On Arlington School Budget’s Eve

Public petitions School Board for Montessori and arts funding.

When Jonathan Hui first heard about Montessori schools, he thought they were just for rich people. The schools had long had a reputation of association with trendy new-wave schooling that’s far from the strict public school regimen. But looking at his child’s classroom photo, Hui realized that the school is composed of a diverse student body. Two-thirds of his child’s class are from low-income families and Hui says it’s helped his child get exposed to new cultures. At the March 22 School Board meeting, the last public hearing before budget approval, Hui was one of several parents to make a last ditch appeal to the School Board for more funding to keep Montessori fully funded.

“Arlington County is the only county that offers public Montessori, but if that is diminished in any way it makes less sense for my family to be in Arlington,” said Hui. “Please invest in our future. Please invest in our children’s future.”

Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s proposed $636.7 million budget is an increase, 3.8 percent over last year, but a more modest increase compared to the 5.4 percent increases in the previous two years. This means Arlington schools will face some belt tightening, with class size increases and lower overall spending per student.

Among the reductions in the budget are several changes that hit the Montessori program at Drew Model School. Tuition at the school is expected to increase four to six percent. Elementary classrooms will no longer be supported with teacher assistants, eliminating 13 total positions and leaving 12 classrooms without assistants that can be critical for the Montessori teaching method.

The Montessori Method of Education is a teaching method devised by Dr. Maria Montessori that focuses on offering students choices and nurturing mutual respect. Students are offered a range of learning options and free range of movement around a classroom. The Montessori method encourages guided learning rather than direct instruction. Part of this involves breaking students up into smaller groups overseen by assistant teachers.

“Our home school is Jamestown, but kids spend 57 minutes on bus to go to Drew,” said Heather Selig. “My kids that go furthest go to Drew. There’s other ways to compose and compress our budget without cutting a program so meaningful and so impactful to so many students. I’m happy to give my ACPS-issued iPad back.”

The topic of school-issued iPads came up a few times, with a few parents and teachers pointing to it as an example of the school system not actually meeting the needs of the educators or students.

“I want to see iPads phased out,” said Ann Marie Douglass. “We have tech coordinators at every school. That does not reflect the needs of [Arlington Public Schools].”

“The budget being proposed does not care about these people,” said Leslie Stockton, vice president of the Arlington Education Association, gesturing into the audience in attendance at the School Board meeting. “It is people that drive the education in Arlington. It is people who will judge us on our success or failure.”

Other parents and students, including a song performed by a student choral group, came out in support for maintaining funding for arts programs, another area seeing belt-tightening measures in the proposed budget.

“I’ve lived in Arlington for 10 years but this is my first time speaking at a School Board meeting,” said Jennifer Smith. “I’m here to ask us to maintain, not cut, funds for art positions.”

The School Board chair, Barbara Kanninen, said that the School Board members were still reviewing the budget and listening to public feedback on the budget items, and thus wouldn’t respond to individual petitions or requests. Kanninen said the budget will be proposed at the April 5 School Board meeting.

“We’re in the stage of listening, engaging, and reading emails,” said Kanninen. “We’re trying to build the best possible budget.”

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