Arlington County Public Schools
Thursday, September 8, 2005; 12:00 PM
Join Superintendent Dr. Robert G. Smith online Thursday, September 8, at Noon ET to discuss the upcoming school year at Arlington County Public Schools.
Smith has been superintendent of the Arlington Public Schools since July, 1997.
The Transcript Follows.
washingtonpost.com: Superintendent Smith, thank you for joining us today. Are there any changes or improvements in K-12 education this year in Arlington County that are worth mentioning to parents today?
Dr. Robert G. Smith: Our major emphasis for this school year will be the implementation of a new six-year strategic plan adopted by the Arlington School Board in June. The plan was developed over 18 months with the assistance of hundreds of Arlington parents, community members, staff and students. It features four goals. They are:
Rising achievement. Ensure rising achievement for all students on standardized tests and other measures of performance that go beyond state and federal standards.
Eliminate the gap. Eliminate gaps in achievement among identified groups
Responsive Education. Prepare each student to succeed in a diverse, changing world through instruction and other school experiences responsive to each student's talents, interests, and challenges.
Effective Relationships. Build effective relationships with parents and the community so that they know about and actively support the education of our students.
You can see the full plan with statements of objectives and indicators that measure achievement of those objectives on our web page: www.arlington.k12.va.us
Arlington, Va.: Who determined that APS's spring break should be tied to the religious holiday of Easter, which can vary between March 22 and April 25? Try taking your kids anywhere the week before or after Easter, the crowds are really large at all the kid-friendly vacation sites. Why don't we just pick the same week in March every year to avoid these crowds, and let everyone have off the Monday after Easter for those few who travel specifically for Easter.
Dr. Robert G. Smith: The development of the school calendar undergoes an extensive process involving parents, staff, and community members. Typically, we also try to coordinate our spring break with other school divisions in the area. Most of our neighbors share the same week for spring break. We welcome your thoughts and will pass them on to Dr. Betty Hobbs, our Assistant Superintendent for Personnel, who chairs the calendar committee process.
Alexandria, Va.: What's the story on the construction of the new Arlington high school?
Last I heard the building violated zoning ordinances due to its height, and it was not so simple to get a variance.
Dr. Robert G. Smith: The Washington-Lee project is on schedule for receipt of bids in December, with construction slated to begin in January. The change in ordinance required for the variance in height has been approved.
That approval followed considerable discussion with the community regarding the height of the building and changes to the building design, resulting in a set-back of the fourth floor facing Stafford Street.
Arlington, Va.: Are county schools at all impacted by Katrina displaced children? Will there be any relocated kids in school?
Dr. Robert G. Smith: We have enrolled as of yesterday 11 students from the Gulf Coast area. Our counseling staff and the public health staff have been working with the students and their parents to ease their transition into our schools.
, many of our schools and PTA's are engaged in fund raising and a member of our Department of School and Community Relations is coordinating the collection of contributions to the Red Cross.
Arlington, Va.: Hi - Has there been any discussion in implementing a system-wide four-year-old preschool program? I understand the county has a program for lower income families, which is wonderful. A good early education is so important (as I am sure you know). Will the county considering expanding this program to all preschool age children?
Dr. Robert G. Smith: Our School Board has adopted an policy and a plan to offer pre-K experiences and to encourage other providers to do the same. Our current pre-K program includes 23 Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) classes (up from the two classes that we offered in 1999) that serve four-year-old children from families of lesser means. We also offer 17 Montessori classes for children ages 3-5, with two-thirds of the available spaces reserved for children of families of lesser means. Additionally, 28 preschool classes for preK children, ages 2-4, are distributed across the Arlington schools.
We also have made space available in our schools for Headstart and Early Headstart classes and work closely with that program.
To provide universal education for four year olds and/or three year olds would require, I believe, a major discussion within the community about our priorities and allocation of resources. We believe, on the basis of national and local studies, that Pre-K education represents one of the most effective means to eliminate achievement gaps, yet recognize that it also benefits other families and their children as well.
Arlington, Va.: Hello Dr. Smith. I am curious to know if APS has considered having uniforms for students? It seems that many public school systems have adopted them with great success, as it eliminates the distractions that can come from kids focusing on fashion/related peer pressure.
Dr. Robert G. Smith: Our procedures allow for individual school communities to adopt a recommended dress code. Currently, two of our schools, Carlin Springs and Randolph elementary, have gone through an extensive process with the parents and community and have adopted such standards.
Arlington, Va.: Good afternoon, I am concerned with the number of soft drink and junk food machines through out the schools. Health reports show that children are more obese than ever, will Arlington county take these machines out of the schools and replace them with healthy alternatives? I am not advocating no sweets, but having them available all day everyday seems a bit excessive. Thanks.
Dr. Robert G. Smith: How timely. The School Board tonight will be considering a new policy on vending machines that would have us adopt standards for beverages and snacks to be included in all vending machines in Arlington. Currently, vending machines are available to students only in high schools, with use during lunch and breakfast proscribed.
Arlington, Va.: Will any part of the old W-L building be preserved for history's sake?
Dr. Robert G. Smith: No. The original 1924 building was razed during previous renovations.
Arlington, Va.: Does the School District set the date for the PSAT? Why is it scheduled for the Jewish holiday?
Dr. Robert G. Smith: No, we do not set those dates. The Educational Testing Service does. We have had a similar question about our College Night which is scheduled for the first night of Yom Kippur. This date, as well, was set by the Educational Consortium of College Placement. When we realized the conflict, we made arrangements (for this year) for Arlington students to attend the College Night at T.C. Williams, and have informed the Consortium that future conflicts must be avoided.
Arlington, Va.: Dr. Smith:
Thank you for making yourself available for this discussion. I followed with interest the budget debates this spring about funding full-time resource teachers for the gifted in Arlington's elementary schools. Although your proposed budget added no funds for gifted services, the Advisory Committee on Instruction unanimously recommended as its top budgetary priority increasing staffing of RTGs from half-time to full-time, and the School Board initially proposed adding $150,000 in funding to gifted services. The APS staff budget report also recommended funding full-time RTG positions at most elementary schools. Will you make funding full-time RTGs a priority in next year's budget, and, if not, what are your reasons for rejecting these recommendations?
-- Lee from Arlington
Dr. Robert G. Smith: We will be considering, during the coming year, how we go about the process of providing, in cost effective ways, professional development across a variety of areas (e.g. technology, reading, mathematics, gifted. We continue to be mindful of the competing demands for expenditure of funds on specialists who do not provide direct services to students on a daily basis. Tune in this winter during our budget deliberations.
Arlington, Va.: Dr. Smith,
I know differentiated instruction is APS policy, and the Strategic Plan includes delivery of differentiated education to all students as an objective. Differentiated instruction is especially critical for gifted students, who often find the standard curriculum geared to a level well below their abilities. What measures are you implementing to ensure that students receive differentiated education, and how will you measure whether differentiated education is occurring effectively?
Dr. Robert G. Smith: The third goal of our new strategic plan, which treats issues of responsive education, involves providing educational experiences (both instructional and extra-curricular) that respond to the individual talents, interests and challenges of all of our students. Accomplishing this goal, of course, requires differentiated experiences. I would suggest that you take a look at the objectives and indicators supporting that goal that appear on our Web site.
Arlington, Va.: I was surprised to learn that the latest school budget reduces funding for Gifted Services in Arlington by 90 percent. Is the program being eliminated entirely, or are you changing to a different system?
At the elementary school level, it takes a full school year for a child to be "identified" as needing more advanced work, and identification seems to be the end of the services offered. Last year, my child's teacher (a lead teacher for her grade, with several years experience in Arlington) said she had never heard the terms "vertical acceleration" or "compacting the curriculum."
Looks like there is a real need to modify the system, but I hope the plans go beyond de-funding it!
I'd appreciate any updated info you can share on this topic.
Dr. Robert G. Smith: We have not reduced staffing or funding for gifted services. In fact, over the last few years, funding has been increased greatly as we have moved to full time positions in secondary schools, and have assured a half-time position at every elementary school. We also have allocated new funds in this year's budget to ensure a full complement of teachers endorsed in teaching gifted children.
Arlington, Va.: Is APS planning to allocate additional funding to establish afterschool Spanish programs in more elementary schools next year? In addition, is it planning to expand the current program at Glebe for future years to accommodate all students interested in the program? From what I understand, the Glebe students had to undergo a lottery for 22 slots and some students were turned away.
Dr. Robert G. Smith: The new afterschool program at Glebe is a pilot program this year. Following evaluation later this year, we will determine whether expansion is warranted.
Arlington, Va.: When will the next phase of construction begin at Yorktown High School?
Dr. Robert G. Smith: The current capital improvement program schedules the next phase of the Yorktown construction to continue after the 2006 bond referendum. The School Board will act in June on a revised capital improvement program that will address the next phases of the Yorktown construction project.
Arlington, Va.: What is APS's standard the teacher-student ratio in first grade, and what is considered the maximum class size for first grade?
In addition, if a first grade class size exceeds APS's maximum class size, what are the principal's options for reducing class size once school begins?
Dr. Robert G. Smith: We staff first grade on the basis of one teacher to twenty students, with a recommended maximum class size of 23. This recommended maximum is not an absolute, and whether another teacher should be added depends upon a variety of factors including the composition of the class, the availability of space for new teaching stations, likelihood that the enrollment above the maximum will persist, and the time of the year that the maximum occurs. The principals work closely with me to make such decisions.
Arlington, Va.: There has been much research conducted about class size, and it appears that the optimal class size for the elementary years is an average of 18 students per teacher.
Given this number, what is APS's maximum class size in elementary school, and what is the procedure for a school that has exceeded this threshold?
Dr. Robert G. Smith: I suspect you could find a number of other competing "optimum class sizes," most of them smaller. APS recommended class sizes are 23 in grade 1, 25 in grades 2 and 3, and 27 in grades 4 and 5. For Kindergarten, we operate with an absolute maximum of 22.
In the past two years, our average class size, K through 5, has ranged between 18.3 in the 2004 K class to 21.8 in the average 2003 Grade 5 class.
Washington, D.C.: Dr. Smith,
I was in high school when you came to Arlington and simply wanted to thank you for provided such loyalty and service to Arlington for all of these years. Often we hear about a virtual revolving door of education leaders and upon starting my career in the area, I was surprised to see that you were still here and dealing with the ongoing nature of Arlington school problems. While I was already crowded in high school, seeing trailers, etc., filling empty spaces in schools was somewhat shocking. Thank you for pushing through initiatives for new school buildings and looking after the needs of those learning and teaching within the school system.
Dr. Robert G. Smith: How nice! Thank you. I am fortunate to work with a talented and dedicated staff, a stable and responsive School Board, and caring and supportive parents and community members.
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