Swanson, Minority Achievement a Go

Swanson, Minority Achievement a Go

School Board OKs ‘disappointing’ building renovation, hears good news on minority achievement.

Mary Hynes is disappointed. Neighbors are worried. But renovations to Swanson Middle School are going ahead.

Paola Watkins lives near the school and opposes design plans that School Board members approved at their meeting Thursday, May 22. “It’s a matter of respecting the building,” said Watkins. “Do the addition, but do it right.”

The proposed two-story addition to the front of the 5800 N. Washington Blvd. school building will help alleviate overcrowding by adding 10 classrooms, three science rooms and two science prep rooms as well as a teachers’ lounge and storage areas. The addition will bring the school’s capacity to 815 students.

Controversy over Swanson’s addition stems, in part, from the fact that it is the oldest continually operated middle school in the state. Watkins, an architect with the Arlington-based firm Lugli Watkins, doesn’t want to see the school’s architecture compromised and urged Board members to delay action so plans could be modified. Designs approved last week are out of character with the surrounding neighborhood and the rest of the school, Watkins said.

She found a sympathetic ear with Board member Mary Hynes, who admitted she was “disappointed” in the final design. “That being said, we do need to move forward,” Hynes said. She voted to approve the addition, as did Dave Foster and Board chair Elaine Furlow, the only other Board members in attendance at Thursday’s meeting. Frank Wilson and Libby Garvey were out of town on family trips.

SWANSON’S PTA endorsed the renovation. Casey Triggs, father of two Swanson students, represented the PTA at Thursday’s meeting and said opponents have “narrow complaints.”

The important issue is providing necessary space for instruction, he said. Currently Swanson relies on trailers to provide enough classroom space. “No one is against improving Swanson,” said Triggs.

Despite concerns from some neighbors, the basic floor plan for the addition remained basically unchanged from original designs, according to Ken White, who spoke on behalf of Architecture Inc., the company that designed the addition.

BOARD MEMBERS heard good news about minority achievement. Thursday’s meeting featured a report titled “Closing the Gap under Conditions of Rising Achievement for All Students.”

Black and Hispanic students, on average, continue to earn lower scores on standardized tests than did their white and Asian counterparts. But on last year’s Standards of Learning tests, minority students closed that gap by as much as 57 percent.

Black students in third grade accounted for that improvement. Hispanic third-graders closed the achievement gap by 28 percent. Black students in fifth grade closed 46 percent of the gap, while Hispanic fifth-graders closed the gap 36 percent.

Those numbers show significant improvement, said Kathy Grove, assistant superintendent for instruction, but “in the underlying areas, we still have a long way to go.”

Middle-school test scores were discouraging, Grove said. In eighth grade, black students closed the achievement gap 16 percent, and Hispanic students made up just 14 percent of the gap.

“It wasn’t a real surprise to us,” said Grove. School staff will be focusing on middle-school achievement next year.

MISCOMMUNICATION ACCOUNTED for disagreement on one action item Thursday. After receiving recommendations from the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI), school staff made a number of recommendations concerning arts, English, early childhood, career, technical and adult education.

One recommendation called for a pilot program to allow students to stay at school an extra period for electives like art and dance.

Jack Goodman, parent of a middle-school student, urged the Board not to approve the recommendation. Larry Fishtahler, ACI co-chair, said the majority of ACI members did not support the plan.

Board members agreed to accept all other recommendations but called for a full public hearing June 5 to discuss the proposed extension to the middle-school day.

At that meeting, Board members will also act on ACI recommendations on ESOL/HILT, family and consumer sciences, foreign language and gifted services programs.