Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The county’s sleekest new school was named “Cardinal Elementary” after three years of accelerated construction and controversy over names and boundary changes affecting the greater neighborhood of Westover.


Principal Colin Brown took me on a school-day tour just weeks after the Oct. 1 ribbon-cutting assembly (attended by county brass) to show off the eager students in the 21st-century LEED-certified building packed with clear glass and open spaces.


Its on-time opening meant the school was “fully functional” on Aug. 30, said Brown, who came to Cardinal after 11 years at nearby McKinley Elementary. Planners did better than they did in the fall of 2015 when Discovery Elementary had to open with some components delayed, he noted.


Still ongoing at Cardinal is installation of storm drainage piping underneath the playground—a response to the July 8, 2019, floods that damaged much of the Westover Shopping Center. A more political storm unfolded in nearby subdivisions as Arlington Public Schools shuffled locations for three elementary schools, putting the countywide Arlington Traditional School in the old McKinley building and prompting complaints about the loss of a neighborhood, walking-distance institution.


The new school on what for years was the site of Walter Reed School also meant dispensing with the name of Reed (a heroic, Virginia-born pathologist)—though his moniker remains chiseled atop the 1938 building now part of the walled-off public library branch.


Perhaps feelings have eased now that the Cardinal student body and faculty (the vast majority from McKinley, Brown notes) are settled in. Like their old school, Cardinal is a feeder to Swanson Middle School. Its spanking modern facility swaddles the young folks in creative hallway décor—such as the three-D model of the solar system and the steep stairwell with a gauge of atmospheric altitude. There’s a plastic slide kids enjoy as a “reward,” and curved cubby chairs built into walls in which students can relax with earbuds and laptops. The kids got to choose the new mascot: “the Soaring Redbirds” who CHIRP (for cooperation, honesty, include others, respect, perseverance).


The $55 million building, with plentiful natural light and open ceiling ductwork, has capacity for 736 students, but is currently at 652 (70 percent white, 30 percent minority). It is “well thought-out,” Brown says, pointing out moveable walls that allow reconfigurations.


The hallways ease “wayfinding” with images of the continents planned by the architect: Kindergarten is Australia; 1st grade is Europe; 2nd grade is Asia; 3rd grade is South America; 4th grade is Africa; 5th grade is North America. (Antarctica gets a mural but “there’s not much going on,” Brown says. It’s the future home of some special program or a pre-school.


Cardinal kids enjoy two music rooms and two art rooms, a spacious clinic (three beds), a library (in the former gym of the now-relocated Children’s School used by APS employees) with a ceiling approaching 70 feet. There’s artificial turf on the outdoor basketball court and a cafeteria “commons” with a separate room for those seeking quiet. Restrooms are open-entranced for security, with stalls but no urinals— for gender identification issues, Brown says.


During my visit, all students and staff were masked, and there was Monday Covid testing for students whose parents opt in. “Everyone’s waiting to get that vaccine going,” says Brown. “Everyone wants to stay open.”


Eight months after the W&OD bicycle-pedestrian bridge opened at the Arlington-Falls Church border, members of our homeless population have gravitated there.


Though the intersection of Langston Blvd. and I-66 has long attracted panhandlers, the newcomers “are definitely on our radar,” I’m told by Kurt Larrick, assistant director of the Human Services Department. “Our outreach teams,” which include PathForward volunteers, “are making regular visits.”


On Oct. 15, they spoke to two men sleeping at the base of a footing for the bridge. They didn’t seem interested in services now but agreed to discuss the possibility when reminded of the location’s vulnerabilities. “We did not observe any violations of the law.”