Arlington Boxes filled with Swanson Middle School assignment books and textbooks are stacked high in the Main Office while the roar of the waxing machine is heard down the hall. A skeleton still sits in the health room covered with plastic. Cleaned lockers line the hallway and supplies have been ordered. Principal Bridget Loft says, “Along with big thinking, there is a lot of cleaning.”
Gordon Laurie, new principal at Williamsburg Middle School says, "We have over a dozen custodial employees who work from 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. in shifts emptying every classroom of everything and giving the room a deep cleaning, as well as every piece of furniture before they put it back. The gym floor was resealed and polished.”
“It is a misnomer to think summer exists," Loft says. She said they start building their master schedule for the next school year in March-April and start having interviews for hiring.
Keisha Boggan, principal at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, agrees the school year really begins the previous spring to create the master schedule so that students get their electives or the academic requirements and there are no overlaps or traffic jams. In addition, they start meeting with families about what the school offers, and the counselors visit elementary schools to meet with the staff and students. This all feeds into the master plan.
Loft says, at Swanson, “Building this schedule takes all summer." There has to be a plan for every classroom, student and teacher.
“Much goes on behind the scenes at Williamsburg," according to Laurie. "The decisions that we make in a heartbeat can affect the teacher for the next 180 days.” He says for example they would want to prevent having a teacher move from Classroom A to Classroom B without enough time to get from one to the other, check in and begin the class. “The teacher has to live with these decisions all year."
The schedules for students are sent out in mid-August. Special consideration is given “to the incoming families of sixth graders who are anxious and don’t know what to expect by providing them timely information on what they will need to know,” according to Lori Wiggins, principal of Gunston Middle School.
Interviews for new teachers and the hiring process begin in the spring before the next school year. Loft says at Swanson this year she has 10 new teachers and is counting herself lucky to have all positions filled.
Wiggins said she still has a number of vacant positions at Gunston: “Teachers have life changes in the middle of the summer and don't return in the fall.”
Boggan says she has her fingers crossed at Thomas Jefferson. She has 15 new teachers, 10 new to Arlington; she thinks they have what they need but things change.
Laurie has 102 teachers with 17 new this year at Williamsburg. Like Boggan, he knocks his knuckles on his desk because things are in shape today.
Teacher orientation is a part of each school's preparation for the new year. "We just sent out welcoming letters on Monday to the new teachers with the agenda and details on what they have to do to comply with the county requirements," said Loft. Each teacher is required to take county-wide orientation and each school adds on its own tailored orientation for new teachers.
Part of this is giving them time in their classrooms to get used to their space and to organize and part is giving them specific information about the school, "getting them used to the culture at Thomas Jefferson" as Boggan puts it. At Williamsburg, the new teachers work with a mentor for the year.
There are a lot of mechanics to clean the lockers, wax the floors, order the supplies and new furniture for new classrooms. Furniture takes weeks,” according to Boggan. But Wiggins says there is another larger goal, which is to look at the data, and determine what went well and what they need to do differently this year. Loft says they do a lot of thinking, taking the SOL results to determine needed changes in instructional practices. For instance, she says limited English proficient students scores declined at Swanson. "I didn't understand. It was a shock." The solution was so simple but they weren't doing it. They created a posting in the computer and put in every student, struggling or not, and highlighted the ones who were struggling so the teachers saw it every day. They worked with the reading specialist to strategize for each student. Scores went from 46 percent to 69 percent passage. She said she doesn't know if they found the solution yet, but she is hopeful.
Laurie agrees that in addition to the mechanics there is the larger goal and vision about running the school. He says, "I'm brand new at Williamsburg this year and I have to think about how to deliver my message to my staff about my vision that every child has an educational birthright and less than 100 percent is unacceptable." He said a number of parents want to meet with the principal to talk about their child and “that is their right.” Projected enrollment at Williamsburg this year is 1,132 “and I should know every child.”
All schools have space challenges with the growing enrollment. Gunston enrollment is projected at 940, "up like everywhere else." Wiggins speculates it is because residents who used to leave are staying to raise their families and also there are a number of children in multiple family dwellings. She says they have to come up with creative space solutions such as dividing one room into two classrooms. A learning disabilities teacher stops Wiggins in the hall to tell her she has just seen her new classroom transformed from a storage area. "I just can't believe it," she said.
Loft said at Swanson they had repurposed the computer lab by turning in into a classroom and putting the computers on moveable carts.
Boggan says that they have reconfigured the computer labs as well and have been able to add some additional classrooms. "We are fortunate to have oddly configured space at Thomas Jefferson since this school used to have the open classroom concept with temporary walls.
Laurie says at Williamsburg they have also repurposed some space. “For instance, my office used to be over there,” he says pointing down the hall, “but now it has been divided into three offices and I’ve moved here. We’re all in this together.” In addition, they have had the delivery of four relocatables that arrive like an empty box. When they receive them, the relocatables have to be assembled and finished with plumbing and electricity with furniture added. He thinks teachers and students like the relocatables because they feel like they have their own special space. Enrollment is growing, he speculates, because people look for an excellent educational system.
Added to this mix there are the 15,000 students in Arlington County eligible to ride a school bus. An elementary school student must live over a mile from school and middle school and high school students over a mile and a half to be eligible. Last year actual rides on a regular basis were just under 10,000 students. David McCrea, director of transportation, said, "The devil is in the details." Some school buses are able to do an elementary school, middle school, and high school route but he said, "Schools have different bell times. For instance, Claremont starts at 8, Barrett at 8:25 and Drew at 9.
And one change can ripple through the system and alter the logistics. McCrea says they try to plan effectively but not go over capacity. The county has all of the students in a data system, but if people don't report changes, "we don't know where you live and can't plan the number of buses." It is a massive logistical exercise and he cautions patience the first days of school as "we look at overcapacity and shuffle bus stops or alter the time of the stop. There is no way to make this an exact science." McCrea said the transportation letters will go out next week. There is a balance with a rolling number of students and “you can't send the letters out too early; you've got to pick the optimal moment to do it."
McCrea says they have 165 buses in the fleet which includes spares, "but we 're running pretty tight." Buses are required by the state to have a maintenance check every 45 days. McCrea has had 15 years of experience in transportation and prior to that 15 years with major sports event like the Olympics. McCrea says his goal is to start the day "as best we can" since the school bus is the first thing students experience in the morning.
Another key component of opening the schools in the fall is the meal plan for about 12,000 students each day. Amy Maclosky, director of food services, says specific planning starts in June, and they spend the year looking for new items and recipes. They look at the data on what the students like, bring in new food so they don’t get bored, look at what local restaurants are doing and balance it with the cost. “We track what the students buy every day, what worked well and what didn’t.” They look at things that are trendy. “We used to do meatless Mondays and we offer more vegetable dishes, more humus and pita.”
Maclosky said she has a cycle of three seasonal menus that feature what is fresh that season such as strawberries in the spring. Maclosky has worked six years in Arlington and previously spent six years in Falls Church. She has noticed some differences — today’s students eat more healthy food with smaller portions, and they are more adventuresome. “They will try purple carrots for instance.” She said they bring in a farmer every Friday and students sample what is growing and talk to the farmer. The students even eat beet soup in the winter. She remembers a funny day in the winter when they featured three kinds of cabbage and some students came back for a second or third helpings.
The meals follow the Healthy Hunger Free Act that requires 2 ounces of meat or protein substitute, two whole grains, fresh fruit and a variety of different vegetables. She says pitas are popular and some of the salads. “Fish tacos are surprisingly popular. The fish bites are a treat. We make them from trout, and the kids really like them.” New this year will be a Thai salad, a Southwest salad and a white French bread pizza. Maclosky said the meals include free and reduced price lunches and she reminds people who qualify that they need to reapply each year in September.