Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpIn Arlington, budding politicians start young.

Last month, 100 middle-schoolers gathered at H-B Woodlawn for a “teen leadership” exercise in a mock General Assembly. The kids researched and debated bills according to Richmond’s procedures, telling fellow solons, per the Sun-Gazette, a certain parliamentary ruling was “cool.”

What was cool for me was noting that the event took place at the Woodlawn program, itself the creation in part of prodigy student activists I knew in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Things back then were more contentious. Before that “hippie high school” was launched in 1971 under then-Wakefield High School teacher Ray Anderson (now retired but still active in education), it was incubated under a student rights group called the Arlington Youth Council.

In 1969, its big issues were student rights to protest the Vietnam War, read underground newspapers, battle oppressive dress codes and experiment in free-form education. Those Youth Council presidents were uppity, articulate teens, among them James Rosapepe (now a Maryland state senator and onetime ambassador to Romania); Jim Massey (living in Phoenix doing real estate and technology startups); and Jeff Kallen (now a linguistics professor at Trinity College, Dublin). Kallen became the Washington-Lee High School pied piper who teamed with Anderson to found Woodlawn.

Our crowd then was obsessed with demanding a student smoking court – an issue I’d now say hasn’t stood the test of time. But we wanted student views respected, and that proposition took flight.

Nowadays, half the states allow student school board members, according to the National School Boards Association. In Takoma Park, Maryland, this month, 16- and 17-year-olds for the first time had the right to vote in city elections.

Deference to student sentiment sometimes over adult objections continues at Woodlawn in the form of the Thursday town meeting. That decision-making forum – open to students, teachers, custodians and parents – “is well attended, depending on the issue,” I’m assured by Principal Frank Haltiwanger. “Anyone can put an agenda item outside the main office door,” he says, whether the topic is a school dance or overcrowding.

One issue that raised emotions two years ago, Haltiwanger says, was Arlington schools’ online parent portal, which was conceived to allow parents to remotely look at their child’s attendance, grades and assignments. “The initial reaction from many was that it doesn’t make sense to do this for parents before students,” he says. So the Woodlawn town-meeting folks wrote to the school board, and soon students, too, were in on the portal.

The Arlington School Board has no student member, “but we do have a Student Advisory Board made up of representatives from all high schools,” I was told by Linda Erdos, assistant superintendent of school and community relations. It touches all democratic bases – meets monthly and is assigned a school board liaison and staff liaison. The advisory board addresses topics submitted by the school board, working with administrative staff on upcoming agenda items while funneling broader student input on “issues of importance.”

These teens meet with the school board quarterly, and like all of the board’s 30 advisory committees, they report to the board during a year-end meeting.

Though I’m as impressed today with Arlington’s young activists as I was back in 1970, I can’t help but feel – in this age of helicopter parenting – that most teens would find democracy’s accompanying policy minutia … a bit dull.