Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpLike many trial balloons floated by Arlington’s governing bodies, this one set off alarm bells, even at the county school famous for having no bells at all.

H-B Woodlawn, the unique grades 6 – 12 program now in its fifth decade as a nationally recognized modern version of ’60s student-powered education, may be slated for physical changes.

Since a Jan. 28 school board working session explored options for dealing with the system’s bulging problem with overcrowding, the parent component of “hippie high” has been rallying for possible protest.

Among the county planners’ options affecting H-B’s campus at the former Stratford Junior High are adding 600 middle school students to the existing program, moving H-B to an unnamed site, and building out the Stratford facility to make space for 1,200 middle-schoolers at a site currently hosting 600 overall.

The parental activists leapt into letter-writing and swarmed the county’s planning meetings. Their Facebook site, “Love HB,” buzzed with admonitions like “Don’t forget to tweet ” on Saturday’s town hall meeting and complete the APS survey on its capital improvement program.

Their chief argument is that H-B’s intimate size is its raison d’être. “Diversity of educational programs is … a centerpiece of the county’s new strategic plan to ‘provide optimal learning environments’ and ‘meet the needs of the whole child,’ ” Melissa McCracken, co-chair of Woodlawn’s parent advisory committee, told me in an email. “We don’t want to lose this. Arlington should work hard to maintain and improve the range of options, to make each school the best it can be, not reduce the number and quality of available programs.”

In a letter to the school board and Superintendent Patrick Murphy, the parents stressed that the program’s benefits – in “student engagement, academic rigor and achievement, high school graduation and college enrollment, as well as positive impacts for at-risk students – match what teachers, students and parents see and experience at H-B day in and day out.” Committed teachers and personal relationships are also key to small-school success.

Common misconceptions about H-B include a belief it has been spared the burdens of overcrowding. Woodlawn’s “high school program is currently the most crowded high school (105 percent of capacity, versus 102 percent for Washington-Lee),” its website notes. Indeed, four “relocatables” currently occupy its grounds.

Nor is it true that H-B enjoys a superior student-teacher ratio. Its allocation matches that of other Arlington schools – it swaps guidance counselor slots for more teachers to keep class size down.

Education Central folks stress a desire for optimal learning environments and the urgent population boom. “APS has grown by over 5,000 students in the past five years – larger than many mid-sized school divisions in Virginia,” says Assistant Superintendent Linda M. Erdos. “We need to find solutions. This year’s CIP process has been designed to gather a wide range of options through a variety of engagement opportunities. Feasibility studies are being conducted. While many ideas have been raised, no decisions have been made.” They are likely in June.

Ray Anderson, chief founder and retired principal of Woodlawn, told me that if APS opts to move it, planners should find land that allows a building that meets state school standards, perhaps at Fort Myer or across from Quincy Street headquarters. “The Woodlawn program,” he says, “is a school with a unique learning culture, which has no relationship to its current building.”