Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpI’ll forgive the planners of Arlington’s spiffy new Discovery, our state-of-the-building-arts elementary school set to welcome a fresh student body next week.

This wondrous structure sits on (and under) a hill that is the front yard of Williamsburg Middle School, where in 1968 I was photographed joining hands with fellow class officers in front of a now-vanished school sign.

Impressively, the Williamsburg building is still visible (barely) in the sight line on Harrison Street from Williamsburg Blvd. The county’s bow to the march of time offers a great new adventure for a fortunate few.

The LEED-certified tan and grey 21st-century facility will (temporarily) ease the school crowding problem with 28 classrooms and a capacity of 630 students. It was inspirationally named Discovery by a community committee, a discreet nod to astronaut John Glenn, who in the 1960s lived across the street and frequented the grounds with his children. Protocol forbids naming a school for someone still living.

Discovery’s branding began earlier this summer, I noticed, with black-and-white bumper stickers appearing on North Arlington cars of families whose children last year attended nearby Jamestown, Nottingham or Taylor schools.

There’s lots of enthusiasm, I was told by Erin Russo, Discovery’s inaugural principal, whom I met last month in her temporary conference room office inside Williamsburg overlooking what then was a construction zone. (Her team moved into the newly completed building Aug. 29.)

The redrawn boundaries at first drew skepticism, says the 10-year veteran of Arlington Schools (most spent at Williamsburg). But soon the rare opportunity to blaze the Discovery trail won them over—“even some previously private-school parents,” Russo said. The school’s PTA already has its website populated. For faculty, Russo enjoyed “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pick our entire team.”

Last April, the designated Discovery School staff organized prospective students (including kindergartners) to offer online suggestions and vote to choose the school colors and mascot. Ninety-seven students sent ideas, ranging from Rockets to Explorers to Astronauts. The results announced in June: Explorers, decked in red. An architect is now designing said Explorer.

The $32.8 million building, Russo stressed as she showed me artists’ renderings, is built with open spaces and multiple cascading staircases (“story steps”) that lend themselves to collaborative learning and impromptu study sessions for shifting groups of students using mobile devices.

As one of the few Net Zero Energy buildings on the East Coast, the 97,000 square-foot complex folded into the hillside contains an interactive energy-monitoring dashboard and photovoltaic panels. Observation decks in gardens are organized for butterflies, vegetables and capture of stormwater. To the grounds of Williamsburg laid out in the mid-50s, the county’s crews are still at work adding two synthetic soccer fields. (Get ready for neighborhood fight over whether to add night-time lights.)

The 538 kids, I suspect, will be drawn to the high school-sized gym floor, glassed-in cafeteria that affords a panoramic view, and an overhanging roof that will permit outdoor playing when it’s raining. Principal Russo thinks students will be especially fond of the colorful Twizzler-shaped slide they can ride to a lower floor (and make class before the bell).

Congratulations to the VMDO architects and the construction firm Sigal for pulling off the rushed project – $2 million under budget and on time after the groundbreaking in March 2014.

Welcome, first generation of the Discovery Explorers.


Remember the Journal newspapers? The dailies circumscribed the Beltway in five jurisdictions from the early ‘70s until 2004, when the nationwide empire of the Examiner bought them out. I had a previous column in the Journal for two years and published dozens of freelance pieces in its pages during my younger days.

Hence I was startled last week to spot, on a sidewalk on Fairfax Drive in Ballston, a brown metal Journal vending box with the familiar JOURNAL logo still intact. Is some hearty soul there still awaiting delivery of a fresh edition?