Arlington County School Superintendent Robert G. Smith spoke with Connection reporter Seth Rosen about his aspirations for the upcoming school year and the challenges Arlington schools are striving to overcome.
Q: What are your top priorities for the Arlington school system this year?
A: One is to get moving on our new strategic plan, which the School Board adopted in June and contains several simple goals: First is to assure rising achievement for all students. Second has to do with elimination of achievement gaps among certain groups. The third goal is new and is called “responsive education.” The idea is to provide instructional and extra-curricular experiences tailored to the interests, challenges and talents of the individual student. We want to ensure that we have a robust curriculum and truly are meeting needs and the challenges presented by each student.
Q: What are your other goals for the year and what measures can you take to increase the success of the student bodies?
A: We need to make certain we are preparing students for a diverse world and make certain that students who graduate from our high schools can make choices to go in a whole variety of directions. We have good planning vehicles about what courses students need to take for various kinds of interests. We have a six-year plan beginning in seventh grade and a four-year plan that kicks in in high school.
The faculty also needs to make certain that the education we provide does not get reduced because of these state Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. While we have no argument with keeping high standards or being accountable, we are concerned when we see communities drop the arts or science instruction in elementary schools because it is not being tested with No Child Left Behind standards.
Q: Though there have been improvements in the county’s SOL scores, the school system still felt short of its goals under the No Child Left Behind Act. Eleven Arlington schools failed to meet the “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) benchmark this past year. What are you doing to address these problems?
A: Each of the schools that do not make AYP has a plan for improvement. The first step is to asses what happened last year and what issues are apparent for not making AYP. I don’t have any doubt that over the next couple of years we are going to see major improvement. Since 1998 the proportion of eighth-graders who have completed Algebra with at least a C improved from 22 to 48. I still think that is low and hope it will be higher this year.
I don’t know if all 11 schools will pass this year, and there will be variation every year because these will not be the same group of students. We’re looking for what happened to those students and what we can do better.
Q: Arlington saw a 20 percent increase in the number of “limited English proficiency” students who passed the SOL tests. What contributed to that rise?
A: Part of the improvement has to do with who gets counted. When scores go down we point out that these are different groups of students. The same is true when they go up. I do think that we’ve improved instruction and are making sure that those students get the support they need as they go into the mainstream. .
Q: What is the school system doing to close the gap between white and Hispanic and white and African-American students?
A: Since 2000 the proportion of Hispanic students enrolled in rigorous classes has increased by 116 percent and about 80 for African-Americans. We have seen a 40 percent decrease in the gap between white and Hispanic and African-American students since 1998. I am pretty sure we will see additional progress this year and continue narrowing of the gap.
One of most effective measures we can take is providing early childhood experiences, particularly to families of lesser means. Virginia Preschool Instruction classes have jumped from two in 1999 to 23 this year. We found that children who experienced Arlington preschool programs, when they go to kindergarten there wasn’t an achievement gap — at least on the reading readiness measure the state uses.
Q: What are the greatest challenges facing the school system this year?
A: I think the biggest challenge is to be able to build on the kind of momentum we have had over the past couple years and make sure that continues. And to make certain we don’t have schools who have not made AYP.
One of the ways it comes about is to ensure that all students are encouraged to take rigorous classes. Another variable is working with parents and community. We are providing extra time in areas where students are experiencing difficulty and that is why we have elaborate after-school and tutoring programs.