On the outside, Page Traditional School looks like any other small, brick school in Arlington. It's what's going on inside that has stirred up debate recently.
The debate boils down to two questions. Is Page, a "back-to-basics" school for kindergarten through seventh grade, a private school in a public school system? Or is it little different from most other elementary schools in Arlington?
The debate erupted again last week when more than 40 parents, including school board member Margaret A. Bocek, camped overnight on school grounds to be at the head of the line to enroll their 3-year-olds in the kindergarten class of 1984.
To some, the annual campout was a tribute to Page and to the school system. Others were concerned that the publicity surrounding the campout might create some misconceptions about other county schools.
"We do good things in other schools, and it's a disservice to the other schools that we have this hoopla about Page," said Marjorie McCreery, executive director of the Arlington Education Association, which represents most county teachers.
Superintendent Charles E. Nunley, who contends all Arlington schools are just as traditional as Page, says he has found some teachers at other schools "frustrated . . . miffed . . . by the attention Page gets in the media."
Even Page's principal, Frank Miller, concedes "It's unfair to assume that just because people are putting their children on a list to come to Page that the other schools aren't doing a good job."
Page, with 370 students, opened in 1978 and quickly became one of the most popular programs in the county, along with the two other "alternative" schools, H-B Woodlawn and Drew. The purpose of all three schools, officials say, was to give parents a choice of educational philosophies.
Currently, two school board members -- Simone J. (Sim) Pace and Bocek -- have children at Page. Both Bocek and Pace agree that, despite their personal choices, other Arlington schools have strong educational programs.
"It's an alternative, not the antithesis of the other schools," said Bocek.
"It sounds like some parents feel that the only quality programs are at the alternative schools," said school board chairman Evelyn Reid Syphax. "But all the schools in Arlington are excellent. It's just a matter of which ones the parents themselves desire for their children."
In some quarters, however, the three schools have been branded elitist because of their low enrollment of minorities, non-English-speaking children and special education students.
" Page is perceived by many in the school community as an elitist, private school," said school board member Michael E. Brunner, whose children do not attend any of the alternative schools. "In my opinion, it provides a good, traditional education and I support that."
Page does have a special education resource teacher, Miller said, and as for non-English-speaking students, most are fluent in English by the time they reach the top of the waiting list for Page.
Although Nunley said all three alternative schools are attempting to increase minority enrollment, Miller said he is restricted by the long waiting list and the first-come, first-served policy at Page, where the enrollment is 88 percent white. School board members added that few members of the minority communities appear to be aware of the alternative school programs.
"It's difficult to recruit minorities, or anybody," Miller said, "because if I get someone interested in coming, all I can do is put them on the waiting list."
Although their philosophies differ considerably from those at Page, the other alternative schools also have waiting lists. H-B Woodlawn provides a college-style format for grades 7 through 12, and the Drew Model School is keyed to letting children in grades 1 through 6 progress individually rather than being locked into a grade-by-grade promotion plan.
Why is Page is so popular? Miller believes it's the commitment of the faculty, parents and students to a no-nonsense philosophy that embraces the kind of "traditional" education many Page parents had.
Page has strict discipline and dress codes, Miller said, and all classrooms are self-contained. That is, all students in kindergarten through fifth grade stay in one room with the same teacher all day. Although sixth and seventh graders have different teachers for some subjects, they move to the different classrooms as a single group.
But the real key to Page is the almost total involvement of parents with their children's education. For nearly everything, from homework to report cards, the parents are required to review the work with the children -- and sign a statement that says they have done just that.
All students must do at least an hour's homework four nights a week. All classwork is sent home in special packets to parents, who must read the work and sign off on it. Even kindergarten students come under the four-night-a-week homework rule; parents must read a book to their child and sign a form attesting to the reading session.
In addition to regular report cards, each student gets a weekly evaluation. The form states whether the child did his homework, performed satisfactorily and behaved in class, and may include the results of tests that week. The form must be reviewed and signed by parents.
Even though many school officials say other schools have educational programs just as traditional, school board member Pace says Page is the only school that has such explicit written policies to which all parties must agree.
"I have to differ when I hear someone say that we have a lot of schools like this," he said. "It's simply not the case."
Page social studies teacher Philip Liebensperger finds the academic program about the same as at his previous school, which he described as "pretty traditional." But the atmosphere at Page is different, Liebensperger says.
"The students know what we're after," said Leibensperger, who has taught in Arlington 10 years, including two at Page. "We tell them, 'You're here to learn and we're here to teach and we don't want to have to put up with a lot of nonsense.' "
Ellen Sugar, who teaches math and English literature, started at Page this fall after five years at other Arlington schools.
"I was skeptical when I came in, thinking, 'How different can it be?' but I really did find a difference," Sugar said. "The discipline is much easier because you have a lot of support from the principal and other teachers. . . . There are fewer interruptions and disturbances in class, so you can get a whole lot more teaching done in one period."
Science and reading teacher Amy Dye has taught in Arlington 20 years, including four at Page. One of the major misconceptions about Page, she said, concerns the student body.
"I think a lot of people think we have the cream of the crop here and others think we have the dregs," she said. "They don't see we have both. . . . We have a good cross-section. But you're never going to convince other teachers of that."
School board member Brunner adds, however, that Page "enjoys several significant advantages that other neighborhood schools do not enjoy. Page has uniform class sizes; they're always ideal and identical. It doesn't have combination classes, such as a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class, or large third-grade classes and small second-grade classes.
"The parents, and presumably the children, are supportive and are there by choice. . . . Even with these advantages, several schools have higher test scores."
Some critics contend that special schools like Page draw students away from neighborhood schools, which are in the unenviable position of losing students at a time when they are threatened by school closings.
"I get the impression people aren't running away from the neighborhood schools, but are seeking out something that's more attractive to them," Pace said.
"Other schools are equally traditional and require regular homework and enforce discipline, etc.," said Brunner. "They deeply resent the implication that Page is the only traditional school. And in these other schools, very few children request transfers to attend Page."
School administrators are just as quick to dispel the idea that Page is as radically different as some members of the community believe.
Superintendent Nunley said many Arlington schools are moving toward self-contained classrooms. Even so, he said, the important thing is not architecture but teaching.
"We use the same textbooks, have the same courses of study throughout the system. The program is the same," Nunley said. "It's just the way you teach it, how you deliver the services. . . . The other elementary schools don't have more discipline problems and the other schools give homework too."
Nunley said there is nothing to stop other schools from adopting the weekly evaluations, strict parental review and homework system that Page has, as long as the principal, faculty and parents agree. But Nunley and Pace both agree the school board should not mandate such programs since their success depends upon the cooperation of everyone involved.
School administrators agree there may be some valid concerns about the Page program, however, especially in relation to the overall school system.
Nunley is concerned about the enrollment limits at Page. "It doesn't seem quite cricket that they can cut off enrollment in a class at whatever the magic number is and say, 'That's all we're going to take and we can't enroll any more,' while the others can't do that."
And school board member Claude M. Hilton says he has "some concerns that the criticism about elitism tends to be true, although access to the schools is open to anyone who wants to apply. . . . But my general proposition is that these alternative schools ought to be run within the existing schools and not set off and apart from them."
The debate over Page and the other alternative schools is certain to continue this year as the school board considers the possibility of school closings for fall, 1984. Besides reviewing suggestions to close the alternative schools, move them into other schools or extend parts of their programs to other schools, the board will decide what grade configuration would be best systemwide--an issue that could affect whether Page gets an eighth grade, as parents have urged, or loses its seventh grade.
But if Page remains intact, school officials hope that next fall they can avoid one problem: the annual campout.