Thank You and Keep On, Keep On

Dec. 17, 2020

 

Friends and Supporters,

 

Fifteen years ago, my husband and I moved with our four children back here to our home in Arlington after a three-year tour in Bern, Switzerland. My kids were almost all school age and I was looking forward to being home and having time to work on my next big personal project – writing a novel. I planned to pack my kids off to school, with the youngest in pre-school, and have several hours a day to write.

 

Well, there is nothing like the last fifteen years of my life to teach me the meaning of the proverb, “We plan, God laughs.”

 

I knew going in that I had one child who was a struggling reader. I had contacted the school from overseas and sent along reports and evaluations.  I had no idea though that from day one, my two other attention-challenged children would bring me back to school again and again for parent meetings with teachers about their “struggles and challenges.”  I was confused, buffeted by what felt like criticism of my parenting and my children. I knew no one. I waited alone outside of school each day, waiting for the next criticism.  Every day was spent trying to figure out how to support my children, trying to find people to turn to for help.

 

About that same time, I met another set of parents while out to dinner one night. They had twins, too. We sat together and exchanged notes. We both had twin girls, the same age, first grade. I mentioned one of my girls was a struggling reader and that I had gotten great help for her at school, she had been given something called an IEP right away when we arrived, and had reading help and homework assignments for us every night. The other Mom was quiet. She had asked for help for one of her girls who was also struggling to read and had gotten none. I confidently went to my school the next day and inquired as to how this other Mom could get help. The staff demurred. She had to ask at her school, they said, go through a process, and may not have the same resources at her school that we had at mine. I was stunned. I called her deflated, aghast that an experience from one school to the next in a public system could be so different.

 

Thus began my work with the Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee. Then Director of Special Education, Norma Villanueva, asked me to attend a meeting. She said the group could use a parent who had experience with ADHD and Dyslexia. I went. It was overwhelming. So many parents had such greater challenges than mine, working to support their children with mental health issues, Autism, and a variety of multiple disabilities. I stayed at the Director’s urging, listening and slowly adding my experience and advocacy for system-wide support for students with ADHD and Dyslexia.

 

I also was determined that parents not suffer the way I had, alone and unable to figure out how to get support. So, in 2009, I started first a list serv for parents of students with ADHD and then parents of struggling readers. The lists blossomed. Parents could talk and advise one another across Arlington. I compiled reports for ASEAC and the school system on parent experiences. I hoped for change.

 

As I immersed myself in these disability issues, I knew parents had to have an organized voice. I also knew the system needed to reflect on its services for students with disabilities. With Dr. Emma Violand Sanchez and James Lander’s support, the School Board acted to undertake the first-ever evaluation of special education services. Things started to happen. 504s became more prevalent. The Arlington Tiered System of Support (ATSS) began to identify students quickly who needed support. Inclusion in the general education setting became a priority for all students, regardless of the disability. 

 

I look back now through those ten years, with another evaluation completed in 2018. Have we gotten anywhere? Frustratingly, I say not far enough.

 

We need consistency across the schools to support all students with disabilities, different learning styles, and different backgrounds so they can achieve. We need to say Dyslexia and support students with Dyslexia. We need to stop telling children with ADHD to just settle down and behave. We are not there yet, not yet.

 

We also need to support our teachers and staff members. We need to hear and address problems, listen and respond when employees need help. We need to provide more training and coaching, conflict resolution, and general management strengthening for our administrators.  I have repeatedly brought to the attention of our growing system that our HR efforts need strengthening. To you who have risked coming to me to tell me of problems, I thank you. I sincerely apologize that your issues are not resolved. Please know I have communicated these and I thank you for your courage. We need you and will only become the best school system we can by continuously supporting you, our teachers and staff. 

 

That said, I have hope. Dr. Duran is clearly committed to this work. Despite the pandemic, he has focused on reading and supporting students with disabilities, students of color, and English language learners. He knows our staff is the key to our success. I love his focus on students by name and need.  He is one of the kindest, most people-centered professionals I have ever met. He and APS staff members at the central office know what to do to support our struggling readers. We just need that expertise to make its way into all schools and for all schools to deliver structured literacy and other effective learning approaches consistently to each and every student, by name and by need. And we need to hold ourselves accountable for getting this done. I do believe this is underway.

 

I hope that I have served all of you well. You have supported me on the School Board for the last six years. I did not do this alone, I did it with you. I did my best. This job is hard and there are so many distractions. It is hard to stay focused on learning and instruction when the system is growing so fast.

 

Thank you for your support and constantly being there for me as I worked every single day to serve our community, with students and families always at the center of my attention. Please continue advocating, don’t stop. With your support of this Board, the Superintendent, and the entire staff, I do believe APS can appropriately and consistently support all our students well. We can improve outcomes for all our students. Parents, families, and staff, stay united. APS needs you and needs your support.

 

 

 

 Nancy

Time to Pass the Baton

 

Dec. 4, 2019

 

Dear Arlington Friends and Neighbors,

After five years of service on the Arlington School Board, it is time for me to pass the baton. I will not run for re-election in 2020.  Still, I remain committed to the goals and priorities that called me to serve and will continue to work diligently through 2020 to see them through. 

 

Since my 2014 election to the School Board, APS’ biggest challenge has been to meet our students’ needs in the classroom while increasing capacity due to our rapidly growing student population.  This has required strong collaboration between the Schools and the County.

Instruction

 

From my first days serving on the Board, I committed to improving outcomes for all students, particularly students with disabilities, English language learners, and students of color.  To accomplish this, I focused on:

 

  • Expanding the availability and use of reading resources, interventions, and staff training to better serve the needs of all students, particularly those students who historically have not become successful readers with our existing instruction,

  • Increasing rigor in our curriculum and insisting on high expectations for students of all backgrounds.  Our 2019 evaluations of services for English Language Learners and Students with Disabilities recommend we continue to build and strengthen these efforts,

  • Supporting the 2015 launch of the Arlington Tiered System of Support, a framework and philosophy that provides resources and supports to help every student reach success in academics and behavior,

  • Investing in the expansion of the number of psychologists and social workers to meet the mental health needs of our students, and

  • Ensuring that our newest Strategic Plan incorporates all these instructional priorities, while focusing on equity, inclusion, and educational excellence.

 

These efforts have resulted in improved educational outcomes and well-being for all students. 

 

Capacity

 

To meet growing capacity needs due to our expanding student population, I focused on:

 

  • Opening three new schools on time (Discovery, Fleet, and The Heights) with another opening in 2021 (Reed),

  • Repurposing two existing buildings (Dorothy Hamm and the Ed Center) to increase instructional space for students,

  • Renovating and modernizing three existing schools / offices (Drew, Montessori, Syphax),

  • Increasing the capacity in three high schools and three middle schools through cost-effective internal space renovations,

  • Developing plans to build-out the Career Center to add 800 high school seats,

  • Launching a new high school program, Arlington Tech, which has a project-based learning approach that prepares students to succeed in college and the workplace, and

  • Adjusting school boundaries every year since 2014, resulting in the reassignment of students at all grade levels to balance enrollment across the County. 

 

These projects have met capacity needs by efficiently using existing space and building new facilities and programs where needed.

 

Schools – County Collaboration

 

I also committed to strengthen Schools’ collaboration with the County to address pressing facilities and transportation needs in our increasingly urban county.

 

  • Together with County and School Board members, we created the Community Facilities Study and the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission to study and plan for long-term county-wide facility needs.

  • To better coordinate transportation resources, particularly related to Schools, we created the Arlington Committee for Transportation Choices, bringing our staff and citizens together to coordinate multi-modal transportation initiatives for students and staff members.

  • We also worked jointly to establish Stratford Junior High School – now Dorothy Hamm Middle School – as an historic landmark of Virginia’s first desegregated public school.

 

 This era of strong collaboration has been of great benefit to Arlington and its citizens.

 

2020: Strengthen Rigor, Interventions, and Student Supports with a Focus on Equity

 

In APS’ Strategic Plan, our top priorities are inclusion, educational excellence, closing opportunity gaps, and supporting the well-being of our children.  To move this work forward in the coming year, I will continue to focus on the following priorities.

 

  • Ensure support for teachers and staff by providing competitive employee pay to keep our workforce stable in this high-cost region and increasing training and coaching to focus on our students and their specific needs in the classroom.

  • Support efforts to ensure our children feel safe and supported as the mental health challenges of anxiety and depression continue to rise.

  • Support the expanded use of interventions that decrease suspensions and discipline incidents.  I will support APS’ partnership with the police and work with our new Commonwealth’s Attorney to reduce student involvement with our criminal justice system.

  • Push to strengthen identification and early intervention of struggling readers and ensure our interventions are effective.

  • Support the adoption of a School Board policy on Equity and Inclusion that commits our system to ensure students are provided the resources they need to thrive and achieve in our classrooms.

 

Going Forward:  Prioritizing Each Student’s Educational Needs While Expanding Capacity

 

The greatest challenge for Arlington Public Schools will continue to be deliberately and methodically prioritizing the instruction and well-being of our children in our classrooms while also meeting the unrelenting demand for physical space.  Our School Board needs to follow through on our Strategic Plan, which clearly lays out how to get this job done.

 

I thank everyone for trusting me to serve on the School Board for the past five years.  I will continue to do so diligently throughout 2020.  My laser focus will be to put in place concrete plans to achieve our Strategic Plan goals of closing the opportunity gap and ensuring our students are healthy and well-supported. 

 Nancy

Authorized by Nancy Van Doren for Arlington School Board