Some families revere ATS as the holy grail of magnet schools. One local parent sought to find out why.
Earlier this year, my husband and I joined the ranks of Arlington parents looking for the best school for our rising kindergartner. Like hundreds of other families, we wanted to know more about our many options: Spanish immersion, neighborhood schools, magnet schools and more.
On that list was Arlington Traditional Elementary School in the Bluemont neighborhood near Ballston. So on a chilly March morning, we elbowed our way into the school’s lobby to attend one of the sessions for prospective parents. All of us crowded shoulder to shoulder, juggling information packets and student transfer applications as we pressed closer to hear Principal Holly Hawthorne speak.
After her introductory words, it was time to tour ATS, a pre-K through fifth grade school that has received state and national recognition for academic performance. We peered into art studios, gazed upon walls of neatly penned alphabets and then squeezed into one of the kindergarten rooms, where a teacher led her young charges through a phonetic breakdown of the word “elephant” and an energetic performance of a school song. As many of us lingered far longer than practical, ATS administrators nudged us along to the next part of the tour.
Eventually, we found ourselves in the library, where Hawthorne gave her closing remarks. The space was standing room only as parents craned around bookshelves to follow the Q&A session.
Will my child get into ATS? (It depends on the lottery results.) How will we know if our child is ready for kindergarten? (Send him or her to ATS, and the teachers will find out.) Can we apply when our child is older? (No.) Hawthorne, a native Arlingtonian who has served as principal of ATS since 1992, delivered the answers crisply and professionally.
Soon, just as efficiently as it all began, the session ended and parents lined up to get their transfer applications signed. To apply, they would need the signatures of administrators from both ATS and their neighborhood school. Hawthorne and her assistant principal were available, so it was best to seize the moment.
As a former education reporter, I left ATS that morning with one overriding thought: No way will I send my child here. I bristled at what I perceived as the heavy-handed approach. I scoffed at the notion that a tucked-in shirt—part of the ATS dress code—really made that much difference in a child’s academic achievement. I wanted to shake the people around me and say, “Test scores aren’t the only measure of a school!”
As many Arlington parents will attest, it seems that you either love ATS or you hate it, and it was pretty clear where I found myself.
“I think everyone has a view on ATS because the students have to follow one set path,” says Amy Medrick, who chose Arlington Traditional for her daughter, now in fourth grade, and her son, a kindergartner, over their neighborhood school of Abingdon Elementary. With the exception of students receiving special education services, of course, “there is one way for things to be [at ATS].”
But a funny thing happened after I indignantly wrote Arlington Traditional School off as outdated and excessively structured.
My opinion changed.
Founded in 1978 as a refuge from educational trends such as open classrooms, Arlington Traditional School sits in the geographic center of Arlington County, just off the busy intersection of Wilson Boulevard and George Mason Drive. As a magnet school, it draws from every school attendance zone in the county.
Enrollment at ATS, allocated by a double-blind lottery, is highly coveted by parents, who must submit their child’s application in advance of kindergarten and then cross their fingers that they get lucky. Like other county elementary schools, ATS gives preference to rising kindergartners who already have siblings at the school—typically about 26 students each year. ATS also automatically admits all 16 students in its Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) class, which serves 4-year-olds who are considered “at risk” because of economic challenges or other factors. That leaves perhaps 30 spots for more than 200 applicants.
The level of interest in and demand for Arlington Traditional does not surprise Samuel Casey Carter, who considers the school a “gem.” As a senior fellow for the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., Carter profiled ATS in his 2010 book, On Purpose: How Great Schools Form Strong Character.
“ATS lives up to the hype,” says Carter, now senior vice president of corporate social responsibility at textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and executive director of the HMH Foundation in Washington, D.C. “We looked at 3,500 schools, and ATS was the most academic school in the group. The academic achievement at that school is mind-bogglingly high.”
ATS students do perform well on state tests.
In 1998, the first year that Virginia released the results of its then-new Standards of Learning (SOL) exams, ATS landed in the top 10 of all elementary schools in the state for its passing rates in third-grade math (98 percent), third-grade English (92 percent), and fifth-grade math (98 percent). ATS fifth-graders posted pass rates of 96 percent for reading (11th-best in the state) and 92 percent for writing.
For comparison, the state’s overall passing rates for these exams in 1998 ranged from 47 percent for fifth-grade math to 68 percent for fifth-grade reading. Only two other Arlington schools, Jamestown and Taylor—neighborhood schools with more-affluent demographics than ATS—came close to or matched the performance of ATS that year on the same tests.
Suddenly, everyone wanted to know Arlington Traditional’s “secret,” despite the fact that the school had been following the same back-to-basics approach since 1978, long before high-stakes testing became the latest educational trend.
The secret, according to Hawthorne: “If you teach for meaning and stay on task, the tests take care of themselves. We are not teaching to pass tests.”
Educational research suggests that there are probably multiple factors behind the school’s history of strong performance on the state exams: the stability, experience and quality of the faculty and staff; its heavy instructional emphasis on reading, literacy and core knowledge; and the high level of parental involvement (and sometimes affluence) that is associated with a magnet school such as ATS.
Spend any time at ATS, and you will walk away with tidbits of its traditions imprinted on your brain. The school’s colors are blue (for the blue ribbon and always trying your best) and gold (for the Golden Rule and treating others as you would want them to treat you).
Students must look “smart” when they come to school—no spaghetti straps or untucked shirttails. Hallways display only student work and positive messages. All fourth- and fifth-graders play an instrument and sing in the chorus. All fifth-graders serve as safety patrols. And all of the students know their ABCs.
At Arlington Traditional, those “ABCs” aren’t just the first three letters of the alphabet; they are the foundation of the school’s culture, which values academics (A), behavior (B) and character (C). “It is simple, but it works,” says Donald Martin, a teacher at ATS who lives in Arlington. “By the time I get students as fifth-graders, they have it down.”
The ABCs inform the undeniable academic emphasis at ATS, where all students—even rising kindergartners —are expected to read or be read to daily during the summertime. “First you learn to read, and then you read to learn,” Hawthorne says.
While ATS does follow the same curriculum as other county elementary schools, its school day is structured a little differently from the others. ATS follows a “traditional” educational method, by which students are taught all core subjects (language arts, math, social studies and science) by one teacher in the same classroom; students do not “change classes” for those subjects. “Time on task is very important,” Hawthorne believes. Teaching in self-contained classrooms “enables teachers to integrate the curriculum and get to know the kids.”
Traditional educational values inform other decisions at ATS, too. The school does not segment students by academic performance, with lower requirements for struggling students and higher demands for strong ones. “We have no achievement grouping. There is no ‘high class’ or ‘low class,’” Hawthorne says. “Because how do you get out? There is no getting out. We have the expectation that everyone does the highest level, and we give extra help to those who need it.”
Teachers tutor students. Fourth-graders who graduated from ATS’s Virginia Preschool Initiative class mentor the school’s new VPI preschoolers. Students who need extra help join a reading club that meets before school; a special homework club gathers twice weekly for children who don’t speak English as their first language.
This attention makes a difference. In 2009-10, the most recent year for which the most-detailed statistics are available, 100 percent of ATS fifth-graders—including those with limited English or economic disadvantages—passed the state reading exam, exceeding the results for both Arlington overall and the state.
From its earliest days, ATS has also rejected the practice of social promotion, which moves children to the next grade level regardless of their academic performance. “The first year, we retained something like 32 percent of students because they weren’t within six months of grade level,” recalls Arlington resident and ATS teacher Lorraine Gandy, who joined the school as its first kindergarten teacher in 1980 and developed its kindergarten lessons.
Retention remains an option today at ATS, where administrators will recommend holding back children who they feel have “big gaps” in academics, social skills or emotional maturity. “We believe another year to grow is a gift,” says Hawthorne, whose own birthday falls on September 25. (Under Virginia law, a student must be 5 years old by September 30 to start kindergarten, which makes a child with a September birthday as much as a year younger than some of his or her classmates.) “A child can be weak [in an area] but still be within that box. When kids are outside the box, it is our responsibility to tell the parents and the child that.”
For kindergartners, the school handles this delicate situation in a novel way. The classroom teacher announces that she will need a “helper” next year. Predictably, the children raise their hands eagerly for the honor, but the teacher picks the child who will be retained—much to the other students’ envy.
“They’re going to read off what we do,” Hawthorne says, “so we say, ‘Joey gets to go to kindergarten next year, and isn’t that cool?’ ”
The "traditional" aspect of ATS appeals to parents for multiple reasons. Some like the familiarity of the approach. “I felt comfortable as a parent,” says Diane Corinna. “I understood it—I ‘got’ it.” She looked at private Catholic schools and their neighborhood school of Barrett Elementary before opting for ATS for her two daughters. (The younger, 10, is still at ATS; the older, who is 12, now attends the countywide H.B. Woodlawn Secondary Program.)
Others value the school’s emphasis on academic basics. “It was the simplicity of it—reading, writing, arithmetic and discipline—and focusing on those areas of a child’s life that will stay with him,” says Robert Wilkie, a former high-level advisor to top government officials such as Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice. Wilkie and his wife chose ATS over their neighborhood school of McKinley Elementary for their son and daughter.
For some parents, the clear vision of the school’s faculty and staff is what resonates. “When I asked Ms. Hawthorne on kindergarten information night, ‘What will my child do in kindergarten?’ she was able to articulate it,” recalls Dale Proctor, who sent her middle son to Glebe Elementary but enrolled her youngest son at ATS, where he is now a fourth-grader. “She said, ‘He will learn to read.’ It was very clear what a child would do and what the expectations were.”
Carter, the education reformer and author, contends that clarity is what is responsible for Arlington Traditional’s success. “When a school has a highly articulate vision and an intentional culture that embodies that vision, that is precisely when schools become great,” he says. “Most schools do not have the freedom to establish that vision or to implement it.”
Or to continue it. Ask parents how ATS has changed since their children started there, and they won’t have much to say. “Its strength is that it hasn’t changed,” says Wilkie. “Its strength is in sticking to what is tried-and-true.”
Despite its national reputation, ATS has not escaped local controversy.
Critics contend that Arlington Traditional, with a student body that is 60.6 percent white, does not accurately reflect the county’s racial and ethnic diversity. (Overall, the county school system is 45.7 percent white.) They argue that the school’s admission policy should give geographic preference to kids who live in the surrounding neighborhood. They criticize the school for being exclusive.
Such talk frustrates ATS parents, who point out that every child who enters the annual lottery has an equal chance of being accepted. “You cannot point to this as an institution of privilege,” Wilkie says. “There are children here from every social strata in Arlington.”
With 13 percent of its students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch, ATS stands as neither the most affluent nor the most economically pressured public school in Arlington. Overall, 31 percent of the county’s public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which is the best indicator of a school’s economic profile. At Carlin Springs Elementary, 81 percent of students qualify. At Nottingham Elementary the percentage is 1.4.
“There are a lot of misperceptions…out in the community,” says Carol Ann Bischoff, Arlington Traditional’s PTA president, who lives in the Donaldson Run neighborhood. “We do not have the fundraising advantage of many neighborhood elementary schools. We do not raise what others do through our grocery receipts program or our silent auction. I don’t think our [school’s] success has to do with finances. It has to do with the commitment that the faculty, staff and parents have to the ABCs—academics, behavior and character—and our commitment to each other.”
At the same time, the ATS community can seem arrogant to outsiders. When a friend of mine returned to the school to submit her family’s transfer application, she asked one parent she encountered how he liked it. “If you love your children, you’ll send them here,” the father replied. My friend was tempted to snatch back her application. (When she received an acceptance letter, she declined.)
Diversity has long been a significant challenge for ATS. The school lost two federal lawsuits in the 1990s that challenged admissions policies that gave preference to minorities in an attempt to create a school population reflective of Arlington. The solution since then has been a policy of guaranteed admission to the school’s VPI students, with a lottery for all remaining slots after siblings are accepted.
Despite policy changes and enrollment growth, though, the proportion of white students at ATS has hardly budged; a 1999 Washington Post article reported the ATS student body was 61 percent Caucasian. It is essentially the same today.
Solving the diversity equation—if it does need to be solved—may require more outreach and a more flexible application process. “The issue of diversity gets back to opportunity,” says Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Murphy. “Who is interested in ATS? Do we, as a school division, make that option known to all of our constituents?”
Abby Raphael, who chairs the school board, agrees. “I do think the VPI class is a very good way to enhance the diversity of the school,” she says. “But the process of knowing your options and pursuing those options takes a lot of work and is time-consuming. As a school system, we want to make sure all of our parents know about all their options, and maybe we need to think if there is something we can do [to make the process] easier.”
Members of the ATS community wonder the same thing. “While I wouldn’t want to mess with a formula that clearly works, I do have concerns about diversity,” says ATS parent Medrick. She points out that the county’s application process inherently favors children with parents who can afford to take a day or two off work to jump through the required hoops. (Arlington Public Schools requires that parents who want to transfer their child to a school outside their boundary zone must attend an information session at both their neighborhood school and any other county school they want to consider.)
Other ATS parents say that ATS, whose students speak a combined 26 languages, is amply diverse. “Is it split halfway down the middle [in terms of diversity]? No. What is the magic number?” asks Proctor, who is African-American. “I can see the diversity. I wouldn’t have gone there if it wasn’t diverse.”
The flip side of being a successful, centrally located school is enduring a recurrent plea from some nearby families who think they should receive a neighborhood preference at ATS, or that the ATS program should move elsewhere so its building can house a neighborhood school.
Overcrowding at neighborhood schools has focused new—and not always friendly—public attention on ATS. Some perceive the school as having the advantage of a relatively limited enrollment, thanks to its lottery, although its kindergarten classes are the largest in the county (and the school added a trailer this year to accommodate more students).
In 2008, the school division’s attempt to address overcrowding in Arlington’s northwest corner resulted in one proposal to move ATS to the site of Hoffman-Boston Elementary in South Arlington and convert the ATS building into a neighborhood school. Another proposal would have led to widespread boundary changes for elementary schools all over Arlington.
Parents revolted when they heard the proposals. Families whose children attended neighborhood schools reeled at the potential moves. So did the ATS community. “We felt that it was inappropriate to kick a neighborhood school [Hoffman-Boston in this case] out of its building in order to move us into it,” Proctor explains. “There was indeed a feeling that we had moved once before [in 1995, when ATS was moved to its current location to make room for what is now Arlington Science Focus School], and that moving ATS whenever there was a crowding problem was not a long-term solution to crowding.”
The periodic geographic controversy over ATS frustrates Bischoff. “I can throw a ball into the H.B. Woodlawn [Secondary Program] sports fields from my backyard, and it’s a lottery [to get in],” she says. “But whether or not my kids can attend there, I appreciate that school and what it does and means for Arlington.”
In the end, Arlington Public Schools decided to add modular classrooms to crowded neighborhood and countywide schools in lieu of redrawing school boundaries. The school system examined school floor plans, converting computer labs and other spaces into classrooms. “What we learned,” Raphael says, “is that people love their schools, and they don’t want to move.”
The battles left some bruises as ATS became a lightning rod for neighborhood-school parents who were angry about overcrowding. “When I became PTA president, I realized we had an image problem,” says Proctor, who formerly served as president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs. So she added a community outreach position to Arlington Traditional’s PTA to build a better relationship with its neighbors.
Another idea—opening a second “traditional” elementary school to address overcrowding and serve more families interested in an ATS-style education—was met with lackluster interest, despite the demonstrated demand. Proctor recalls a public meeting in which one parent offered this suggestion with an unexpected twist. “He said, ‘But I’d want to go to the first one because the second one might not be as good.’ ”
“It’s very hard to replicate a school,” says Raphael, the school board chair. “The culture of a school is based on the staff you have. You’re not going to have the same staff.” What if the school system “seeded” the new school with a handful of teachers from ATS? “You’d have to think about the effect on the original school and how the community would feel about it,” she says.
Carter, the education reformer, disagrees. “Let’s allow success to breed success,” he says, pointing to the Arlington Academy of Hope in Uganda. Founded by ATS parents and modeled on Arlington Traditional, this school opened in 2004 and has since grown from 78 students to more than 300 today. “How is it possible that a second Arlington Traditional School was established halfway around the world faster than the school district could [start one] just down the street?” he asks.
Perhaps the story of Arlington Traditional comes down to choices. The school division chooses to provide neighborhood elementary schools, as well as an array of magnet school options: expeditionary learning at Campbell, Montessori at Drew, Spanish immersion at Key and Claremont, traditional education at ATS, and science-oriented instruction at Arlington Science Focus. “We have wonderful neighborhood schools, and that is the foundation of our school system,” says Raphael. “But we want to offer choices to parents.”
Arlington Traditional chooses to practice the same educational approach upon which it was founded, embracing teacher-led instruction in the same classroom and emphasizing core knowledge and traditional values of good character and responsible behavior. “There is stability in this program,” says Hawthorne. “If something was going to change, it would take the school, the parents and the teachers really looking at it.”
Parents choose whether or not the structured environment is the right fit for them and their child. “We fell in love with ATS,” says Bischoff. “We loved the kindergarten, we loved the atmosphere, the ABCs of Success. And we were very attracted to the fact that it was a countywide program with families [from] all over Arlington and all over the world.”
Some choose not to apply at all. And some, like Christine Clarke, eventually choose to leave Arlington Traditional for a neighborhood school. Concerned about potential boundary changes disrupting her middle son’s school years, Clarke enrolled him at ATS after getting a spot through the lottery. (She had also applied for her older daughter, now 11, who was wait-listed.) But then Clarke moved her son back to Tuckahoe in second grade.
“While ATS is a fabulous school, there wasn’t that same feel as our neighborhood school,” Clarke says, particularly when it came to the opportunity for her introverted son, now 9, to build friendships without hopping into the car to be driven to a scheduled playdate. “With my daughter being at Tuckahoe, there [were] always kids for her to play with in the neighborhood, impromptu playdates, and trips to the sledding hill. That absolutely was not going to happen with him at ATS.”
As for my family, we chose Campbell Elementary. We liked its small size and its interdisciplinary, project-based approach, which seemed perfect for our daughter’s learning style.
But if I had the chance to do it again, I’d at least apply to Arlington Traditional and see how the lottery turned out.
Alison Rice is a freelance writer in Arlington and a former education reporter.