Our Man in Arlington

March 4, 2014 11:39 AM1 comment

clark-fcnpLike many trial balloons floated by Arlington’s governing bodies, this one set off alarm bells, even at the county school famous for having no bells at all.

H-B Woodlawn, the unique grades 6 – 12 program now in its fifth decade as a nationally recognized modern version of ’60s student-powered education, may be slated for physical changes.

Since a Jan. 28 school board working session explored options for dealing with the system’s bulging problem with overcrowding, the parent component of “hippie high” has been rallying for possible protest.

Among the county planners’ options affecting H-B’s campus at the former Stratford Junior High are adding 600 middle school students to the existing program, moving H-B to an unnamed site, and building out the Stratford facility to make space for 1,200 middle-schoolers at a site currently hosting 600 overall.

The parental activists leapt into letter-writing and swarmed the county’s planning meetings. Their Facebook site, “Love HB,” buzzed with admonitions like “Don’t forget to tweet ” on Saturday’s town hall meeting and complete the APS survey on its capital improvement program.

Their chief argument is that H-B’s intimate size is its raison d’être. “Diversity of educational programs is … a centerpiece of the county’s new strategic plan to ‘provide optimal learning environments’ and ‘meet the needs of the whole child,’ ” Melissa McCracken, co-chair of Woodlawn’s parent advisory committee, told me in an email. “We don’t want to lose this. Arlington should work hard to maintain and improve the range of options, to make each school the best it can be, not reduce the number and quality of available programs.”

In a letter to the school board and Superintendent Patrick Murphy, the parents stressed that the program’s benefits – in “student engagement, academic rigor and achievement, high school graduation and college enrollment, as well as positive impacts for at-risk students – match what teachers, students and parents see and experience at H-B day in and day out.” Committed teachers and personal relationships are also key to small-school success.

Common misconceptions about H-B include a belief it has been spared the burdens of overcrowding. Woodlawn’s “high school program is currently the most crowded high school (105 percent of capacity, versus 102 percent for Washington-Lee),” its website notes. Indeed, four “relocatables” currently occupy its grounds.

Nor is it true that H-B enjoys a superior student-teacher ratio. Its allocation matches that of other Arlington schools – it swaps guidance counselor slots for more teachers to keep class size down.

Education Central folks stress a desire for optimal learning environments and the urgent population boom. “APS has grown by over 5,000 students in the past five years – larger than many mid-sized school divisions in Virginia,” says Assistant Superintendent Linda M. Erdos. “We need to find solutions. This year’s CIP process has been designed to gather a wide range of options through a variety of engagement opportunities. Feasibility studies are being conducted. While many ideas have been raised, no decisions have been made.” They are likely in June.

Ray Anderson, chief founder and retired principal of Woodlawn, told me that if APS opts to move it, planners should find land that allows a building that meets state school standards, perhaps at Fort Myer or across from Quincy Street headquarters. “The Woodlawn program,” he says, “is a school with a unique learning culture, which has no relationship to its current building.”

  • DreamsAmelia

    As a parent of a rising 6th grader, who left her native Alexandria of 45 years and purchased a condo here in Arlington last year specifically for the HB Lottery, and who won(!), I am dismayed by the numerous comments that “the HB building does not matter, it is the program that is special.”

    Well, the thing that sold my daughter on HB was the paintings from decades of students, floor to ceiling, in glorious hall after hall–their exhortations to take the road not followed, their warning that if the mystery of the universe was ever solved, the solution itself would explode back into a mystery, etc—the walls of HB are testaments of generations of students who are cheering the current ones to be their quirky selves, and to better the world by being authentic, not by contorting oneself to conform to a world that does not really care about them—make the world a caring place by letting each person’s individuality manifest, as the walls themselves loudly proclaim! Such authenticity of expression is the roots of community, of true rootedness to each other and to the natural environment and all its creatures! We connect to what is crazy and unique about each other, not what is homogenous and ordinary…

    I have grown here from a seed in my mother’s sea, to discover, nourish and cherish my “private Washington,” which includes the C&O towpath’s loneliest stretches and stone railroad tunnels, Dumbarton Oaks, Glen Echo park, Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies in Capon Bridge, WV, and the Girls Seminary (Save our Seminary group) before it was renovated to condos in Forest Glen, MD….discovering HB was like stumbling into the Spanish Ballroom in 1985 and watching the strangest park ranger I had ever seen in my life, Stan Fowler, dancing a weird dance called “contra” and being breathless at the discovery… Glen Echo in those days before all the splintering groups and fights and renovations is the “Real” Glen Echo to me…

    And HB is like a remnant of those dear places, some of which are razed and replaced with condos, such as my birth hospital, Columbia Hospital for Women, and Kensington Orchids: an unrivaled 5-greenhouse paradise of thousands of orchids that groups of businessmen from Japan would seek out, until its demise to developers in 2001.

    To see HB effectively plowed under, as either moving or increasing its enrollment threatens to do, just fuels my bitterness at what has happened over my lifetime to my native Washington–countryside drives no longer possible, devoured by sprawl from here to the Shenandoahs, with Leesburg, Warrenton, Frederick now just contiguous with the exurbs.

    Everything beautiful that was quirky, weird, strange and unexpected in what should be a no-nonsense “bureaucratic” town, has eventually folded to pressure to make room for the bland: simply for “more people, more seats, more students”–faceless, nameless, “any-people” who don’t seem to mind that every house on every road is a numbing all-weather yellow or creme siding.

    Yes, it is selfish to want these strange, small, beautiful things: only a few find them special, so “naturally” we must accede to the development monster that does not care how soul-less or large a school, apartment, or prison is, so long as their profits are flowing. But I cherish my constitutional freedom to raise my voice in protest as every brick and beautiful flake of paint is razed….and I cherish the community who mourns with me, perhaps all the more dear BECAUSE we are a minority…and our very system of government has checks and balances to protect the rights of minorities from the whims of the majority….even though local politics are not always so effective at cherishing our rights…

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