Across the country, there's been a lot of talk about how to support students as we recover from the pandemic and deal with its lingering impacts.
Drawing on my career in education, I know that there are some essentials we'll need to have in place in order to help all our students thrive. I also know that many of these measures would benefit students well beyond the period of pandemic recovery--and so I am hoping we'll make many of these standard operating procedures in APS.
1. Start with basic needs. Kids can't learn if their basic needs aren't being met. Those needs include food, shelter, rest, health care, economic stability, and secure relationships with trusted adults and peers. Schools, in close collaboration with other community organizations, have to ensure that the children in their charge are ready to learn. We can do this in the following ways:
2. Commit to healthy school culture. As we recover from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to do more than just "get back to normal." If we're honest, we'll admit that "normal" wasn't working for some of our students and that we can do better. Here are some things we can do:
3. Reframe "learning loss." I've been thinking a lot of about the term "learning loss" and its cousins, "achievement gap" and "academic deficit" and "struggling students." What do these terms have in common? They emphasize what students lack and ignore the strengths they bring. The blame rests with the student, not with the system.
I thank Gabriela Uro and her colleagues at the Council of Great City Schools for introducing me to the term "unfinished learning," which I like much better.
Why does our word choice matter? Because of the message it sends to our students about their value. Our kids are more than their reading levels, SOL scores, and end-of-quarter grades. Many have exhibited unbelievable amounts of determination, patience, and maturity during the pandemic. If we reduce them to a score on a standardized test or measure their "grit" only by on-time completion of a difficult assignment, we'll do them an injustice.
Here's how we can address academics in a more thoughtful way:
For more on this topic, I recommend "Accelerating Learning As We Build Back Better" by Linda Darling-Hammond, writing earlier this month in Forbes.
If you agree that our students deserve support like what I've described here, and you agree that we can do better than simply "getting back to normal," then I urge you to make a plan to vote in the ACDC School Board Caucus May 17-23.
During this School Board race, I’ve urged voters to cast their ballots based on the full range of significant, long-term issues we need to address over the next four years.
But I also understand that many voters are interested in knowing how I would be handling the return-to-school issue if I were currently on the School Board. That’s a fair question. Here’s my answer.
I want our students back in school as quickly, fully, and safely as possible. I want those students who need to remain in the virtual learning program to have the highest quality instruction and maintain strong connections to their school communities. I support following CDC guidance and prioritizing higher student needs.
Like every other parent in Arlington, I’m counting on APS to deliver a five-day, in-person option in August as well as a terrific virtual program. Earlier this month, I outlined a set of critical factors that will need to be in place for this to happen.
Now let’s talk about the remaining weeks of this school year. This is my position:
1. First and foremost, APS must clear the waitlist of students who are fully virtual and want to switch to the hybrid model. I say “first and foremost” because I am committed to equity and I believe we have to make sure that every child who wants in-person instruction has the opportunity to access it.
2. APS has to manage the last eight weeks of the school year without losing sight of the urgent need to plan and budget for August (budget gets approved on May 6), so that we are absolutely sure we’ll be ready for the fully in-person model and the fully virtual model for next school year.
3. As APS does #1 and #2 above, I believe it could also expand the number of in-person days for students and families who want this option, particularly at the elementary level and in alignment with the March 19 updated CDC guidance. For equity reasons, APS should not require that families provide their own transportation in these cases.
During the March 25 School Board meeting, I heard Dr. Durán say that expanding the number of in-person days would for some students require a class schedule change or teacher reassignment. Many students in that category might not want to experience such a disruption for the remaining weeks of the school year. For that reason, I believe the expansion of in-person days should be opt-in instead of automatic for all hybrid students. And I believe there’s a way to make that happen (see below if you’re interested in the steps I think we can take.)
Many APS parents are pointing to Fairfax County, which has recently expanded the number of in-person days available to students. “Why not in Arlington?” is a fair question to ask, and I would like to hear Dr. Durán and the other APS leaders answer it during the next School Board meeting.
How I would handle the expansion of in-person learning days:
1. Identify the number of additional students who can safely be accommodated in each classroom and school (in common areas and during lunch) in accordance with March 19 CDC guidelines. Make this data publicly available.
2. Immediately clear the waitlists of virtual students who want to return for at least two days of in-person instruction in those classrooms.
3. Then promptly notify hybrid families of any open spots in those classrooms. For example, if my student attends school on Tuesday and Wednesday in Mr. Ramirez’s class, then I would be notified that there are spots available on Thursday and Friday in Mr. Ramirez’s classroom. This outreach should happen via multiple methods (including email, text, WhatsApp, and via bilingual resource coordinators) to ensure every family knows about this opportunity.
4. Families interested in expanding the number of in-person days would opt in. If there are more families interested in doing so than there are spots available, a lottery should be held. In doing so, APS should identify which circumstances, if any, would assign priority to certain students (e.g., academic needs identified by teachers; mental health needs identified by families; etc.).
5. This is obviously more complicated at the middle and high school levels given the number or class changes each student has. Thus, it likely makes sense to prioritize implementing this at the elementary level and for students with disabilities who need and are able to return for more days. This would allow APS to pilot-test some of its plans for next school year to ensure that things will go as smoothly as possible.
6. Encourage parents to transport their own students whenever possible. When it’s not possible, APS should fill school buses to safe capacity and then arrange for additional, temporary busing. This is the kind of expenditure that federal relief funding is meant to support.
I hope this message will say as much about my general approach to leadership as my problem-solving around the questions many of us are raising about how and when to open up schools further. I’m showing my leadership by walking you through the issues that we must tackle, now and before August; paying careful attention to how different student groups and families might be affected; and laying out a strategic and safe path forward.
Last week, my opponent and I participated in our first round of School Board candidate forums. I asked myself what I would be listening for if I were a voter instead of a candidate. What do each candidate’s words tell you about their values? Their vision for improving our schools? Their ability to be good stewards of public trust and public funds?
If I were in your shoes, I’d be evaluating each candidate along the lines of what’s listed below. (And these are my minimum requirements--not the longer list of what I wish every candidate would bring to the job.)
What’s becoming clearer every time we have one of these candidate forums is that some in our community are treating this election as a single-issue race. That issue is how APS has operated during the pandemic and how it is now handling the last weeks of this school year.
I say “has operated” and “is now” very intentionally, because the issue is not whether we will have a five-day, in-person instruction option in August. That commitment has been made.
So I encourage you to ask yourself and others this question: Is this election really about a single issue, which will be over by the time the new School Board member takes office next January?
Some in our community may object to the way I am characterizing the “single issue” of pandemic response, and they’ll point out that the issue is really a larger lack of accountability: the School Board’s accountability to the community, and the Superintendent’s accountability to the School Board.
Accountability is essential. Public trust in our school system has been badly eroded over the past year, in significant measure because there hasn’t always been clear accountability for decisions made. The clearest demonstration of this is the fact that the School Board never took a vote on APS reopening plans. I have gone on the record stating that I believe School Board members should have voted over the 2020-21 school year instead of receiving information in the form of monitoring updates from APS leaders. This would have signaled to the community that elected officials were taking ownership of the problem and that they felt a sense of shared responsibility to push for schools to open as quickly, fully, and safely as possible.
I have called for accountability on a range of other issues, too, because accountability and its counterpart, transparency, are core values that have to be manifested in everything we do.
So if accountability is valued by both candidates, and if the pandemic is behind us by next January when the new School Board member will take office, then what does this election come down to?
I think it comes down to which candidate is in this for the long haul and whether you believe they bring the values, experience, and ideas we’ll need over the four years ahead. We have serious work in store to rebuild public trust, plan for growth, balance the budget, fully support our staff, eliminate inequities, and ensure every student is seen, supported, challenged, and valued.
If you believe I’m the candidate who checks the boxes, and if you believe I will work tenaciously over the entire four-year term on the full set of challenges and opportunities ahead of us, I hope you’ll support my campaign. Make a plan to vote in the Caucus May 17-23!
Last week, a member of the community submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to gain access to all the emails I’ve sent to School Board members for the past two years.
FOIA seems a little over-the-top for a local School Board race, but here we are. I have nothing to hide about my motivations for seeking office, and so I’d like to share a summary of everything I’ve sent over the past two years. It may help you determine what kind of School Board member I’d be.
1. I objected to a decision that sidelined equity, ignored policy, and wasn’t grounded in good data. I was the McKinley PTA president during last year’s school move process, and in that capacity I sent many emails to the School Board, including a joint letter signed by six other school PTA leaders highlighting shared concerns. My concerns about the school moves are summarized in the Washington Post op-ed I wrote last year on February 9.
2. I asked for accountability. In February 2020 I contacted the School Board to ask what steps it would take to hold staff accountable for constructing a new elementary school (Fleet) that lacked essential accessibility and safety features for students with disabilities and ended up costing millions of dollars to retrofit. One School Board member reached out to ask whether I had any insights to share about how facility design and construction could be better managed. My husband happens to work in commercial construction and real estate development so we sent a response outlining several suggestions.
3. I expressed concern for others in the community. I sent emails last fall about the elementary school boundary process. Although my own children are no longer in elementary school, I really worried that it was too much to ask for community engagement on boundaries at the same time families were working hard to support virtual learning and in some cases struggling to meet basic needs. I also suggested that there were other, one-year temporary measures APS could take to provide much-needed relief to Arlington Science Focus, which has been significantly over capacity, and utilize the new site at Reed.
4. I sought out other perspectives. When I decided earlier this year to run for School Board, I contacted current School Board members to ask for their perspectives on immediate and longer-term issues facing APS. This has been part of a larger effort I’ve been making to reach out and listen to people with diverse viewpoints and experiences in our school system. I’ve had more than 40 of these conversations (outside of campaign meet-and-greets) and I learn something valuable every time.
5. I said thank you. I don’t agree with every decision the School Board makes. However, I was brought up to acknowledge people’s hard work and good intentions whenever possible, even though I might disagree with them or need to hold them accountable. So yes--you’re going to see emails from me that thank School Board members for their service during an extremely difficult and unprecedented situation. You will read that I thanked them last fall for exercising caution, because I am the sister of a phenomenal ICU nurse who was for a harrowing stretch of time the only person allowed to be bedside with her patients.
Does this mean that I agree with every decision the School Board and APS leadership have made during this extraordinary time? No. But I believe that we can disagree and even hold people accountable with decency and dignity. I’d say that’s something that has been missing for far too long in our civic discourse.
If this is the kind of leader you’d like to serve on your School Board, I hope you’ll support my campaign and make a plan to vote in the Caucus May 17-23.