Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


Like many parents whose kids have moved beyond the school system, I have faded in recent years from the PTA and school policy activism in which I once reveled.

So I was pleased to get my feet wet again last month when I was asked to help judge college scholarship applications for high school seniors who had attended Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

The Dunbar Holland scholarship, named for two deceased TJ teachers, drew 16 applications. They were judged on community contributions, leadership and writing. Five of us collegially reviewed the essays and recommendation letters, but couldn’t decide between two amazing finalists for the $1,000 prize.

Lo and behold, we broke the tie when the PTA came up with an extra $500. That was matched by a fellow judge, a community activist who’s been at it much longer than I. So both kids ended up with a cool $1,000 toward in-state college expenses.

That cherry on top of the school year’s end landed as a new book appeared from a former Arlington school superintendent analyzing, among other things, the work of current Superintendent Patrick Murphy.

“Striving for Equity: District Leadership for Narrowing Opportunity and Achievement Gaps” (Harvard Education Press), by Robert Smith (who led Arlington’s Ed Central from 1997-2009), is in turn dedicated to a third Arlington superintendent, Larry Cuban, who ran our schools from 1974-81.

All three focus on improving minority success nationwide in diverse school systems with competing agendas. Murphy comes off pretty well in a narrative that avoids jargon, though is a bit cautious in tone. The scholars broach “undiscussables” such as racism and the feeling among parents of higher-achieving kids that focusing on underachievers shortchanges their own.

Smith, who now teaches at George Mason University, has long shared with me his work in minority achievement nationwide in communities that value both justice and college-bound competitiveness. He was attracted to Arlington because the first issue he tackled was a federal district court’s overturning of affirmative action at two Arlington choice schools—“the kind of fight that he and the board that hired him were willing to pursue.” He aggressively recruited black and Latino students to take more AP and IB classes, doubling the rate without a decline in scores, he said. “Arlington teachers were initially resistant,” but when they understood there was no lowering of standards and plenty of support, their talk changed to sharing information.

Smith and co-author S. David Brazer praise incumbent Murphy for continuing teacher training in cultural competence using outside facilitators.

The state supe of the year in 2015, Murphy “views himself as addressing opportunity globally,” the authors write. “He is equally concerned about helping families understand how to finance college as he is about ensuring that all students have access to challenging course work and curricula.”

Murphy says during discussions of mission “some of our community gets a little annoyed.” They tell him, “You’re pushing kids. You’re just worried about the numbers.” He tells them “those are my responsibilities in my role…At the end of the day, your decision making will always trump my decision making.”

But Murphy has added his own stamp to the Arlington agenda. “The plan we have today,” he says, “has eliminating the achievement gap as our second goal. The first goal is making sure that all children have challenging and engaging learning experiences.”


Arlington developer-philanthropist Preston Caruthers made a rare public appearance June 4 to personally announce more financial support for Arlington Outdoor Lab.

That enduring favorite of Arlington school-age nature lovers in Fauquier County kicked off its 50th anniversary celebration with a Saturday dinner-dance at a Ballston conference center.

Some normally staid school and county board members joined your twinkle-toes columnist in dancing to fine classic rock from the Westover band Still Standing. The fund-raisers beat their $50,000 goal by attracting pledges for $84,000, on top of event costs donated by Caruthers—who made a crucial first loan to the lab back in the late 1960s.