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DEVELOPING: School System Scrambling for Seats as Enrollment Spikes Again

Arlington Public Schools’ capacity crisis is only getting worse, and members of the community are clamoring for good solutions fast.

APS Assistant Superintendent for Facilities and Operations John Chadwick said the school system grew by 1,200 students in the 2014-2015 school year, 400 more than APS had projected. That’s the equivalent of two full elementary schools, Chadwick said.

The growth means that initial APS projections of seat deficits will need to be revised. With last year’s numbers, APS projected having 960 more middle school students than seats in the 2018-2019 school year; once projections with this year’s numbers are calculated, that figure is likely to reach over 1,000.

“We are experiencing an unprecedented rate of enrollment growth,” Chadwick told a crowd of more than 100 parents and residents at Williamsburg Middle School last night. “Determining the location of those seats is a really challenging process, but we have to make decisions. If enrollment continues to grow as projected, we’re going to look at many more sites for new schools and renovations before we’re through.”

At the heart of the discussion during last night’s community meeting is the School Board’s impending decision to try to add 1,300 middle school seats in North Arlington by some combination of building additions and renovations to existing APS properties, or constructing a new school at the Wilson School site in Rosslyn.

Other options on the table include:

  • Building additions onto the Stratford school site on Vacation Lane, which currently houses the H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs, to form a new neighborhood middle school. Stratford and H-B Woodlawn would be moved the Reed-Westover site with additions and renovations.
  • Expanding both the Stratford and Reed-Westover buildings and constructing an addition onto an existing middle school.
  • Moving H-B Woodlawn and Stratford to the Wilson School site and constructing a new neighborhood middle school at the Stratford building.

“Our goal is try to get secondary seats as soon as possible to alleviate what we see as imminent future crowding in our schools,” Lionel White, APS director of facilities planning, said.

Many residents and parents have complained that APS has faltered in both informing and seeking input from the community, but last night’s meeting was viewed by some as a significant step toward alleviating the crisis.

“I think for the first time, everyone’s realizing we’re wasting too much time and we’ve got to get more seats,” said Emma Baker, a parent of two Jamestown Elementary School students. “We need to start building now.”

Baker had attended previous meetings between staff and parents, and she said last night was the first time she felt everyone was actively trying to reach the best decision, instead of hemming and hawing. “It’s a very different tone,” she said.

Jamestown teacher and mother of two Megan Kalchbrenner said the option of building additions onto four existing middle schools is “not an option” — staff generally agreed, saying it would cost $16.5 million over budget and wouldn’t be an optimal long-term solution.

“What I want to know is what are they going to do for kids in the next two years?” Kalchbrenner asked. “We have capacity issues today.”

Last year, there were eight “relocatable classrooms” — classrooms in trailers adjacent to schools — at Williamsburg, four at Swanson and one at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. Chadwick said the interim plan before major construction is still being developed, and he couldn’t reveal any concrete solutions.

APS will hold more community meetings this month and next before the School Board is scheduled to vote on a secondary seating plan at its Nov. 6 meeting. Despite the pressing need for action, some parents are worried that such an important decision might be made too hastily.

“This felt like it crept up very quickly after the [2015-2024 Capital Improvement Plan] was put to bed,” Jenny Demery, a mother of two APS students, said. “It feels very fast. Kudos to APS if they can make an informed choice that quickly, this will make a huge impact and I’m skeptical that this is enough time.”

While there are concerns over traffic, parking and safety if a new school facility is built on Wilson Blvd in Rosslyn, Demery and Ponappa Paleyanda, a parent of one third-grader in school and another child soon to become school age, both think it needs to be used.

“I don’t know what should go in there, but I think that site needs to be considered,” Paleyanda, who lives near the site in the North Highlands neighborhood, said. “It’s urban, and we live in an urban setting. It would give kids the ability to be put in settings they otherwise wouldn’t encounter in school.”

Demery said she hopes APS moves the H-B Woodlawn program to a new building on the site, which would give more children the ability to attend, with Rosslyn’s transit accessibility. The program gives students the chance to choose how they spend their time in school and what subjects or projects they want to focus on, and Demery said a new school would be an asset for it.

“I don’t understand why the Woodlawn program is underutilized,” she said. “It can attract new students and be a landmark program with a new building.”

One capacity-building idea that some parents discussed but which was not discussed by staff: renting vacant commercial office space for school use.

No matter what plan the School Board approves, Chadwick said, redistricting will have to occur. As for whether his staff is already leaning in one direction or another, he said that’s certainly not the case.

“I’ve been through the 2012 CIP, I’ve been through the 2014 CIP and I can tell you, during that period there had been times where I thought I had a solution, and I thought it was a really good one,” Chadwick told the crowd. “I can say that I do not anymore. We really don’t know what will come out of this.”

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