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Peter’s Take: The Case for a Fourth Comprehensive High School

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Over the next few months, APS will develop a new version of its 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The CIP identifies capital improvement projects, estimates their cost, and proposes how to finance them. The School Board will adopt this CIP as student enrollment continues to grow at all levels of instruction. If the latest projections are right, APS enrollment will reach levels last seen in the mid-1960’s.

The table below displays the latest projections for Arlington’s current three comprehensive high schools:

School chart

These data–which exclude high school students who will attend HB Woodlawn and other alternative programs–present a strong case for beginning to plan now for a fourth comprehensive high school to open by 2022.

Arlington should cap enrollment at somewhere between 2,000 to 2,500 at each of its comprehensive high schools

There is an extensive body of educational research concluding that ideal high school enrollment is in a range from 600 to 900 students. That ideal goal obviously is not practical for comprehensive high schools in Arlington. However, that same body of educational research also concludes that there is a significant adverse impact on learning in those high schools that enroll more than 2,100 students.

Finally, the research demonstrates that the significant adverse educational impacts at the high schools that enroll more than 2,100 students fall disproportionately on those students of low socio-economic or minority status.

Specialized program high schools, like Arlington Tech, are not adequate substitutes for a fourth comprehensive high school

Whether because it underestimated the degree of high school enrollment growth in the last CIP, or because it did not choose to confront the challenges of siting and constructing a fourth comprehensive high school then, APS is two years behind schedule in planning for a fourth comprehensive high school. Over the long term, Arlington Tech is not the answer to Arlington’s projected high school enrollment surge.

Other considerations in planning for a fourth comprehensive high school

It is essential for APS to conduct a thorough and transparent process to choose a site for a fourth comprehensive high school in this CIP cycle.

One possible option is to turn Kenmore into a high school, and to build a new middle school at the Carlin Springs hospital site. Despite clear traffic issues, this location for the fourth comprehensive high school would enable substantial enrollment reductions at both Wakefield and Washington-Lee.

Conclusion

Even after the new elementary school opens at the Thomas Jefferson site, and the new middle school opens at the Stratford site (following HB Woodlawn’s relocation to the Wilson School site), Arlington will need to add thousands more seats at all grade levels. In addition to a fourth comprehensive high school, this probably means adding at least two more elementary schools and another middle school over the next 10-12 years.

A comprehensive public high school education lies at the core of APS’ mission because APS should assign priority to providing that opportunity before providing narrower program options.

A fourth comprehensive Arlington high school should be up and running within 5-6 years.

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