Blue Virginia Interview, Endorsement: Arlington County School Board Member Nancy Van Doren

Blue Virginia Interview, Endorsement: Arlington County School Board Member Nancy Van Doren


I recently posted interviews with Arlington County School Board Democratic candidates Tannia Talento and Michael Shea. Today, I had the chance to sit down with incumbent School Board member Nancy Van Doren, who I have decided to strongly endorse for reelection. Note that I first interviewed Van Doren in May 2014, when she was running the first time for School Board. Today’s discussion referred back to that interview on numerous occasions, to see how things have progressed since then.

Has the School Board been what you expected it to be, have there been any big surprises since you joined the School Board, things you didn’t know about — problems or issues that needed to be dealt with?
Van Doren: “In general, I knew what the issues were, and that hasn’t surprised me. What has been a steep learning curve for me has been the process of getting the work done with a five-member board and the staff…the complexity of the issues if you really want to make good decisions, the amount of work that’s involved in doing that…I basically do this as a full-time job…at least 40 hours per week…We have a community that would probably like a full-time County Board and a full-time School Board, but we can’t get out of the restraints put on us by the state legislature.”

You talked about closing the achievement gap when we spoke in 2014, how’s that going?
Van Doren: I think we’re making progress, I think we can make a lot more progress. This is one of my frustrations, because I believe we have all the resources, we have the talent, we have everything we need to do it, and we just have to do it and not have excuses for not doing it…There are a lot of things I’ve put in a place. So now, as a parent, you can go onto each school website and pull up the data about the performance of your school; it’s right there…I think parents needed that information to be able to advocate on behalf of their schools and their families…that’s great. We are incrementally getting better, but I think we can go faster, but we have to go about it in a realistic way…I want to close that gap; kids with disabilities are a huge interest area of mine; we can be doing so much better in that area…Now we can really say we are…now we actually have to act on that data.”

You also said your #1 priority was to have kids entering fourth grade to be reading at grade level.
Van Doren: “It still is…this year, it’s in our priorities as a School Board…it needs to happen…It really requires us putting in place supports for students that we thought we had but we really didn’t have…We have to accept the fact that not all kids are reading at that point and then do something about it…and it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach…like English-language learners, students with disabilities or dyslexic students, and all of them can [read by third grade], we just have to target the resources to do it…For a long time in our society we believed that some kids didn’t perform well and that that’s just the way it was; I just don’t buy that…Today, all of the research shows…that it’s really better to have [students with learning disabilities] with their peers and provide them their support so they can be socially and emotionally part of the larger culture, and that’s a huge shift for people.”

Are you happy with the County Board’s funding of the school system.
Van Doren: “Yes, I think that they’ve been receptive and understanding of what we need. I mean, half of the county’s budget goes to the school system…So yes, I’m happy with it. I know we have a little gap to close, but I think we can do that.”

On energy efficiency and making the schools “green,” I would argue that the schools are a great place to do that. Are we pushing on this?:
Van Doren: “Yes, all the plans that {Assistant Superintendent] John Chadwick brings forward to us are energy efficient…I think we have a sensitivity to that…school building plans frequently have geothermal built in…I think if we had the capital money we’d probably go right at all those things…right now we’re spending our money on building schools…We really do have a facilities staff that is keenly aware of all that…”

Moving to politics, with Emma Violand-Sanchez retiring, how important is it to maintain that diversity (in this case, a Latino woman), or should it be 100% about qualifications?
Van Doren: “I think the background and experience you bring IS part of your qualifications; 30% of Arlington’s school system students we serve are Latino. I think it is very very important to have a strong understanding of our students. I speak Spanish, I lived in Latin America, I understand the needs of the Latino community, but I am not a Latino and I have not lived that experience. So, I’m sympathetic, I understand and I can communicate, but it doesn’t mean I have a full understanding. I learn every day from Emma Violand-Sanchez…there are things I don’t know. I love the balance we have on the School Board, because I think we really are a mirror of the community right now. So I do think that having a very strong understanding of the Latino community is almost a requirement.”

So, it sounds like you’re very close to saying you want Tannia Talento on the School Board, because she’s the only one that fits that criteria.
Van Doren: “I have worked for years with Tannia Talento and I think very highly of her. She has been an advocate for students for a very very long time. There are a group of people who have not only advocated at the policy level but on the personal level, have helped many many students and families navigate this country and this school system, and she’s one of them…I’m not [planning to endorse in this race], there’s value to people running their races and I’m running my race…but I do really believe that we will lose a great deal when Dr. Violand-Sanchez moves on…In the same way that I’m the person who the disability community comes to, if I’m also the person the Latino community comes to, it’s a lot for one School Board member to carry, and I think it’s important for all those communities to have connections [to the School Board].”

Are there any specific areas where you disagree with your School Board opponents?
Van Doren: There was a statement somebody made…I didn’t agree with that they felt there was a lot of anger. I don’t hear anger, I generally hear people being very supportive, being demanding about what they want for the school system, but I don’t hear anger. I’m a big supporter of the tech initiative, so that may be one area where I may diverge a little bit, I’m not going to relent on that because I just really believe that all students need to have a strong facility using technology…if you want to make it in the labor market today…We parents have to help our kids with that.”

Related to technology, how about “open data,” which School Board candidate Michael Shea has talked a lot about.
Van Doren: “I don’t know what he means by open data…There are laws about what information can be public…What can be open is [already] open, it’s on the [Arlington school] websites now, I made that happen…I just think there has to be more thought to [expanding open data], because we have to protect people’s privacy…I think we do a pretty good job on open data…We have a data dashboard, you can go in and see exactly how your school is doing…also each individual student [can do that]…You have to mindfully use technology…They’ve created a handbook for staff and parents to help students with that, and it’s actually quite good, when to use technology, how to use it and when you should put it away…”

Are there any decisions you’ve made that have made people angry at you?
Van Doren: Early on, there was a decision about boundaries, and that was a very uncomfortable one for me…I knew we had to make a boundary change, but I didn’t feel we had a really good amount of information about that…so that’s one that was uncomfortable. And another one was the decision to rebuild Stratford [note by Lowell, courtesy of Wikipedia: “In 1959, Stratford Junior High School became the first public secondary school in the Commonwealth of Virginia to desegregate with the admission of four African American students”] as a middle school, I think that was divisive. I think in the long run, we’re going to come up with the best option for that…So those were uncomfortable, but I believe we did the right thing. There were people who were not happy about those decisions. And that’s ok. I mean, we’re not always going to agree on everything, but I studied and I learned…”

You seem to have liked being on the School Board to run for reelection.
Van Doren: “The big thing is I’m not done. I really believe that if we serve students with disabilities and our English-language learners well, we will be serving all of our kids better, and I just so fundamentally believe that…I’m not done, because I see the areas we can do better. I know we can have all kids reading by 3rd grade. I know that we can have inclusive classrooms…It’s going to take years…Change takes a long time…”

How long should a School Board member be there to really get their feet on the ground, really start understand the whole situation and becoming a leader?”
Van Doren:
“The first year you are just learning how things [work], and you feel this intense need to do things. But you’re figuring out how the whole bureaucracy works, how the whole process of board meetings work, how to move items through an agenda, just the logistics of it is difficult…Emma Violand-Sanchez really knows how to move things through…what to focus on…she’s effective and she still cares passionately…So at least a year you spend learning…I do think it’s important to stay on for a while…[We’ve had] several new board members…we’re all sort of getting our feet on the ground…I think there’s value to being there a while — stability.”

Anything else we haven’t covered that you think voters need to know?
Van Doren: “The most important thing is people need to get out and vote, particularly people who have younger kids in the school system, or people who are thinking forward in the community who don’t have kids but want to think about what we want be…The decisions we’re going to make about building a new high school (or not), building one or two new elementary schools, what they’re going to look like, their energy efficiency, are they going to be spread out or are they going to be tall, are we going to reuse buildings or not? Those are all really important decisions, and people should be part of that…The people you have on the board now are going to be making decisions that affect people for at least a decade, and there are big money decisions being made, so I think people need to vote — learn the issues and vote…I’m the vice chair of the School Board, and I believe that I will win the endorsement from the Democratic Party, I’m working on that…

I believe I’ve done a good job. I’m a real planner, so in my mind I’m on for another four years, what do I want to get done…where do we want to be in four years?…One of the things I want you to know is that I’ve been working with my colleagues and the superintendent to have a general plan for where do we see ourselves in five years; what does a 30,000-student system look like, what kind of buildings, what kind of infrastructure do we need, what kind of staffing do we need, what should the organization of the staff look like, what training do we need? We’ve been talking about that, we’ve got a chart laid out for where we are in 2023…If I serve as chair in the next year, I’m very clear that we need to lay out a 3-5 year plan…To get big efforts achieved you have to plan and then you have to execute…I want us to grapple with that now…I’ve been really focused on the planning…Like technology, reading by third grade is the great equalizer…because up until third grade you’re learning to read, in fourth grade you’re reading for content…so that is of paramount importance and I think we can achieve that, I really really do…

If in five years I feel like we’ve made progress…we’ve had a plan, kids are reading by third grade, [integrating all students into the general education setting]…celebrating and appreciating everyone’s differences, I’ll feel really happy.”

Just to conclude: since the first time I met Nancy Van Doren in May 2014, I’ve been extremely impressed with her, and watching her work on the School Board has only reinforced that. So, this is an easy endorsement of her for reelection. I very much look forward to seeing what great things she can accomplish in four years for Arlington’s public schools!

  • jtb

    Thanks for the interview. Nancy is a detailed person. Works hard and has a clearer vision than many others on the board. On the down side, she has difficulty taking critical feedback and has lost her cool at least twice during school board meetings and innappropriately attacked colleagues. Frankly cringe inducing behavior…. One weakness in her vision is her infatuation with technology, supporting the tablet for each kid initiative. It has been costly, badly implemented, and she and the SB refuse to base their decisions on any evaluations of the costs/benefits of tablets/computers. She always goes to anecdotes to justify their expensive use. On what basis do we know that 4th graders must all have tablets? None. She has also bungled the construction of seats, refusing to build as fast as possible. She is the strongest person running. Hopefully, as she continues she will learn to reduce the use of the pronoun “I”…and mention the word teacher more often. (note this interview).

    • Hikin’ the pike

      I think she has done excellent work for the school system as a whole. The Arlington Education Association PAC even endorsed her. Noone is perfect and she does well given the constraints on her actions by other members and role a school board plays.

      From their press release:
      “A-PAC, the political action committee of the Arlington Education Association, has endorsed Nancy Van Doren and Tannia Talento in the Democratic caucus for School Board to be held May 19th and 21st. A-PAC Co-chair Gerry Collins noted Ms. Van Doren’s established record of advocacy for special education students and English language learners as well as her ongoing support of APS employees and their workplace needs. “Nancy brings a very student-centered perspective to the table, and is diligent in her work on capital planning and budget issues. We highly recommend her for re-election.” “

      • lowkell

        Yep, she’s doing a great job; congratulations to Nancy Van Doren on the well-deserved Arlington Education Association PAC endorsement!