Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Arlington’s “Hippie High,” as the H-B Woodlawn Secondary program is sometimes dubbed, has broken much new ground in its nearly five decades.

So it’s no surprise that it helped break ground for the first high-rise school in the Arlington system. The Oct. 26 ribbon-cutting for its new quarters in the not-quite-finished Heights Building in upper Rosslyn drew 300 parents, students and alums, I was told by Principal Casey Robinson.

She conducted my tour of the modern (but still H-B funky) seven-story building with students and many teachers off for Election Day. I got a taste of its layout and special H-B adaptations accompanied by two members of the Arlington Planning Commission, plus a fellow former H-B parent, Robert Siegel, the retired on-air NPR stalwart.

“The Heights,” which houses both H-B (grades 6-12) and the renamed Eunice Kennedy Shriver program for special needs students, is a far cry from the tentacled single-story Arlington schools built in the 1950s, when land was plentiful. Construction cranes loom on a commercial lot next door (the H-B kids will soon lose a north view) abutting a temporary fire station. In the lobby by the main office stands a rack of Metro SmartTrip brochures and a neighborhood map — very urban.

H-B gave up some of the spacious athletic fields at the old Stratford building, and countywide bus service was reduced from 100 stops to 42, requiring more walking. But Robinson is grateful the teenagers’ special start time — 9:25 a.m. — was preserved.

Ten weeks after the faculty gathered wearing hard hats on Aug. 19 to warm up the white glassy building, some final wall touches remain unfinished, and they’re still buying furniture for the inviting outdoor decks. There was “a lot of camaraderie, since it’s emotional to move out and a lot of work to move in,” said Robinson, like many staff, herself an alum. “Now there’s renewed energy.”

Robinson still meets regularly with architect, the Bjarke Ingels Group, on the structure housing 775 that resembles an immense stack of garment boxes. “It’s challenging when you get with a star firm with a vision,” says Robinson, who, like many staff, wears jeans and an H-B hoodie and is addressed by her first name. They negotiated the right for students to decorate the glass windows. “We had to get used to life with elevators,” which open to a view of TV screens with activity announcements. One adjustment: assuring mingling among students who conceivably could spend their days without visiting other floors.

“Way finding” for newcomers is aided by floor-specific bright wall colors (purple, red, blue, yellow, orange, lime green and calming white) selected by the architect after consultation. “I’ll meet you on the blue floor,” is heard commonly. The gym area contains no bleachers (most H-B athletes compete on teams at the main high schools). Twenty-first-century music and theater rooms provide improved acoustics.

Nostalgic vestiges from the old building include a framed H-B logo from the center of the old gym and student art recalling the former address on “Vacation Lane.” Most dominating is a huge wall rendering of the student behavior motto Verbum Sap Sat (“a word to the wise is sufficient”) spread across color photos of the famous class-by-class display of senior philosophical graffiti.

The biggest issue for parents, Robinson said, is security. The building does have the same post-Columbine numbered exits as other schools, and visitors use a side entrance. But the kids enjoy an “open campus” (the new cafeteria seats only 100), and exits are unlocked for those already inside.

H-B has grown by 100 students in the past six years, Robinson says, with rising interest among families who enter the lottery more for the choice school’s small size more than its student-centered philosophy. The unique community used to be “nicely off the radar,” she said. “Now we’re on the radar.”

Middle school history teacher Dakota Springston is following in the footsteps of his mother, longtime Arlington historian Kathryn Holt Springston. That’s Dakota in the current Smithsonian Associates bulletin offering tours of Arlington Civil War sites. Among the gems: the location of famous photographer Mathew Brady’s studio — on today’s Wilson Blvd. near the TD Bank in Ballston.