Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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“My kids said middle school stinks, and they hope high school is better.”

That was a motivator for Karyn Ewart, the clinical psychologist who last September opened Arlington’s newest educational experiment.

The private Sycamore School, where she gave me the cook’s tour, serves just over 20 motivated 6th-to-8th-graders on leased floors of a Ballston high rise behind the Holiday Inn.

The middle school years are “pivotal, predictive, and possibly life-altering,” says her brochure. “Conventional education often creates excessive stress.”

Pre-teens “pull away from their parents, are not as talkative, and look to other adults and peers,” said Ewart, a graduate of McKinley, Swanson and Yorktown. “So we take students who love learning, or who loved it and lost it. Some were bored or bullied,” she said. Others were high-achieving, but their parents worried they were “risk-averse.”

Ewart’s full-time staff of five (plus four part-timers) strive to “give students the tools to succeed and be grounded” in three roots: academic development; social and emotional growth; and civic engagement.

That means “developing the whole child,” she said. “If they’re anxious or inattentive, they’re not available for learning.” Sycamore kids are taught to be “autonomous, to problem-solve and manage time and social relationships,” said Ewart, who has a son at Swanson and a daughter at the University of Virginia. “If there are bumps, we require a reflective piece to ask what we can do differently. Learning is not linear.”

The Sycamore School kids I met (they arrive by parents’ car, bike, public bus and Metro) were gathered in clean rooms outfitted with a refurbished Wurlitzer jukebox, board games, 3-D printers and aquariums with live turtles. The critters are part of a partnership with Marymount University to monitor their growth for possible use in a NASA space launch. The hallway bulletin board showcases the “fake news” lessons the kids learned after a field trip to the Newseum.

But Sycamore’s main subjects are English, history, math and science. “I don’t care if the kids wear socks or pajamas, sit in a bean-bag chair or stand, what’s important is they are actively engaged,” Evart said.” Maximizing choice of projects “gives them a sense of ownership. It’s super important to have buy-in.”

One key feature: no homework. “It’s busywork that weighs them down,” Ewart said, “and you don’t know when parents are doing the assignment.” But she acknowledges the value of homework in high school, for long-term projects.

Teaching is “all about relationship-building” and trust. If that sounds like Arlington’s H-B Woodlawn program, Ewart agrees. “But lots of H-B kids already have [that trust]”. “We need to cultivate it.”

Tuition for the Sycamore is $21,000 for the inaugural student body, set to rise to $24,000. As chief fundraiser, Ewart attracted $40,000 for scholarships, personally interviewing families to gauge financial pressures. Extracurriculars are parent-organized travel sports or ballet classes.

Sycamore will double its space next year and is building a Black Box theater (thanks to an earmarked donation and partnership). Student body will rise to 60, and her hope is to then expand to grades 5 through 12, or 240 students.

Ewart never discussed her project with Arlington school superintendent Patrick Murphy.  But she considers Sycamore “complementary, not competitive. He should thank me,” she said.  “At a maximum, we will be taking 240 student off his hands and making them happy.”

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Arlington youth baseball alums from the ‘60s mourn the passing of Coach Don Lichty, 89, of MSA Parkinson’s Syndrome in hospice near his retirement home in Florida.

Lichty was part of the dynasty of Optimist Club mentors who molded hundreds of boys as they transitioned from Little League to high school play. By day he was an official at NASA, and on autumn weekends he directed the Washington Redskins Singers.

One former player, Jonathan Ingram, recalled how in the summer of 1967 Lichty surprised the squad during practice by bringing a future Major Leaguer to pitch hitable fastballs and boost player confidence. That was Washington-Lee graduate Clay Kirby, another of Lichty’s charges.