Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Racial tension in our schools is an old story.

So I was jarred to note the emergence last year of the Black Parents of Arlington, advocates raising new concerns about systemic bias in the system that they say stifles opportunities for gifted and talented programs, with stubborn racial gaps in test scores and discipline rates.

A half-century ago, I covered similar tensions for the Yorktown High School Sentry. Working with government teacher Harvey Wright, I surveyed 50 black students on their adjustment to our newly integrated school. As four percent of the student body, several cited unfair treatment in sports and administrators dispersing black students when they congregated.

“In a classroom with no other blacks, we are made to feel more like a minority,” several said in a statement. “There is a certain kind of comfort a brother or sister gets when he or she knows there is another brother nearby.”

Flash forward to Jan. 8, 2020. A black parent activist, a black Yorktown student and two Arlington school administrators diagnosed problems and possible solutions at the Committee of 100.

The tale is told in a fact sheet compiled by the Black Parents of Arlington: In college readiness, only 43-46 percent of the county’s blacks earned an advanced diploma, compared with 82-84 percent of whites from 2015-18. Pass rates in AP and IB courses have blacks hovering from 25-31 percent, compared with 77-81 percent for whites. And the suspension rates leap out: At Yorktown, blacks, who make up six percent of the student body, accounted for 36 percent of suspensions.

Whytni Kernodle, the group’s vice president with kids at Wakefield and H-B Woodlawn, described a “microaggression.” Her seventh-grade son received a letter from Arlington schools nominating him for college preparation at George Mason University. She was proud until she read that her son was presumed to be the first in their family to attend college. “There’s an assumption black families don’t know or care how to prioritize education,” said the attorney, noting her husband has his MBA. “All parents want their children to come home and not be mistaken for a hoodlum.”

Though Arlington’s educators provide opportunities and compassion, Kernodle said, “the racism is systemic,” going back to days of white supremacy.

Yorktown sophomore Zoe Davis described her struggle with “pressure to compete with white kids who have tremendous advantages.” Teachers are overwhelmed, and black students need “visuals” such as African American role models. She fell behind on her studies and took summer school. But she is now in a Yorktown minority inclusion program called SOAR, plus an array of extracurriculars. Davis benefited from a “restorative community circle” that helped her and a white student get over her feeling disrespected.

The response from Arlington schools came from Interim Superintendent Cintia Johnson, with equity and excellence supervisor Carolyn Jackson. “Staff, community, everyone has responsibility to make sure we all own the work of educating our children.” said Jackson. She pushed the study of Arlington history — of redlining of housing. “Talk about race can be uncomfortable.”

Johnson said the APS strategic plan includes “equity” as a core value and that Arlington’s assessments outperform the rest of Virginia. Closing the opportunity gap means addressing mental health and “identifying one adult in the school building” with whom black students “can have a positive relationship,” Johnson said. Recruitment of more minority teachers is underway.

All agreed that busing is not the solution. As Kernodle put it, “We oppose busing kids of color to make whites feel better.”

Departed Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos has landed on her feet.

After her loss in last spring’s primary against Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the U.S. Justice Department has brought Stamos on in its Office of Legislative Affairs, as a law enforcement liaison with state and local authorities.

It’s a three-year appointment to the Senior Executive Service.