The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arlington schools were named best in Virginia, but a growing chorus of black parents is disrupting that narrative

From left: Zakiya Worthey, Amina LuQman-Dawson, Whytni Kernodle, front, Sherrice Kerns, and Adora Williams — all members of Black Parents of Arlington.
From left: Zakiya Worthey, Amina LuQman-Dawson, Whytni Kernodle, front, Sherrice Kerns, and Adora Williams — all members of Black Parents of Arlington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

There is no shortage of praise or accolades for Arlington Public Schools. Students in the suburban D.C. school system outperform their peers on state tests. Most high school students graduate with advanced diplomas. The district spends nearly $20,500 per student, more than any other district in a region flush with well-heeled public schools.

It’s the best school system in Virginia, according to the most recent standings on the ranking website Niche.

But a growing chorus of black parents in the 27,500-student school system is disrupting the narrative — the school system is excellent, they say, for wealthy, able-bodied white students and less so for everyone else.

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“It’s clearly not excellent for black kids,” said Whytni Kernodle, a parent with two students in the system. She is also vice president of Black Parents of Arlington, which began as a social group but has more recently evolved into an advocacy organization.

That group and the Arlington NAACP’s reinvigorated education committee are pressuring the school system to take seriously issues that have endured since well before today’s schoolchildren were born.

The parents’ demands are not new, recurring in similar battles over equal access to educational opportunities across the country. Among their goals: mandatory implicit bias training for teachers, more teachers of color, movement on closing achievement or opportunity gaps, and addressing discipline disparities.

Interim superintendent Cintia Johnson said the school system has long been committed to remedying the concerns that Black Parents of Arlington has raised, and she highlighted training and other efforts the school system has undertaken to tackle the issues parents have highlighted.

“Arlington recognizes that this is important work,” Johnson said. “I welcome the opportunity to really work with groups, as we do throughout this county, in an effort to continue to improve and move forward.”

The school system is hiring a chief diversity officer and has bolstered cultural competency training opportunities for school system employees. Last year, the district began a program called the Black Parent Alliance, which provides workshops and other resources for parents.

And the Arlington school system commissioned a study that assessed diversity in the school system, and examined the district’s curriculum and policies. A report published in March found that there is a “tremendous amount of optimism” about the capacity for more inclusion and diversity in the school system.

But the report also found that issues of diversity, inclusion and equity are inconsistently prioritized and valued at campuses across the system.

Members of the Black Parents of Arlington argue that the school system must do more to make good on its promises to address disparities.

They point to data that show in the 2017-2018 school year, 93 percent of white students in Arlington schools passed state Standards of Learning tests in math compared with 71 percent of black students. White students posted a 95 percent passing rate on reading exams, while 73 percent of their black peers passed.

Black Parents of Arlington has written letters laying out its mission. The group has circulated a brochure illustrating the gaps in scores between black and white students on state math and reading tests.

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It wants to unite the black population in Arlington — a diverse community that includes African immigrants who may face language or other barriers, as well as longtime residents with deep political and social connections in the county.

It has also been subjected to backlash in online comments from community members who have drawn on stereotypes to undermine the group’s work.

Parents say that is indicative of how Arlington — a largely liberal county with a school system that has positioned itself at the forefront of issues such as rights for transgender students — has blind spots when it comes to race.

“Arlington is more progressive, probably, than anyplace else in the state. But that doesn’t make it good enough, and it doesn’t make it as progressive as it wants to be,” Kernodle said. “What we are trying to do is force a group of progressive people to put their money where their mouth is.”

In the seventh grade, Kernodle’s oldest son received a letter saying he was nominated for a college preparation program at George Mason University based on his academic achievement. The mother was thrilled — until she reached the third paragraph.

The program was for children who would be the first in their family to attend college. But her son would not be a first-generation college student — Kernodle has a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her husband has an MBA from Dartmouth College.

The mother went to school system officials, pressing them to explain how her son was chosen to receive the letter. School system officials acted quickly to address Kernodle’s concerns, she said.

Still, she thought her son received the letter as a result of a microaggression and implicit bias — that an employee at her son’s Arlington middle school saw a black child and assumed that his parents did not attend college.

“Who is seeing my child as he walks around and just assumes that this is another uneducated black boy?” she said. “The assumption was that we were not educated.”

School system officials declined to comment about the experiences of individual students. But spokeswoman Catherine Ashby said the school system is committed to providing “a variety of resources and opportunities for all students to achieve excellence based on their individual academic needs, goals and interests.”

Families, she said, have “many points of contact” to teams of administrators, staff, counselors and other specialists that can help students access support and resources they need.

Another parent, Alfiee Breland-Noble, said her son was never referred by teachers for gifted services at Tuckahoe Elementary School, where 80 percent of students are white, despite receiving straight A’s.

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She eventually submitted forms referring her son and daughter for gifted services at Tuckahoe. Both were denied, said Breland-Noble, who is not affiliated with Black Parents of Arlington.

It wasn’t until Breland-Noble’s son transferred to Glebe Elementary, a more racially diverse school, that she said a teacher nominated her son for gifted services. She felt that teachers at the school were more adept at addressing issues related to inclusiveness and diversity.

Breland-Noble belonged to the school system’s advisory committee on gifted services and said she thinks black and Latino parents must advocate for access to advanced programs for their children in ways that white parents do not.

It’s troubling, she said, because gifted programs provide a gateway to more advanced classes, to newsletters with information about summer camps devoted to science, technology, engineering and math, and classes that prepare students for the SAT.

“Once you’re identified as a gifted and talented kid, it opens up a whole world of opportunity,” she said.

Forty percent of white high school students in Arlington were identified for gifted services in 2017-2018, school system data show, compared with 16 percent of black students.

Carolyn Jackson, the system’s equity and excellence supervisor, said some of these issues stem from an “information gap” in which parents are unaware of resources or lack knowledge about processes, such as the requirements needed to qualify for advanced courses.

“We really do need to examine the information gap,” Jackson said. “We have to be more intentional on how to explain and have parents and students understand the requirements to get into some of those programs.”

Black Parents of Arlington has sought to bring attention to this stark divide, along with discipline disparities that show black students are suspended at much higher rates than white students at some schools.

Federal data show that in 2015, black students accounted for 29 percent of Arlington’s in-school suspensions while making up 11 percent of the school population. Hispanic students made up 41 percent of suspensions but were just 28 percent of the population.

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The Arlington NAACP’s recently revitalized education committee has begun to delve into the same issues that galvanized Black Parents of Arlington. Symone Walker, a co-chair on the NAACP committee, said she chose to join the organization at the beginning of the year after becoming inspired by the work done by a neighboring NAACP chapter.

A parent of two middle school students, Walker said she has noticed over the years that “black students in Arlington seem to be falling behind.” She was disheartened to hear about a cost-saving proposal from former superintendent Patrick Murphy that would have cut equity coordinator positions in high schools.

The jobs were spared, but Walker said that watching students lobby to keep the positions “touched my core.”

“In the 10 years I’ve been here, I don’t recall a budget season in Arlington that directly impacted students of color the way this one did, or would have if it wasn’t fixed,” Walker said.

Several parents said they think their children are receiving high-quality educations. But the community has resisted conversations about systemic problems, they said.

“There’s a lot of fear out there that no one really wants to talk substantively about racial inequity. It makes everyone uncomfortable,” said Amina Luqman-Dawson, a founder of Black Parents of Arlington. “In reality, we have maybe never really sat down and actually worked through the problem.”

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