Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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A seasoned teacher, once retired, can speak freely about what ails our school system.

Lorraine Gandy, a high-impact kindergarten teacher at Arlington Traditional School, quietly turned in her papers last July after a 45-year career.

Last month, I listened in her home as she unburdened herself of some frustrations with the changes in pedagogy and management over the past few years, reforms that took away some of “the joys of creating lifelong learners.”

Gandy, I was told by Donna Honeywell, assistant principal at ATS, is a key reason for ATS’s academic success. “Hundreds of five-year olds learned how to learn thanks to Lorraine,” she said. “Students come back from college to remind us they learned what they needed in kindergarten with Mrs. Gandy.”

She also has deep roots in Arlington, having attended Patrick Henry Elementary, Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Wakefield High (Class of ’66), where she met her future husband. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” Gandy said, recalling how as a girl she lined her dolls up like students and spent summers at Wakefield working the switchboard.

When she first fronted a classroom in 1972, “Arlington was ahead of its time,” Gandy said. Teachers worked with an outline of what students needed to know by grade’s end, gave tests and carried on with what was necessary. “But then the government got involved, and one or two tests was not enough.” Now there are at least five or six tests a year—“you know how much time it takes to put that in the computer?” she asks.

“No one doesn’t want to know what the kids have learned, but you don’t need from September to January to March to do it. It’s overkill.” These kids are five years old!

Another blow is the change in curriculum mentors. Hers–among them Betty Ann Armstrong and Kathy Grove—“had come through the system.” Those senior staffers “respected us as teachers with our opinions, we had dignity, and morale was good,” she said.

But Superintendent Patrick Murphy has hired “a lot of administrators from the outside with no cultural memory,” she said. “Now it is all data-driven,” with teachers and principals tied to computers and given less say in which books to teach from. The superintendent sent the message, “If you don’t like it, there are 2,000 waiting for your position,” Gandy said.

The new regime has also turned planning time into a discussion of data, taken away “early release,” shut down the teacher materials center (where she used to print her own laminated visual tools) and canceled a summer training stipend for child care. “They’re running the school like a business, but schools are about people,” Gandy said.

As a countywide choice school, ATS has always needed “a reason to exist,” Gandy noted, one reason she focused on phonics. She used to love writing songs and integrating them into her teaching–“sing it, talk it, build it.”  And the ethnic diversity that has transformed Arlington schools is “a wonderful microcosm of the world. It meant the world to me,” she added.

Gandy’s retirement is a “work in progress.” She’s reading books and continuing music and drama work at nearby St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. “I miss teaching terribly, the love of being part of people’s lives,” she said. “But I don’t miss all that other stuff.”

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One of Arlington’s more mysterious personalities died last month.

Doug Coe, the evangelical who for decades ran the National Prayer Breakfast for Washington big-wigs, had a heart attack at 88.

Though he lived in Annapolis, Md., Coe led the highly secretive charity Fellowship Foundation. It occupies the former Doubleday Mansion off Spout Run Parkway at Arlington’s Fort C.F. Smith.