One candidate for Arlington County School Board would like to see more children bicycling to school and speaking foreign languages, another is pushing for faster progress on standardized tests, and a third is promoting higher expectations for minority children. And all have expressed concern about the achievement gap between white and minority students.
One of those candidates will get a chance to put ideas into action after voters decide Tuesday who will fill the seat being vacated by board member Elaine S. Furlow. Furlow is leaving the board after eight years to pursue a career in communications. Her seat is the first to turn over in several years.
The five-member board oversees a school system of 19,000 students who come from more than 120 countries and speak more than 100 languages. There are three high schools, five middle schools, 22 elementary schools and five specialty programs. Board members serve overlapping four-year terms.
By law, Virginia school boards are nonpartisan, and candidates run as independents, but both major political parties usually make endorsements.
William S. "Bill" Barker, a retired civilian Navy employee, has been endorsed by the Arlington County Republican Committee. Barker says that although Arlington is in a position to give its children the best education in the country, it has not been doing so.
"I don't think we're getting value for our money," he said, noting that 11 Arlington schools did not meet the benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind Act this year and that average SAT scores for black students also declined.
"We have some very disturbing test results . . . with scores in a steady state or a downward trend, especially in minority achievement," he said.
Barker, who has a daughter at Wakefield High School, ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the board last year. He said he would like to see greater access to such magnet programs as the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, which was ranked fifth this year in Newsweek magazine's "America's Best High Schools" Top 100 list, and Arlington Traditional School, a countywide elementary school whose students are selected by lottery.
"H-B Woodlawn has been successful for years, and yet two-thirds of the children who apply for the school don't get in," Barker said. "Arlington Traditional School is also a very, very successful school, but again students are turned away. We need to export their approach to education to other schools."
That approach might involve more individualized attention and more parental involvement, Barker said. "Let's look at what they're doing well and decide, do we need another school, or are they doing something that they could take to another school?"
Independent candidate Cecelia M. Espenoza, who has a fifth-grader at Claremont Elementary, said she is concerned that although the Arlington school system is highly regarded overall, black and Latino students are being left behind.
She said the problem is an "expectation gap" in which teachers expect less from minority students.
"We need to ensure that all those teachers have an expectation that every child will succeed," Espenoza said. "If you have a standard that believes that [minority children] are less capable, you set the bar too low."
She said that children who speak English as a second language often suffer from such lowered expectations. "Language and intelligence are not correlated," she said, adding that many parents also need to be educated about their children's rights and abilities.
Espenoza, a senior associate general counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice, said her own Latino background would be an asset in communicating with those parents.
"We need to figure out how to get parents and the community to hold the schools accountable," she said. "They don't feel they're listened to."
Edward J. Fendley, a career State Department officer who has the endorsement of the Arlington County Democratic Committee and the Arlington Education Association's political action committee, said he would push for more foreign language instruction in elementary schools as well as instruction in "less commonly taught but more commonly spoken" languages such as Chinese and Arabic.
"Having those language skills gives students an enormous advantage as they enter our economy," he said, adding that foreign language skills also boost students in other academic areas, including their English skills.
"It is of such broad academic value," he said.
Fendley, who has four children in Arlington schools, said that in the interest of promoting good health among students, he would push to make it safer for children to walk or bicycle to school.
"I want to ensure that sidewalks and crosswalks and streets meet our county safety standards, and I want to make parents understand that in many cases walking is an option for their children," he said.
"Our schools have not been as active as they should be in promoting those community-friendly options," he said.
Fendley also said that because 85 percent of county households do not have children in Arlington public schools, he would focus on sharing school recreation facilities with the community.