Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpArlington students returned to school last month bursting with excitement, entering buildings bursting at the seams.

“An unprecedented rate of enrollment growth,” is how facilities and operations Superintendent John Chadwick described it Thursday at a neighborhood reality-check presentation (part of a series) at Williamsburg Middle School—on the front yard of which a new elementary school is rising.

The need to create seats for 1,300 additional future middle-schoolers set in motion a domino-theory of possibilities that unsettle parents, neighbors and taxpayers.

Today’s trailer-packed campuses will require boundary changes, new construction, expanded physical plants, and commandeering of buildings from existing tenants.

On Oct. 1, Arlington education central laid out four options, which largely pivot around the fate of the “hippie high” alternative H-B Woodlawn program.

Soon the school board will have to make Solomonic choices among: building a new school at the former Wilson School in upper Rosslyn; building a large new school at the Stratford site on Vacation Lane; moving the Woodlawn program from Stratford to the Reed School in Westover; or leaving all in place and adding on to existing middle schools.

Among the 100-plus attendees watching the PowerPoint and breakout sessions was Laura Saul Edwards, co-chair of the H-B Woodlawn Parent Advisory Council. She told me she heard little that would change the apparent consensus in the H-B community — a survey is underway — that their beloved and effective secondary program for 6th-through-12th graders should stay put.

H-B has suggested a 10 percent increase in its enrollment, enabling the program to do its part to alleviate crowding in county secondary schools without “irredeemably damaging the H-B model, in which size is an integral part,” she said.

One argument she cited for keeping H-B united at Stratford is that the building’s tight-knit community comprises more than just Arlington’s only combined middle and high school program — it includes a secondary program for students with special needs, high-intensity language training for new immigrants, and a secondary program for students with Asperger’s Syndrome.

A survey released Tuesday by civic associations near Westover shows a thumbs-down view of bringing H-B to the building housing a library valued by neighbors who already battle traffic.

Some Woodlawn alums have floated a fifth option I got wind of: Preserve the intimacy and also accommodate the waiting list by splitting the student-freedom-based program into two campuses.

“Two new H-B’s,” they call it, a way of keeping the program small.

I ran this by Ray Anderson, Woodlawn’s founding principal now retired. The program’s “culture — student empowerment, shared decision making, respect for self and others — has been carried down over the years as it is transmitted from generation to generation, both students and staff,” he said. You couldn’t start a duplicate today because “times have changed.” So splitting the program to two locations would work “only if the new students and staff had just the right outlook.

Perhaps more promising, Anderson said, would be a second small-scale alternative middle and high school with another theme.

For the short term, Anderson’s analysis of available budgets tells him to leave Woodlawn at Stratford and build a smaller middle school at Wilson while expanding other existing schools. “That’s the least cost, and reserves the Stratford building for the next crisis,” he said, “leaving Reed still available if necessary as a site for H-B.”

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Arlingtonians last week lost a stalwart community leader with the passing of Dr. Talmadge Williams, the educator and civil rights and black history advocate who helped many young people achieve employability. I interviewed him about his efforts to win a permanent home for the online Arlington Black Heritage Museum http://www.arlingtonblackheritage.org/.

It is doubly sad he didn’t live to see completion of another project he championed, the renamed Freedman’s Village Bridge being rebuilt at Washington Blvd. and Columbia Pike, set for completion next summer.