It happened. Both of my kids are out the door this morning and back in school five days a week with most of their classmates. (A shout-out here to those students who need to or have chosen to stay virtual for the time being--I am cheering for your strong start, too.)
What will make for a great first week for all of Arlington's students? What should parents expect and what can they do to support success for their children and their school?
Based on my experience working in education, recent reading and community conversations, here's what I am hoping to see this week:
1. Time for teachers and students to get to know each other. Students (and adults!) do their best work when they are in environments where they feel safe, understood and valued.
David Bromley, a school administrator in Philadelphia, shared with me a few years ago that his staff accomplishes this through substantive advisory periods: “You get to know your students in a way different from anywhere else… Building community comes back to intentional use of time and what message you are sending to kids about how their time is used each day. Saying it’s a priority and really making it a priority is key." Denise Funston, a principal working in Missouri, once told me: “I don’t care if you teach anything the first few weeks of school. I want you to get to know your students and their families. Every successful child has at least one supportive adult, and we take that on as our goal.”
To some readers, Denise Funston's comment "I don't care if you teach anything in the first few weeks of school" will sound alarming. Given what we know about students' unfinished learning from last year and their academic needs, it will feel like we should dive right into core content on Day One.
I am concerned about students' academic needs, too. It will be essential for schools to carefully assess what each student knows and needs during the first month of school and plan instruction that addresses their strengths and gaps. That said, I am suggesting two things for families' consideration.
First, student learning will be accelerated and deepened by building on a strong foundation of knowing each student well. This makes sense to me as a former teacher: if I know my students, I can design instruction that appeals to their interests, which will deepen their engagement. My son, for instance, loves golf and classic cars. After struggling in Algebra last year, he's going to need some help in math. I can guarantee you that he will be 100% more interested in math if we can show him how it relates to restoring a car or making a birdie on a golf course.
Second, we are not alone in seeing significant declines in standardized test scores in 2020-21. Take a look at our neighboring districts and the state average in math SOL scores, for example:
I'm not arguing that we shouldn't be concerned--rather, I'm arguing that we should keep in mind the context. Across the state and nationally, we are in the same boat. There is a gap between the system we designed--which assumes a certain type of instruction--and what we were able to actually provide during a prolonged, international emergency.
2. Identifying students' mental, emotional, and physical needs. We know that students (and adults) have trouble learning if they are affected by trauma, economic insecurity, food insecurity, or other significant stressors. School staff, and in particular our counselors, social workers and psychologists, will need to proactively check in with students individually and in small groups to understand what students have experienced and what they need. Universal screening for mental, emotional and social issues will be extremely helpful. Close collaboration and frequent communication with families will be helpful.
Joni Hall, a school principal in Tacoma, Washington, told me a few years ago about how each staff member at her school serves as a mentor to a small group of students: "The mentor knows and cares about each child in [their] group… if there’s a problem, the teacher will contact the mentor first, before administration. Mentors also help families navigate the system. They’ll go meet with parents at homes, McDonalds, wherever they are comfortable. We spend a lot of time on culture and community and personal life."
3. Creating classroom and school norms. I say "creating" instead of "reinforcing" or "teaching" here because it's my hope that schools will take this opportunity to engage students in some meaningful conversation about rules, norms and roles in school. What rules really matter, and why? What expectations ring hollow and could be discarded?
Over the summer I read a great article (which of course I can't find at the moment!) about a second grade teacher who creates a list of classroom "jobs" together with her students after they've had the benefit of about a week's worth of school. Students have the chance to observe and weigh in on the parts of the school day that are challenging for them and design roles that will help the day go more smoothly.
I think this is especially important this school year. I have joked with friends that my kids have turned sort of feral during COVID (only half-kidding) and have lost their grasp of some of the social norms that normally guide their relationships with peers and adults. I suspect they're not alone. We'll all need a little time to re-learn how to interact with each other.
4. The power of positive communication. This year more than ever, it will be important for families to hear from school staff with positive messages that their students are in good hands. We shouldn't underestimate the power of a positive phone call home to set a strong foundation for teachers and families working together to support students and troubleshoot problems that may arise.
This goes two ways: families can start the year by communicating positive feedback, instead of complaints, to school leaders and teachers. A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post outlining some ideas that parents (including myself) could use to communicate more constructively with school staff. I aim to do that this week.
Will problems come up? For sure. Do we sometimes need to advocate on behalf of our students? Yes we do. But I've found that it generally goes better when difficult conversations can be placed within a larger context of collaboration and respect. I don't always execute this well, but I'm working on it.
So: thank you, ACPD officer who untangled the traffic around Carlin Springs ES and Kenmore MS this morning. Thank you, school bus drivers and nurses and cafeteria workers and principals and parent volunteers, and everyone else who is working to get (and keep!) kids back in school.
Here's to a great school year.
Last week I got two questions via social media that ask variations of the same thing: How can we understand how our schools are performing relative to other schools in our area or across the country?
One questioner simply requested: "Please grade APS as a school district."
The other asked, "APS High Schools (Yorktown, W-L, and Wakefield) trail nearby Fairfax schools (Langley, McLean, Marshall, Woodson, Oakton) in SAT scores and all school ranking services (Niche, Great Schools, US News). What do you think APS should do within the next 3 years to remedy that deficit?"
School ranking services like Great Schools and Niche pull data from sources like the Virginia School Quality Profiles. (Under federal education law, each state must offer some type of publicly-available "school report cards" and report certain indicators to the US Department of Education.) In Virginia, we can learn a lot about our schools from their School Quality Profiles, including how each school's students perform on the Standards of Learning assessments, how many students are completing advanced coursework and CTE credentials, the percentage of students going on to college, per-pupil spending, the number and type of disciplinary actions taken, teachers' education and experience, and kindergarten readiness.
When I look at APS high schools relative to nearby high schools in Fairfax County, using the Virginia School Quality Profile data here's what I'm seeing:
These data show what I would expect: schools that have a greater percentage of students from more affluent families generally have more students graduating with advanced diplomas and going on to four-year colleges and universities. I believe this has more to do with the resources these students and their families are able to access than something exemplary happening in certain school classrooms. Middle- and upper-class families are able to foot the bill for many "extras" including:
Do these things influence how a student does in school? You bet. Does this mean that it doesn't matter what schools do because the outcomes are predetermined? Absolutely not--but it does mean that indicators of school performance, like those shown in the chart above, are far more interesting when we spot schools that are bucking the trend. For example, the high school in Harlem that has zero dropouts, an 87% college enrollment rate, and a student population that is 77% economically disadvantaged. Or the high school in Oakland whose students are 100% English learners, most having immigrated to the US within the past four years, and 91% economically disadvantaged. 99% of these students are taking classes required for admission into the state college (UC/CSU) system.
I also want to note that it matters who is asking the question, "How good is this school?" What's a good fit for one student may not be great for another. For example, if I'm a parent of a student with disabilities, I'm going to want to filter the data in the Virginia School Quality Profiles so that I can focus on how well each school engages and teaches students with disabilities. If I do that, I'll see the following:
These data suggest that it might be Yorktown, not Langley, that's the better performing school for students with disabilities: a greater percentage of these students are earning advanced diplomas at Yorktown and achievement on the English Reading and Writing SOL tests are on average higher. (Note that you can also filter Virginia School Quality Profiles to focus on other groups including students who are English learners and students of various races and ethnicities. In my "not-a-professional-data-scientist" review, none of these correlated as closely with overall school performance as did family income.)
Finally, I hope that legislators, education leaders and families will ask for and use more holistic and detailed measures of student success. My favorite "school report card" system is the New York City Department of Education's School Quality Snapshot dashboard. There I can find a wealth of data on each school, including things I can't track in Virginia like:
The NYC School Quality Snapshots are something the district chose to do on top of their state-mandated reporting. How cool would it be if APS and other school districts offered something similar?
The ability to expand our definition of "success," transparently report our strengths and challenges, hold ourselves accountable for steady progress, spot the outlier schools that are exceeding expectations in some way and work to scale what they're doing right... that sounds like a great school system to me.
Two years ago, the federal government found fault with English learning instruction in APS. Then a pandemic happened.
Two years ago, the US Department of Justice reached a settlement with Arlington Public Schools after a federal investigation found “several compliance issues” with the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974. The settlement outlined measures that APS would be required to take through July 2022 to improve how it teaches students who are English learners.
Since the 2019 settlement, a global pandemic has significantly complicated how we address the needs of students who are English learners. Beyond academics, many of these students and their families have been grappling with food insecurity, job loss, inability to make rent and mortgage payments, COVID-related illnesses and deaths, and more. In Arlington as in other communities, BIPOC and lower-income families have been hardest hit by the virus.
Mindful of both the longstanding issues (as described in the 2019 DOJ settlement and other studies) and immediate critical needs, I’ve been reviewing the end-of-year reports from two APS citizen advisory groups: the Superintendent’s Advisory Council on Immigrant and Refugee Student Concerns (SACIRSC) and the Advisory Committee on English Learners (ACEL), which is part of the larger Advisory Council on Teaching and Learning that reports to the School Board.
Here are some of my takeaways from these reports, looking to answer the questions “How well is APS meeting its obligations to students who are English learners?” And “How can APS engage, support, and benefit from the experiences and perspectives of immigrant and refugee families and students?” (Note: I understand that “Immigrant and Refugee” and “English Learner” are not synonymous. For this piece, I am focusing on students and families that are both English learners and newcomers to the US.)
1. The need for data, reporting and accountability: Have we improved teaching and learning for students who are English learners? Independent researchers presented detailed findings in a 2019 English Learner program evaluation, and the DOJ identified 38 specific obligations in its settlement with APS. Currently, there’s no public reporting on whether and to what extent we’re gaining ground. This would be something I’d hope to see in an equity dashboard that APS should share transparently with the community in multiple languages.
2. The importance of teachers’ professional learning and culturally relevant curriculum. In its end-of-year report ACEL reminds us that all teachers need sustained professional learning that equips them to work with students who are English learners. At the time of the 2019 EL program evaluation, professional development for “general education” teachers on English language learning was optional, and those who participated indicated a low level of satisfaction with the training. The DOJ settlement required 30 hours of training over three years for core content teachers plus training for principals.
The researchers who visited APS classrooms in the 2018-19 school year also found that 90% of the middle and high school lessons they observed did not demonstrate academic rigor. Among parents of students who are English learners, only 59% responded favorably in the APS Your Voice Matters survey that their children’s teachers have sufficiently high expectations—the lowest result of any student subgroup. Low expectations and a lack of academic rigor have contributed to high rates of absenteeism and a dropout rate of 43% in 2019 for students who are beginning or intermediate-level English learners (WIDA levels 1-3). The researchers who spent time in APS classrooms wrote that students who are English learners need to be “motivated by lessons that are interesting, engaging, and applicable to school and other aspects of their lives.”
It’s good education practice: students need to be able to relate to and see themselves in the school curriculum. Leaders of the SACIRSC echoed this in a February 2021 letter to the Virginia Advisory Committee on Culturally Relevant and Inclusive Education Practices. They urge state policymakers to address “the history of a broad range of immigrants of color, in addition to enslaved and freed African-Americans, Indigenous Peoples, and Whites.”
3. The importance of Bilingual Family Liaisons: Bilingual Family Liaisons are APS staff members who connect bicultural families and school staff, providing interpretation, translation and other types of support. In its report, ACEL calls Bilingual Family Liaisons “one of the strongest connections between many EL families and their school community” and recommends that these staff members receive more training and collaboration time. Because there is only one Bilingual Family Liaison at a given school, it’s currently challenging for them to identify shared needs and develop shared resources. Additionally, Bilingual Family Liaisons need APS-issued iPads and cell phones so they can help families access Parent VUE, Canvas, and other instructional platforms. The SACIRSC recommends hiring an Amharic-speaking Bilingual Family Liaison.
4. The importance of pro-active and user-friendly communication: APS uses a commercial online service called ParentVUE as its way to share student information with families. The SACIRSC has urged APS to “redouble its efforts to ensure all families know how to access and use ParentVUE and explore what other tools would be more effective.” On Monday, APS sent out a systemwide notice that ParentVUE has been updated and the link to access it will change; the old URL will lead to an error message, further complicating what is already a challenging system for many (including me sometimes!) to navigate.
The SACIRSC took the initiative to produce a weekly “What You Need to Know” newsletter last school year in Spanish and English in a format that worked well for WhatsApp users; this group is also advocating for APS to engage via WhatsApp in other major languages.
The SACIRSC also recommends the following: “pro-active check-ins to ensure students and their families know about resources and are connected to them as needed. APS should not rely on push-out messaging and assume families’ awareness or understanding.” What could a pro-active check-in look like? Last year many school districts used calls and home visits to check in on students who weren’t showing up for distance learning, and many school district leaders have themselves been going door-to-door over the summer to answer parents’ questions about school safety and help set up vaccinations. When students return to school, pro-active check-ins could include trauma and mental health screenings for all students and regular, protected time for students and families to check in with counselors and advisors.
5. The importance of community collaboration to address basic needs: We need coordinated and effective approaches to hunger, housing, child care, health care, connectivity and more. Fundamentally, this requires collaborative effort across various County agencies, APS departments, and community organizations. Our pandemic response to date provides a valuable case study to examine: How well did we (collectively) do in making sure everyone had food? Were we able to provide adequate child care for essential workers? If not, why not? What would we do differently going forward? In the future, how could we use community facilities and resources more creatively and flexibly?
I want to recognize the hard work of the Superintendent’s Advisory Council on Immigrant and Refugee Student Concerns here—its end-of-year summary of the Council’s activities includes the following:
Council members: thank you.
I’ve been making the case during the campaign that we need to do more to leverage the incredible knowledge, skills and commitment of Arlington’s citizen volunteers. I offer as one proof point these end-of-year reports that describe the activities and insights of our APS citizen advisory groups; another testimonial comes from Kenmore Principal David McBride, who shared the following words with the SACIRSC.
“When I reflect on how we succeeded in reopening schools and getting back on track, I can’t help but acknowledge the tremendous community support that the schools benefit from—even during this contentious year. Things could have been so much worse. Some deride “the Arlington way” as too cumbersome and taking too long—but remember the core to this concept is community voice, engagement and buy in. Think about all the beneficial actions that were taken because of ongoing dialogue among groups such as the IRC and the County. This is the key to Arlington’s success. And the great thing about this committee [SACIRSC] is that it gives voice to those that don’t always know how to navigate the system. In the end, the advocacy benefits everyone, because a healthier, smarter, stronger and more connected community makes it a better place to live for all.”
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.