What Exactly Is Arlington Tech?
Is it a trade school? A STEM program? Here's an inside look at one unusual little high school's alternative approach to education and career readiness.
The squeaky sound of sneakers on concrete echoes through the hallway as a line of eighth-graders shuffles out of a classroom at 816 S. Walter Reed Drive.
“That’s cool! I want to take that,” one kid loud-whispers to a friend, breaking the unspoken teen rule of remaining cool and unaffected at all times.
The class that elicited this reaction? Digital Photo and TV Production. It’s visiting day at Arlington Tech, and this cohort from Kenmore Middle School has just laid eyes on what teacher Tom O’Day touts as “one of the best high school television studios in the country,” outfitted with state-of-the-art digital cameras, lighting and sound equipment. He regales the group with a list of the awards the studio’s student crews have won.
Tucked inside the Arlington Career Center, Arlington Tech is an academically challenging high school that emphasizes project-based learning. In the past two years, more than 95% of its graduates have gone on to college. The few who didn’t entered the military through the school’s ROTC program.
On this day, visiting middle-schoolers are taking a peek to see if they can envision themselves here—at the newest and one of the smallest high schools in the county. The TV studio is the third unorthodox classroom they’ve seen in a span of 15 minutes, having just come from an aviation class where a drone was flying at the front of the room, and an automotive technology lab that looks like a real repair shop, with a pickup truck suspended on a car lift overhead.
As the tour continues, the students pass through a cosmetology lab where real-world customers come in and pay for haircuts and color. In the physical therapy and sports medicine area, they hear about classes in emergency medicine, pharmacology and forensics. “You could be 911,” a teacher says.
Next up: a carpentry class, an electrical workshop and an animal science lab where students studying biology and veterinary science care for a variety of critters, including rodents, birds and snakes.
At this school, the group is told, they will have help finding internships—and they can earn college credits before they finish high school.
The future may be an abstract notion for these young students, who on this sunny day in October are only a few weeks into their final year of middle school. But for those who might want to give “AT” (the common shorthand) a shot, the application period for the next academic year is about to begin. Interested candidates can enter a lottery starting in November. They’ll find out at the end of January if they’ve scored a spot for the 2023-24 school year.
Arlington Tech opened in the fall of 2016 with a class of just 40 freshmen. Six years later, it has more than 400 students—roughly 100 per grade. Like H-B Woodlawn, which also admits students via lottery, AT is technically an Arlington Public Schools program, not an accredited high school. Seniors completing the program receive their diplomas from their home high schools (Wakefield, Washington-Liberty or Yorktown).
The course offerings aren’t the only differentiating factor at AT. Step inside the building and you’re apt to see students gathered in quiet discussion in a large atrium with bright green furniture. It’s the sort of scene you’d expect to see in a hip, tech company workspace, not a high school.
“It’s almost like a professional environment,” says 10th-grader Sheel Shah. “A lot of classes here can give you certifications and have real-world applications.”
Students can take CTE (career and technical education) “pathway” classes in subjects such as computer programming, aerospace engineering and robotics, earning professional certifications in everything from AutoCAD to the written exam for a private pilot’s license.
The CTE classes are dual enrollment, allowing students to earn college credits from Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) while they are still in high school. CTE teachers tap into their own relationships with businesses or academics in their fields to help students find internships.
Shah, 15, who came here from Dorothy Hamm Middle School, was drawn to AT for its computer science courses and internship opportunities. As a freshman, he did a remote internship for the nonprofit software developer Sugar Labs, helping to develop a program that teaches kids how to code.
Now, as a sophomore, he’s helping a doctoral student at Texas A&M University research artificial intelligence applications in marine biology. He’s also assisting one of his teachers in developing a phone app for people who don’t have access to computers.
“I really want to help the community and do community projects,” he says. “I believe artificial intelligence is the future.”
It’s that pragmatic focus—on college, career and beyond—that administrators say sets Arlington Tech apart. Students take the same core classes they would take at their home high schools (such as English, social studies, math and P.E.), but they also take engineering (a CTE course) their first year. And classes are accelerated to ensure they earn the prerequisites required for dual enrollment with NOVA.
The curriculum is project-based and collaborative, challenging students to apply what they learn in class to real-world problems.
“It helps you with basic cooperation skills and it gets you thinking a lot more about what you’re actually learning, as opposed to a test where you’re just repeating and then answering,” says Ahmad Ali, a junior. “It’s very different from other schools. It’s a lot smaller and everyone in each grade kind of knows each other.”
Ali, 16, hopes to go to George Mason University or Virginia Tech, and then pursue a career in cybersecurity or IT.
Kaya DeMarco, a senior, was also enticed by the school’s hands-on approach. “I’ve found over time that I’m not very good at memorizing content and then dumping it onto a test,” says the 17-year-old. “It’s better for me to learn a concept over time—through discussions, a project and then potentially taking a test at the end. The test is not necessarily a form of affirmation that I know the content, but a stepping stone to see what else I still need to learn.”
The school’s emphasis on real-world learning isn’t just lip service. Each student’s time at AT culminates in a yearlong “Capstone Experience,” when seniors spend half of the school day (280 hours total) interning outside of the building.
“Students have this amazing opportunity to work and partner with industry to get a workplace learning opportunity,” says Career Center principal Margaret Chung. “They get to test-drive what they want to do. They can learn, Is this for me?”
DeMarco initially had designs on becoming an architect, but she made some course corrections as she worked her way through the program. “Moving into my junior year, I focused on business courses,” she says. “I took entrepreneurship, web page design and communications. Those are just a few classes that helped me narrow in on where I want to be.”
Now, she’s leaning toward a career in the field of design/build—“more on the business side,” she says, “the marketing or project management side.”
For her Capstone experience, DeMarco is interning at Marks-Woods Construction Services, a residential general contractor based in Alexandria. Rotating through the company’s various departments, she’s worked with cabinet designers on kitchen layouts, and helped the marketing director revamp the firm’s website. With one semester of high school left, she already holds certifications from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and in Adobe Animate and CIW (Certified Internet Webmaster).
Fellow senior Adriana Sparks discovered an affinity for engineering after taking two introductory engineering courses and computer-aided design (CAD). She is doing her Capstone at AlexRenew, Alexandria’s wastewater treatment facility, where she’s helping the engineering team ensure the municipal system can handle a heavy inflow of rain during storms.
“Yesterday, I was working on collecting data and making graphs that record and manage the flow intake,” Sparks explains. “Just pointing out spikes for storms and trying to see how big our pipes need to be to sustain wear and tear from larger storms.”
Like DeMarco, she credits the experience with helping her home in on what she wants to do, career-wise. At 17, she has earned certifications from OSHA and Fusion 360, a CAD program.
“As of right now, I’m looking at either civil or mechanical engineering,” Sparks says. “Obviously, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do, but I know I enjoy the problem-solving aspect of it. I credit a lot of that to the courses offered here at Tech.”
Arlington Tech isn’t a fit for every student. Even its biggest proponents admit there are trade-offs. The school has no sports teams, no drama department—the kinds of extracurriculars that many equate with a quintessential high school experience.
Student athletes at AT can choose to be bused back to their home schools to play sports. (Sparks plays varsity soccer and runs winter track at Wakefield, and DeMarco is on the varsity softball team there.) But they say it’s not the same.
“I think not having sports changes the environment a little bit,” Sparks says. “There isn’t as much obvious school pride [here] the way you would see it at a football game or a basketball game. The program itself is smaller, which has its pluses and minuses. It’s a personal preference. I do sometimes feel it would be nice to be in a bigger school.”
That sense of shared identity is further diluted by the fact that Arlington Tech occupies the Career Center building with three other APS programs—the English Learner Institute; PEP (Program for Employment Preparedness); and The Academy, a small high school program with individualized interventions.
“We’re in a building that has four programs in total,” DeMarco says. “It does make it harder to have a sense of school spirit that doesn’t necessarily include the other programs because we are in a shared space with them.”
But she likes the fact that she’s earning an associate degree (in her case, in general studies) for free, with dual-enrollment credits.
“There isn’t as much obvious school pride [here] the way you would see it at a football game or a basketball game. The program itself is smaller, which has its pluses and minuses. It’s a personal preference.”
Eight seniors—about 13% of Arlington Tech’s graduating class of 62—graduated with an associate degree last spring. Only one other APS high school student outside of Arlington Tech did the same.
“It is rare to earn [a college degree] when you’re still in high school,” says Frank DeRocco, the college and career counselor at Arlington Career Center. “That’s pretty cool.”
In addition, about one-fifth of AT’s Class of 2022 graduated with a General Education Certificate, DeRocco says, meaning they finished high school with the equivalent of one year of college education under their belts—including the introductory courses most students are required to take as college freshmen. Tuition-wise, it’s a money saver. (Outside of AT, only one other APS student earned the GE certificate in 2022.)
How do Arlington Tech grads stack up against other college applicants?
The first year that AT sent a graduating class out into the world—2020—was an uncertain time. Covid shuttered schools in the spring, and the first group to cross the finish line was very small. Administrators weren’t sure how the program would be perceived by college admissions officers.
“We only had 22 seniors, but half of them got into Virginia Tech,” DeRocco says. “So we knew we were on the right road.”
The following year (2021), an Arlington Tech senior was admitted to Harvard, offering further assurance that AT’s dual enrollment program was on par with the rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate programs offered at other Arlington high schools.
This fall, members of AT’s Class of 2022 headed to American University, Northeastern, Mount Holyoke, Rensselaer Polytechnic and Case Western, to name a few. DeRocco says the program maintains a strong connection with Virginia schools, too.
“What [admissions officers] like the most about it is higher-level math and science,” he says. “Once our students leave us, they’ve already taken college classes by college-accredited teachers, so they’re super prepared.” The dual-enrollment teachers at Arlington Tech are APS employees, vetted by NOVA, who hold graduate-level degrees in the subjects they teach.
AT program coordinator Michelle Van Lare says the leadership and organizational skills students cultivate through real-world learning scenarios are another plus: “We have students who come back and tell us, ‘I can lead groups with confidence. I’m able to coordinate and plan projects at a high level. And I’m excelling in college because I have these skills.’ ”
This fall, members of AT’s Class of 2022 headed to American University, Northeastern, Mount Holyoke, Rensselaer Polytechnic and Case Western, to name a few.
Still, Some say Arlington Tech has an image problem. Although it’s a choice school that any Arlington student can lottery into, its purpose remains unclear to many families.
There are those who feel the name—Arlington Tech—is a misnomer, given that its courses include not just STEM subjects like computer programming and biotech, but also early childhood education, culinary arts and cosmetology.
The fact that AT offers classes in automotive collision repair, fiber-optic cabling, barbering and carpentry has also left prospective students confused about whether it’s a trade school, a college preparatory program, or both.
Furthermore, the school’s format has led some to mistakenly assume it’s a program designed for students with learning differences.
“I thought I was getting into a project-based learning program…for kids who couldn’t learn the traditional way,” says Tony (last name withheld), a former AT student who ended up transferring out and finishing high school at their neighborhood school. “I thought it was for kids who might have been autistic or have ADHD. I thought it was for people like me, and it’s not.”
(Several other students and parents interviewed for this story expressed similar confusion, but preferred to remain off the record.)
“If it had been advertised as a college prep program…I think [more] people would have flourished,” Tony says. “But because it wasn’t advertised like that—and people weren’t given the opportunity to say no to college prep classes—a lot of people ended up suffering for it. I saw people drop out left and right. I saw people crying in classes during the exams. I saw people having to step out because they couldn’t handle the pressure. That’s not normal.”
Van Lare says about 17% of Arlington Tech students have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for special education services. That percentage is roughly on par with Wakefield’s, and slightly higher than the share of students with IEPs at Washington-Liberty and Yorktown. (APS does not publish the number of students with 504 plans for academic accommodations.)
“Attrition rates have decreased over the years as Arlington Tech is better established,” she adds, “and our rate is commensurate with other option programs. When students do transfer back to their home high schools, it tends to be because they are seeking a larger, traditional high school experience.”
That was the case for Tugu Baterdene, who left AT after the first quarter of his freshman year and finished high school at Wakefield.
“The project-based learning idea is great on paper, but it did not work for me,” says Baterdene, now a first-year student at UVA. “I was more accustomed to learning from a teacher who would lecture or teach it instead of it being mostly student-led.”
But for Susannah Herrada’s daughters, Arlington Tech offered an ideal learning environment.
“The school is a diverse, accepting community,” says the Arlington mom, whose girls both graduated from the program—one with 57 college credits; the other with a full associate degree, which requires 60-62 credits.
“AT knows and sees these kids who are often unseen in other academic settings,” Herrada says. “I have no doubt that there are kids who would not be who they are today without the space created by Arlington Tech. It’s not for everyone, but it is critical for some.”
In a life beyond high school, one recent AT graduate now lives in a college dorm at Boston University, where she plans to major in film and television. Lina Barclay has taken to wearing Doc Martens—which other BU students have advised her are best for weathering New England’s harsh winters. She arrived on campus feeling prepared, she says, because Arlington Tech gave her a “scrappy attitude” when it comes to sleuthing out opportunities.
“Arlington Tech helped me think more like an extrovert,” says Barclay, 18. “Coming into [high school], I was kind of nervous to reach out and talk to people, even to send an email. But going through the whole process of finding Capstones or reaching out to people for video projects definitely helped me prepare for all this.”
Barclay was enrolled in the Spanish immersion program at Gunston Middle School when she toured Arlington Tech as an eighth-grader and was captivated by its broadcast studio. For her Capstone, she interned at Arlington Educational Television (AETV), which creates informative and promotional videos for Arlington Public Schools. She also produced freelance videos on the side and landed an unpaid internship as a media consultant for the Chilean American Foundation. She says having those experiences in high school helped put her on equal footing with her classmates at BU.
“You know, I went to a small, weird school in Arlington—but really, I’m super glad that I went there because it was such a tight-knit community,” Barclay says. “We all kind of took a risk going to Arlington Tech. We didn’t know how this would look on college applications.”
Soon there will be room for more students at Arlington Tech. In November, a $165 million school bond passed in Arlington with about 75% of the vote, and the vast majority of that funding—$135 million—is earmarked for a new Career Center building, slated to break ground in December of 2023. Once completed in late 2025, it could house as many as 1,550 students. The facility will occupy part of the existing campus on South Walter Reed Drive.
School officials say expanding the AT program will help relieve enrollment issues in other county schools while simultaneously giving more students access to career and technical education classes.
At present, students from other APS high schools who did not lottery into AT can still take CTE classes at the Career Center, but the logistics of commuting between schools are tough to manage. Many students find it difficult to carve out the necessary time block (two consecutive class periods) to take a bus to and from their home high school.
So far, Arlington Tech has produced three small graduating classes. But as more dinner-table conversations revolve around student loan debt, college readiness, and realistic career prospects in the face of a challenging economy, the school’s administrators are confident AT is giving kids the skills they need—not just to succeed academically, but to become curious, lifelong learners who will make positive contributions to society.
“[Our students] are able to make informed decisions about their future because [of what] they’ve experienced firsthand,” says principal Chung. “When they discover what that passion is, that’s exciting. Because then they can go on onto the next step with some confidence.”
Helen Partridge wrote about pandemic-inspired career changes and new attitudes toward work in our November/December 2022 issue. She lives with her family in Arlington.