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ArlingtonEducationIs APS's achievement gap an unfixable problem?

Is APS’s achievement gap an unfixable problem?

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When it comes to Arlington Public Schools, the only constant seems to be change.

School Board members come and School Board members go. Superintendents show up and then move on. Enrollment zigs up and enrollment zags down. Students start kindergarten and, in a blink of an eye, are graduating from high school.

Yet the academic-achievement gap? That seems eternal, and the county’s likely next School Board member has become the latest to try and enunciate ways to address it.

The gap is significant and “has gotten worse” over the pandemic era, candidate Bethany Sutton acknowledged during a May 14 forum sponsored by the Blue Families caucus of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.


Sutton is the lone candidate seeking the Democratic endorsement for the seat being vacated in December by two-term board member Barbara Kanninen. Another candidate, Brandon Clark, had planned to seek the endorsement but dropped out to run as an independent in November.

Democrats will vote in June whether to endorse Sutton’s candidacy, something that appears almost a certainty, and as a result many inside and out of the school community already have started paying attention to and parsing her comments in an effort to discern where she will fit on a sometimes fractious five-member body.

Broadly speaking, the “achievement gap” signifies the difference in performance of students in various racial and ethnic groups. Despite what is now two decades of attention from the county school system on the issue, and endless gobs of taxpayer dollars used to address it, closing the gap still seems out of reach.

A number of past School Board members, including James Lander and Emma Violand-Sánchez, put the issue atop their priority lists, but each saw it just as intractable at the end of their terms as at the beginning.

The Blue Families event, held at Busboys & Poets in Shirlington, also brought up audience questions about whether the school system had done, and was doing, all it could to help students who fell behind when school leaders opted for more than a year of “virtual” learning rather than an earlier return to classrooms.

Sutton said she wasn’t fully convinced the school system’s response to date has been adequate.

“They learned during ‘virtual’ learning but didn’t develop as far as they could have,” she said of the student experience. “I have yet to see a really thoughtful and comprehensive vision and plan for addressing learning loss.”

“I want us to have a good, comprehensive plan on how we’re going to move students along. It’s not just specific to pandemic learning loss, but overall. We’re not there right now,” she added. “We want students to regain that momentum.”

Sutton currently chairs the Arlington Public Schools Advisory Council on Teaching and Learning and previously served as a PTA president. She is the mother of a 10th-grader and seventh-grader attending the county school system.

Sutton was one of two candidates who initially had announced plans to seek the Democratic endorsement, but the second dropped out, negating the need for Democrats to hold caucus voting in June. Instead, the party rank-and-file will participate in an up-or-down vote on the endorsement of Sutton at their June meeting.

Assuming Sutton garners the Democratic nod, she’d be the odds-on favorite in a general-election race that also currently includes independents Brandon Clark and James Vell Rives IV. (The filing deadline for all candidates is June 21.)

Service on a School Board, in Arlington or elsewhere, these days is not for the faint of heart; one in fact needs to be something of a glutton for punishment to take on a job that results in long hours, increased scrutiny, low pay, near-constant complaints from a polarized and tribalized community – and, as Kanninen found when she unsuccessfully tried to move up to County Board in 2020, only a limited chance of political advancement.

With eight years of service, Kanninen is the most senior School Board member at the moment. Over the past two election cycles, the board has seen three members who opted not to seek new terms: Nancy Van Doren (six years in office), Tannia Talento (four years) and Monique O’Grady (four years).
All five current School Board members are Democrats, as it has been since David Foster departed in 2007 after serving eight years.

But true to the Will Rogers dictum – “I belong to no organized political party; I am a Democrat” – the all-Democratic body nonetheless has its share of factionalism and jockeying for position.

Kanninen, who occasionally sparred with Van Doren during the latter’s time in office, now seems to be in a tussle with the newest board member, Mary Kadera, which broke into public view during a contentious back-and-forth during a recent School Board meeting.

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