The race for Elaine Furlow’s seat on the Arlington School Board is heating up with last week's addition of William Barker, the fourth to join the race leading up to the June election. In a Monday night forum at Washington-Lee High School, the candidates saw they must also contend with Arlington voters concerned about student nutrition, diversity and the curriculum.
“The way I see it, for what we’re spending, for the resources we’re investing in our schools, I think we should be getting more,” said Barker, an independent who ran against Board Chairwoman Libby Garvey during the November 2004 election.
Barker focused on the mounting costs of construction seen at county schools.
“We need quality facilities for our kids, but there are ways to get them without spending what we’re spending,” he said. “We need to prove to the taxpayers that they are getting the best we can get for our money. Personally, I don’t think we can say that now.”
Diversity and sensitivity to students of different sexual orientation was the subject of one question from the audience. Candidates agreed on promoting inclusive policies for both students and faculty. Candidate Ed Fendley, president of the Drew Model School PTA, said one approach should be to promote gay/straight alliances for students and to educate students on the lives of same-sex couples.
“I’d like to see us doing that in school the same way that we teach students about other cultures,” said Fendley, an independent candidate.
AFTER COMPARING HER daughter’s chemistry lab book to one she used as a student in the Soviet Union, one parent asked how the candidates expect to help form a curriculum that will keep students engaged in the classroom.
“It starts at home, with wanting a child to succeed,” said Cecilia Espenoza, an independent and president of the Claremont PTA. “Schools can’t do it all, but what they can do is set the standards.”
Espenoza added that the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act mean teachers have less classroom time to spark a student’s interests through lessons.
“They spend so much time preparing them for these tests, who would want to be engaged in class?” Espenoza asked.
President of the Yorktown High School PTA Jim Rock, a Democrat, said finding ways to keep students engaged outside the classroom in after-school activities is among his priorities.
“My philosophy is that if we can keep our kids involved, that’s the best anti-drug policy we can have,” said Rock, who also coaches Yorktown’s ice hockey team.
Fitness and nutrition in schools, he added, must be looked at as childhood obesity becomes a growing problem.
“Virginia has what is becoming the highest rate of obesity in the country, yet we’re selling junk food in our vending machines and cafeterias,” Rock said.
Fendley said the solution is to couple lessons on healthy eating with policy and practice.
“The foods we serve in our cafeterias should be consistent with what we teach kids in health classes,” Fendley said. “We have the will. We have the resources. We can feed our kids the way we know they should be eating.”
Turning to the curriculum, Barker and Rock both called for lessons that challenge students more. Fendley said he wants to see every student proficient in at least one foreign language by the time they graduate high school.
Espenoza said she hopes to address growing concerns over the presence of gangs in Arlington schools.
“We don’t talk about it, and we haven’t dealt with it,” she said.
The election is Tuesday, June 14.