There is little doubt that Arlington Schools Superintendent Robert Smith will be renewing his subscription to Newsweek.
For the third year in a row, the magazine placed all four Arlington high schools in the top 1.25 percent of schools in the nation, with H-B Woodlawn receiving a top ranking of 13th.
Newsweek’s ranking were the crown jewel in a year full of accomplishments for the school system. Wakefield was one of three schools in the country to win the College Board’s Inspiration Award, for its innovative programs that prepare students for college. And Expansion Magazine listed Arlington as one of the top school districts in America.
"We continue to make progress in raising achievement for all, and we received unprecedented national recognition," said School Board Chair Mary Hynes.
Yet the school system also had its share of disappointing news this past school session, and faces several daunting challenges in the coming years.
While Arlington schools posted stronger test scores, it failed to meet its goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Enrollment is set to decline for the fourth straight year, leading to less money for the school system, and fewer staff and teachers.
Closing the minority achievement gap has continued to pose problems for Arlington Public Schools, and rapidly escalating construction costs have meant school officials have had to reconsider or scale back on their building program.
OVER THE PAST DECADE Arlington students have made tremendous strides, by any measure. One of Superintendent Smith’s favorite statistics is that the proportion of eighth-graders who have completed Algebra I with a C average or better has jumped from 22 percent in 1997-1998 to 48 percent in 2004-2005.
The average SAT score has risen by an astounding 44 points over the past half-decade, though the number did stagnate last year.
One of Smith’s top priorities has been enrolling students in more rigorous classes so that they can get into college. And those efforts have been paying off.
"We continue to increase the quality of instruction, making certain we have high expectations for all students and supply support," Smith said.
The number of students who took an Advanced Placement test last year increased by 7 percent, and has doubled over the past six years.
The largest rise has been at Wakefield, where the school has the expressed goal of having every student take at least one AP class before graduation. To aid students new to AP classes, the school conducts a summer program and provides tutors to help students write essays and plan for college.
The School Board has adopted a new objective of "responsive education," that seeks to tailor instruction and extra-curricular activities to each child’s particular needs and talents.
"Responsive education is a recognition that education is so much more than just reading, writing and arithmetic," Hynes said. "We need to be preparing [students] for life when they leave the school system."
THE BIGGEST HURDLE the school system faces in accomplishing its goals is a persistent minority achievement gap. Schools have made great strides in lowering the gulf between white students and their black and Latino peers in recent years.
Since 1998 there has been a 40 percent decrease in the overall gap, Smith said, and during the past five years the number of Latino and black students enrolled in AP courses has risen by 116 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
But last year’s data caused some concern among school officials. The number of black students graduating with an advanced diploma fell by 9 percentage points, down to 23 percent, while the figure for white pupils grew by 3 percentage points, to 73 percent.
The percentage of white students passing geometry with a C or better by the end of 9th grade increased by 7 percentage points, versus 2 points for black and 1 point for Latino students.
"We have some stubborn problems with the achievement gap, which have been disappointing," said School Board member Dave Foster. "The solution is to continue our hard work with small classes, individual attention and supplemental tutoring."
Last school year, 11 of Arlington’s 30 schools failed to make their "Adequate Yearly Progress" federal benchmarks, though half missed their targets by only one or two indicators.
School officials asserted that the failure to meet the moving benchmarks masks the school system’s significant achievements last year. Arlington schools saw a 2 percent increase in its pass rate for all students on the reading exam and 20 percent rise in the pass rate for "limited English proficiency" students on the reading test.
The standards for achieving AYP this year are more stringent than in the past, and officials said they are focusing more resources on meeting the individual needs of students in order to meet AYP.
"Our system’s goal is that all student groups are making progress," Hynes said. "What’s annoying is that [the federal guidelines] does not acknowledge where we were."
A NEW CHALLENGE is the changing makeup of the student population. The conversion of garden apartment complexes into condominiums is driving many students from lower-income families out of the county and causing a sharp decrease in the school system’s enrollment.
The number of students enrolled in Kindergarten through 12th grade declined by 361 this year, bringing the total to 17,600. School officials are predicting enrollment will slide by another 280 students next year, and by 2011 only 15,801 students will be taking classes in Arlington — a 14.5 percent dip over the previous decade.
A drop in the student population means that there will be less money to spend on teachers and education programs. Schools may be forced to shed some teachers in the future and there will be increased pressure to continue offering all current programs, school officials said.
Yet there are also positive aspects of having fewer students. In an era of stiff competition for the best teachers, Arlington schools will not be forced to hire as many new ones.
School officials hope that this will enable schools to further reduce class size, which would lead to greater attention on individual needs. Schools will also have greater flexibility in how they use classroom space, and may have additional room for educational and training projects.
Despite the drop in student enrollment, the cost per pupil climbed from $16,464 to $17,958 last year, an increase of 9 percent. Foster, who was chairman at the time, voted against the fiscal year 2007 budget because of the sharp rise in the spending.
THE SCHOOL SYSTEM is in the midst of a major bout of construction, having renovated or expanded 10 schools in recent years and rebuilt Kenmore Middle School.
Soaring construction costs have made both the school system and the county reconsider the scope of several ambitious projects.
Local construction prices jumped by more than 15 percent in 2004, 11 percent last year and an estimated 7.5 percent this year, according to CIP planning documents.
The hike in construction prices "is a major concern," Foster said. "It makes us prioritize, threatens to delay some projects and eats up a bigger percentage of the operating funds, deflecting money from day to day priorities."
Earlier this month the School Board voted to bring forward the smallest bond package in a decade, reflecting the added fiscal strain of construction costs. Renovations on Yorktown High School are scheduled to begin in the summer of 2008, and the board also approved design funding for overhauls at Wakefield and Thomas Jefferson Middle School.
Expanding foreign language offerings was one of the School Board’s top priorities this past year. Middle and high school students will be able to enroll in after-school Arabic and Chinese classes this fall, and receive college credit.
The two courses will be offered in a countywide program, and will be taught by Northern Virginia Community College professors at one of the college’s facilities in Ballston.
A foreign language pilot program will kick-off this upcoming year at two elementary schools, and officials say it could expand to other schools in coming years.
"Countries that don’t speak more than one language are in trouble," said School Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey, "and we need to equip students for the future."