The Miseducation of Black Students in Arlington Public Schools

Esther Cooper founded the Arlington NAACP branch in 1940 primarily to address educational inequities. Ms. Cooper moved from Ohio to Arlington to work for the Federal Forest Service. She became an advocate for education equality after deeming that Arlington’s Black schools were unfit for her own children. Under her leadership, the Arlington NAACP sued the school board challenging the inequalities in the county’s Black high schools, in Carter v. School Board of Arlington Co. (1950). The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that Arlington’s separate high schools constituted unlawful discrimination.  

Today, 70 years after the Carter decision, and 66 years after Brown v. Board of Education, we still don’t have education parity or fully integrated schools in APS. The school board and county have taken affirmative steps to re-segregate schools either by busing or boundaries. In fact, our north Arlington schools are more segregated today than they were 50 years ago. 

Not surprisingly, the academic gap has not closed in decades. Black children hover around 20 points below their White counterparts and are performing below the state average which is already quite low.  In addition, we are facing a literary crisis in APS wherein reading scores for all students have been on a steady decline. However, Black students are disproportionately impacted, and some are graduating from high school semi-literate.  How is that 20K per pupil being spent? 

We see the equivalence of education redlining in APS wherein the high school with the highest minority population, Wakefield, is not utilizing a science-based, structured literacy approach for struggling readers, i.e., Orton Gillingham, as recommended by the International Dyslexia Association, the VDOE, and APS. And this problem is not limited to our high schools. We have students who are entering 9th grade reading on a 3rd-grade level. A student may get access to a science-based reading curriculum or effective reading diagnostic assessments, or they may not, depending on where they attend school. The inability to read and comprehend impacts a student’s ability to access other content areas and the gaps will widen instead of closing.  Literacy is a civil right and neglecting to adequately address gaps and deficiencies in literacy is a violation of civil rights.  

Black students with disabilities in APS face a more daunting academic outcome as many are over-identified as emotionally disturbed, when in fact, their behavior is the manifestation of undiagnosed learning disabilities. Many of our Black students are unidentified for learning disabilities.  When gone unidentified and untreated, the difficulty reading and learning then presents as emotional or psychological behavioral problems due to frustration, anger, anxiety, and low self-esteem.  

The civil rights data on APS makes clear that Black students and especially those with disabilities are disciplined, suspended, and referred to law enforcement, and forced into the juvenile justice system at rates disproportionate to their white counterparts. Arlington County Police Department’s data shows a disproportionate number of arrests and detention of Black children in Arlington. How Black students and students with disabilities experience School Resource Officers (SROs) is markedly different and generally less positive than how white, neurotypical students experience SROs.    

Black students experience racism and bias and are subject to implicit bias, low expectations, and tracking at every juncture of their academic journey.  It is no coincidence that national statistics reveal that 62% of juveniles in the juvenile justice system qualify for special education, and 50% of federal inmates are dyslexic.  Everything that I have described thus far, is the school-to-prison pipeline. And APS is very much a party to it, whether wittingly or unwittingly.

Intersection with Criminal Justice Reform

Since we have established that these education failures are a direct route along the school-to-prison pipeline, we cannot have a meaningful conversation about criminal justice reform without addressing education reform. The two are inextricably linked. We have to stop the stove-pipe of Black, Latino, and students with disabilities into the criminal justice system. We advance criminal justice reform by identifying learning disabilities early and effectively remediating it.  We advance criminal justice reform by prioritizing literacy and producing stellar graduates who are college-ready or career-ready when they leave APS. We advance criminal justice reform by rooting out racism and implicit bias in our schools (to the extent we can) through training and frequent refreshers. We advance criminal justice reform by having a robust equity framework and assigning an equity lead at all schools.  We advance criminal justice reform by taking a trauma-informed approach to teaching and expanding upon the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional (CASEL) learning. We advance criminal justice reform by fully implementing robust restorative practices in our schools, such as the PEER program (Promoting Empathy through Equitable Resolution). We advance criminal justice reform by effectively addressing bullying behaviors from a safety and wholistic approach.  Finally, we advance criminal justice reform by replacing SROs with the recommended ratios of mental health professionals in our schools.


Open Letter to the County Board – October 22, 2020

Dear Chair Garvey and Board Members:

APS had projected that it would be transitioning level 1 students to the hybrid (2 days in school) model, commencing on November 12 and level 2 students in early December. Yet, as I look at today’s Virginia Department of Health CDC metrics for school re-opening, Arlington County is trending in the wrong direction, i.e., upwards, with 149 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 14 days, which puts us squarely in the orange “higher risk” category of risk for returning. Our teachers and staff fear for their safety. While virtual learning is working for some students, many are suffering, and others are losing ground they may never regain, especially students with disabilities, English Learners, and our youngest learners – Pre-k – 5. The impact to our economically disadvantaged students is even more dire. These are our high-priority students. This is an equity issue of great magnitude with lasting adverse impacts.

Board members have stated ad nauseum, that re-opening is “up to APS” and that the county “doesn’t have the authority” to make reopening decisions or tell schools what to do. I am well aware of that, and I am not writing to debate the legal authority of the county board’s governance of our schools. We are clear there is none. What I am asking for, actually begging for, is that our county board get emotionally and fiscally invested in the safe re-opening of our schools. APS having to remain virtual is not the result of schools being the direct source of new infections, but because the levels of community transmissions, as in the graphic below, warrant extra measures to keep our students, staff, and the families safe. Schools alone cannot bear this burden. The county must take all feasible measures to keep this virus from spreading in the community.

If our schools remain closed, it will ultimately result in a greater financial burden to the county and tax payers, as illiteracy and poverty will rise, as will cases of abuse and neglect. The impact will last for years. We need ALL HANDS ON DECK to get us through this crisis. We need APS to do its part. We need the community to do its part. We need the county to do its part, but that will require the leadership of the county board to set the parameters and expectations for the community. To that end,

*We need the county to DO MORE by way of enforcement of masks and appropriate 6ft distancing in public spaces. There is no reason that you can’t implement strict and consistent enforcement measures.

*We need the county to crack down on crowded gatherings in bars and restaurants, and mandate appropriate distancing and ventilation in these spaces.

*We need the county to commit to PARTNER with APS to provide testing and/or funding for testing. This is critical for stopping the spread by people who are asymptomatic and will pass ordinary screening. The county is already providing testing for the community, and could help coalesce specific school-based testing.

*We need the county to provide a nurse for EACH school building that will reopen for school.

*Coalesce resources from, and partner with, our resident corporations like Amazon and others, to help. I believe they want to help, but the ask needs to come from you.

*Do not wait for APS to come to you; they are overwhelmed and overcome by the magnitude of figuring out how best to educate our students.

We are in a crisis like none of us have ever seen. Please, I beg of you, step up and regard our schools as the precious jewels that they are. Make APS your top priority, and let Arlington be the leader that we know it can be in this regard. Finally, create a lasting legacy–one for the history books–of how a county and a school district came together to make it through this pandemic. We have no leadership on this in the White House. We have poor leadership on this from the state. All we have is you.



cc: Arlington School Board…/pandemic…/school-metrics/(be sure to select Arlington in the drop down menu).


We have now completed two full weeks of virtual school, and it is not working for many of our students. To add to the challenges of learning on a virtual platform, technology failures abound with the Global Protect VPN and MS Teams platform. The inconsistencies in classroom experiences on MS Teams are prolific.

While there are some students who are thriving, many more are floundering. My philosophy is that we should teach to those in the margins, and everyone will benefit. Too many of our students are stuck in the margins of virtual learning. I acknowledge and understand the anger, frustration, and anxiety many parents are feeling. It is valid, and I hear you.

I am deeply concerned about our students with disabilities for whom virtual learning is inadequate and who are actually losing ground and regressing as a result. Some of these students require in-person therapies and intervention. Some require the physical environment of a classroom to maintain focus and attention.

I am concerned about our youngest students, particularly Pre-K-3rd who don’t have the stamina to remain engaged with an iPad for hours. These are our VPI (4 year olds), our Montessori Primary (3, 4, & 5 year olds), our Community Peer PreKs, our kindergarteners, and our 1st – 3rd graders.

I am concerned about our financially vulnerable students and those who are in unstable home environments who will be left alone at home while parents work, or for whom home is not a safe or ideal learning environment. For these students, learning may not be occurring even if they are logged on.

I am concerned about our students of all ages, who may be slipping further into depression, experiencing anxiety, or feeling isolated. The human connection with peers is vitally important.

And yes, I remain very concerned about the spread of COVID-19 amongst students, staff, and the community. Nevertheless, I support a phased-in return of high priority students first, done in accordance with scientific principles and recommended safety protocols.

Until APS can retrofit schools with appropriate safety mitigation measures (e.g., open windows, air purifiers, appropriate ventilation, PPE, COVID testing, screening, etc.) to safely bring back every student who elected the hybrid option, I would like to see APS take more immediate and affirmative steps to consider all feasible interim options to bring back the high-priority students. These options include physical distancing in outdoor classrooms (at least while the weather is still mild), physical distancing in indoor classrooms with open windows and air purifiers, and of course enforcing masks, handwashing, eating lunch outside, etc. We have enough buildings and county facilities to spread out small cohorts of students to meet physical distancing requirements. The County Board confirmed that they are willing to earmark needed park and county facilities to APS to help accomplish this.

I would like to see APS communicate metrics, a plan, and progress for in-person return more clearly and frequently so parents know what to expect, what to look forward to, how to plan, and how to help. We desperately want APS to succeed.

The decision to return in person must continue to be optional for both families and teachers. Every family has a different risk tolerance and need which must be respected. However, I would like to see APS leverage the teachers and families who feel safe enough to weigh the risk in favor of return, by creating the space and the opportunity for them to do so.

Finally, I would like to see our Arlington County officials be equally invested in the reopening of APS. Having watched the County Board update today, I am acutely disappointed in the seeming lack of urgency by the County Board and the reluctance to take ownership of or have any buy-in on the reopening of our schools. Instead, the sentiment seemed to be that “it’s up to APS,” “that’s not us,” “we’ve given them resources,” “it’s up to them,” etc. Our county government needs to stop this “us vs. them” mentality re APS and begin to act like we are #OneArlington. Schools not reopening is not just an APS problem, it is very much an Arlington problem.

Please join me in writing to our Superintendent, School Board, and County Board to respectfully request that they work together to prioritize leveraging all feasible options to safely return our high-priority students to school sooner rather than later. I believe there is unity amongst all of us in the ultimate goal of having our students be able to safely return to school. This is the common thread that binds us together.

Equity Requires That Our Schools and County Provide Childcare Solutions for Virtual Learning Days

Parents and teachers in Arlington Public Schools (APS) have submitted their choices for either a hybrid of two days in school plus three days of virtual learning, or full-time virtual learning. Parent results indicate that a majority chose the hybrid option. APS has not yet released the teacher results, and they should. Notwithstanding the choices, the school board approved the superintendent’s decision to start school on September 8 rather than August 31, and to begin entirely online and defer the hybrid option until it is safe to return. While I agree with that decision, I remain deeply concerned about the students for which school is much more than a place of learning. For our most vulnerable students, school provides meals, security, safety, social services, care & supervision, and special education.

The ability to return to gainful employment is the key to rebooting our economy. Any plan short of having students back in school five days-a-week presents a childcare conundrum that threatens the economic stability of parents, the county, and the country. Parents with means will hire nannies or au pairs, close-knit neighbors will establish “pods” to manage child-care and supervision of virtual learning. Few families can rely on grandparents for childcare because of the inherent risks of COVID-19. Some two-parent households may be able to alternate child-care/supervision. Single-parent households don’t have that option. The inequities are glaring.

APS and the county can no longer operate in silos. We need #OneArlington. County leaders must be invested in the safe reopening of our schools. I applaud APS and the county for beginning to think about the childcare needs of our teachers and first responders as part of the reopening plan. The same needs to be done for other working parents, particularly our moderate earners who must work outside the home. We need partnerships with community organizations, churches, and businesses to provide childcare solutions so that learning can continue when parents are at work. This will boost Arlington’s economy and our students’ education.

We have community centers, libraries, public parks, churches, that could be repurposed for this. APS and the county must brainstorm creative solutions to make reopening schools equitable for parents and teachers who must work outside the home. Let me be clear: By childcare, I don’t mean babysitting. I mean safe spaces conducive to facilitating virtual learning. We have unemployed residents who could be hired for this. If they don’t figure this out, learning will not occur all five days, widening an already unacceptable academic gap that was further exacerbated from three months of school closure.

Absent childcare solutions, financially vulnerable families will slip further into poverty if they forego working to supervise their child’s learning. Child abuse and neglect cases may rise. Absent childcare solutions, teachers will be forced to choose between teaching our children and caring for their own, leading to a teacher shortage. These are untenable choices to make and unreasonable ones to expect. Let’s become #OneArlington and do this.

APS and Arlington should forge Public-Private Partnerships for Child Care

It’s time to reinvent our schools. This pandemic has shone a floodlight on the fact that schools are much more than a place for learning. For our most vulnerable students, schools provide much-needed meals, structure, predictability, a safe space, mental health, socio-emotional support. For all younger children, the schools provide child care, which most parents need to be able to work. The key to rebooting the economy is getting people back to work. Parents cannot return to work without child care. Not having child care disparately impacts women, because most child-care responsibilities fall to women. Next fall, APS will not be able to welcome all of its students back to full-time, in-person instruction. As we think about next school year, we should start with an analysis of what we need for our students and our families. Not only do we need full-time instruction, but also full-time food service, and full-time IEP and wrap-around services. We need to keep the exposure risk for students and for teachers and school staff, as low as possible. For children 6th grade and below, we need full-time child care. Any plan short of full-time child care is going to increase the inequities that exist in Arlington. Parents need child care so they can work. For any time children aren’t in school or in County child care, parents who can afford it will be able to hire a nanny or enroll their children in small, group-based care. But those are the families who are already doing okay. Other families will be facing difficult choices: Put their children in child care with bigger groups of children, increasing their exposure to COVID-19; leave their children home alone; ask potentially vulnerable family members to watch their children, or forego work opportunities. None of these scenarios are good options.Any plan short of full-time child care has the real potential of increasing the spread of COVID-19. If APS does a part-time school option, rotating which students come to school each day or week, many will go to child care on the days they are not in school. This is likely to significantly increase the number of people those children are exposed to the virus. By increasing the risks that the children get sick, this increases the risks to our teachers. Our goal should be a plan that has a place for children who need child care to go every day. Distance learning at home should be provided for children who opt-out. We can accomplish these goals through a collaboration between APS and Arlington County, and by providing different models for different groups of students:

  1. APS could provide full-time in-person instruction in its elementary school buildings to all students in Pre Kindergarten, Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades, and those students with disabilities and English Language learners who would learn best in that environment.
  2. For students in 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade, APS could provide instruction through distance learning, and Arlington County could provide child care at community centers, libraries, churches, other private space, and, for 6th grade, the middle schools. APS and the county could collaborate to provide “wrap-around services”, like food service and counseling, at these child care centers. These child care centers could be funded through a combination of public subsidy and private funding, from employers who are eager to have their employees’ full attention.
  3. Students in grades 7th through 12th do not require child care but would benefit from some in-person instruction. This could be accomplished through one of the “hybrid” instruction models, or by providing full-time distance learning and encouraging students to come to school to do their distance learning on specified days.

Now is not the time for APS and the county to continue to operate in silos with regards to the reopening of schools. It’s time to think outside the box. Now more than ever, we need our school and county leadership to forge an alliance with each other, and with community-based organizations and businesses to support our workforce and our schools with child care needs. Other districts have done this. For example, The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, in partnership with the San Mateo County and Santa Clara County Offices of Education, established the COVID-19 Education Partnership to expand the local capacity of school districts to address the extraordinary educational and mental health needs of students. We saw APS and the county come together to address food insecurity with the Coalition for a Hunger-Free Arlington. We are one of the richest counties in the United States. We have 13 community centers, a plethora of churches, community organizations, and major corporations like Amazon, Nestle, Boeing, just to name a few. We can be innovative to meet the needs of our residents with regards to providing child care so parents can return to work as students continue distance learning.