Voters in Arlington will chose who fills two seats on the local school board in the coming Nov. election. Incumbents Libby Garvey and Frank Wilson are contending to retain their seats against Shaun Wheldon and William Barker.
Libby Garvey's work in Arlington schools began with the Parent Teacher Association while her two children were attending Abingdon Elementary. A Peace Corps veteran who taught English in the Central African Republic, Garvey chose to run for a seat on the school board after becoming closely involved with the challenges facing local schools. She has since served two terms on the board.
"I started seeing larger issues in our schools, a lot of overcrowding in the system and some problems with the way we were handling construction projects," Garvey said in a Friday interview.
Garvey worked to help streamline the methods local schools used to manage renovations and construction, calling for more school board oversight of projects and for more accurate assessments of construction costs. Her efforts with the board culminated in the creation of a new school in South Arlington, Carlin Springs.
"I took my daughter on a tour of the school when it was finished," Garvey said. "She gave me a big hug and told me how much she liked it."
With a new building planned at Washington-Lee High School and several other renovation projects in the future, Garvey said she wants to further her work improving school facilities but an equal priority on her platform is student achievement. Until recently, she said, Arlington schools didn't measure student achievement in an organized manner, allowing the gap in test scores to widen between some students and others.
"It used to be that you didn't ever talk about closing the student achievement gap because you didn't have data to show it," she said.
A recent school board report revealed six Arlington schools failed to meet the federal standards for yearly academic progress outlined in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Garvey challenged the NCLB guidelines, saying they don't offer an accurate picture of what constitutes academic progress.
"It sets one specific bar for students to reach," she said. "If a school makes a huge leap in progress but misses the bar by only a few points, it is still deemed an inadequate school. If a school is already above the bar and test scores fall, but they don't fall below the NCLB progress level, that school is said to actually be making progress."
She added that "NCLB does a disservice to the public by creating confusion about what makes a good school." Garvey also pointed out that the goals of NCLB already existed in the Arlington school districts expressed mission statement before President Bush signed his legislation into law.
Last week, the school board approved a plan to establish a committee that will evaluate the possibility of redesigning the boundaries of some schools in the Northern part of Arlington. Some parents have voiced concern over the prospect of being forced to move their children to new schools. Garvey said the proposed redistricting is a response to overcrowding. Changing the boundaries, she explained, will cost less in tax payer money than expanding schools that are filled to capacity.
"We can't go to the taxpayers and tell them we don't want to change boundaries and that they're just going to have to pay more to create space in overcrowded schools," she said.
Engaging students in the classroom is another of Garvey's concerns.
"A lot of students say they don't know why they are learning something," she said. "It's essential we make those connections so they see the value in what they are studying. Simply saying they'll need it when they get to college isn't enough."
Arlington's teens are in need too, she continued. Garvey said there is high need for skateboard parks and other recreational areas where older youths can spend time.
"Older kids feel disconnected from the community," she explained. "We need to find ways to show them they are valued."
On the administrative side of her job, Garvey said the board is putting the finishing touches on a strategic plan to manage Arlington schools more efficiently and with greater direction. She added that she wants to remain on the board to help put that plan into action.
"The school board has improved a lot since I began working with the board," she said. "Experience counts. We've been working on the strategic plan but in the next term I can help take it to the next level."
William Barker has spent much of his career overseeing the construction of schools overseas as a procurement and logistics specialist in the Navy. He now works for the Library of Congress and wants to put his years of experience in government to work making Arlington schools cost efficient.
"For what we spend on education in Arlington, we should expect to get more," he said. "I love living here because the community is very supportive of the schools but we can't take that generosity for granted. I want to be able to look tax payers in the eye and say every nickel in the school system is being well spent and I don't think anybody on the board can do that right now."
Barker said the school board is spending money on many education programs that simply do not work. The solution, he explained, is to encourage "homegrown programs", initiatives started by individual teachers who best understand the needs of their students.
"It's typical in government that if you're not seeing the results you want the natural reaction is to sink more money into the program," he said. "But then you end up funding something that doesn't work. We need to look at programs critically."
On student achievement, Barker said there is a widening gap in test scores between rich and poor students that the school board is not doing enough to address.
"We talk a lot about student achievement and narrowing the gap but we haven't done it and there's no excuse for that," he said.
Barker also sees a rising problem surrounding gangs and violence in Arlington schools, one he said the school board has largely ignored.
"We have to recognize that we have a problem with gangs in our schools," he said. "If we try to close our minds to keep property values high or for whatever reason this problem will only get worse. I've spoken to some parents in the Hispanic community who are thinking about taking their children out of the schools because the problem has become so pervasive. By admitting we have a problem we can devote resources to addressing it."
The question of redistricting schools is another issue Barker said the school board is failing to properly explore.
"If you charter a commission and tell them to find solutions on redistricting that's what you'll get, redistricting," he explained. "Let's look first at ways to avoid that."
Barker pointed out that he is the only candidate running for the school board who currently has a child studying in an Arlington school.
"That gives me a different perspective, looking at it from inside the trenches," he said.
Shaun Wheldon's perspective on Arlington is that of the students. Wheldon attended Arlington schools from Kindergarten until twelfth grade. He is now a student in his first semester at Marymount College, studying political science. The youngest candidate on the ballot, Wheldon, 20, said one his top priorities is school security. To make schools safer, Wheldon wants volunteer security guards to patrol the halls.
"I would ask retired police officers and security professionals to volunteer their hours to do patrols in our schools," he explained. "We have police officers who work security now but they are usually involved in tracking crime. If they make an arrest, they have to fill out paperwork and then there's nobody in the halls to keep an eye on what's going on."
Yet Wheldon's stance on security is somewhat contradictory to his position on the "zero tolerance" policies that outline mandatory punishments for students who bring weapons or drugs into schools.
"I oppose rules like that," he said. "There's a big difference between an MS13 gang member with a machete and some kid in the chess club with a Swiss Army knife. There are different degrees of danger with that kind of thing."
On student achievement test scores, Wheldon said he would attempt to circumvent the NCLB sanctions which cut federal funding for schools that fail to meet academic standards. To raise money, he explained, schools could generate advertising revenues by putting ads in the classroom.
"The No Child Left Behind Act is little more than do-nothing legislation," Wheldon said. "We had good schools before it was enacted. I'd like to explore alternative avenues of funding and I would consider asking the state General Assembly to reject federal funding dollars. We could use advertising in schools to money."
Raising teacher salaries is another part of Wheldon's platform. Arlington teachers, Wheldon said, could earn a raise by raising the performance of their students.
Frank Wilson's platform is largely devoted to closing the student achievement gap and encouraging Arlington's community to become more involved in schools. To improve student performance, Wilson said the key is reaching out to them at an early age.
"All this starts from birth. If we can meet the needs of kids on a pre-school level through the initiatives we've put in place there and if we can meet the learning needs of kids at an early age, we can close the gap," he said.
Arlington schools already have a number of preschool programs aimed at encouraging students to read and Wilson said the answer to raising student achievement is to "do more of what we are doing."
But parent involvement is one aspect of the learning process that needs to improve, Wilson said.
"We have an extremely diverse student population with kids coming from very different backgrounds and cultures," he explained. "Not every household is a place where mom and pop read to their kids but children learn through that. Unfortunately, you can't go into every home and make sure that's being done."
Along with improving student test scores, Wilson said he wants to continue improving school facilities through the board's capital improvement program. Established in 1988, the program focuses on renovating school buildings and creating new ones.
"We have done an extremely good job and if we continue it, we can make certain that all of our schools are up and running in good condition," Wilson said.
Wilson added that the community should support the bond proposal for school funding on the Nov. ballot. If approved by the voters, the proposal will grant funds for the construction of Washington-Lee High School's new building and several renovations in schools throughout the county.
On the proposed redistricting in Northern Arlington, Wilson said it is important for Arlingtonians to get involved in the public discussion surrounding it. Their input, he said, will play an important role in the final decision.
"That's an issue nobody ever likes to attack," he said. "There is a process in place now to address it and that needs to run its course. The community will have input and their comments will be involved in what happens."
Wilson added that the public needs to be more involved in the decisions of the school board not only on redistricting but on the other topics it addresses.
"Community engagement is a major issue," he said. "Some parents and other folks aren't engaged in what's going on in the schools and its important for them to be so they understand what's happening."