groups in America would be affected.