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Peter’s Take: Emphasize Socioeconomic Status in APS Boundary Decisions

by Peter Rousselot — October 13, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’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.

The School Board has begun the process of revising high school attendance boundaries in order to balance enrollment and better utilize spaces at Arlington’s three comprehensive high schools. These boundary changes will be effective September 2017, apply to current eighth grade students who will be entering high school next fall and to each freshman class in the next three school years.

The final revised high school boundary plan is scheduled to be voted upon at the School Board’s December 1 meeting. Further information is available here.

On October 6, the School Board voted to waive its Policy 25-2.2 on enrollment and transfers for middle and high schools. In waiving the policy, the Board offers parents an individual choice to help reduce over-capacity at Gunston, Swanson, and Williamsburg middle schools and Washington-Lee High School.

The School Board should emphasize socioeconomic status in its boundary decisions

Redistricting is going to be our new reality in Arlington as enrollment growth — and the extensive new school facilities needed — ripples through every level of schooling. With Arlington projecting 75,400 new residents by 2040, the school district of today cannot be a promise for tomorrow.

Although the number of students to be transferred this fall is likely to be relatively small, emphasizing socioeconomic status should be a “guiding principle” not only for the inevitable, greater boundary changes to come, but even for this fall’s revisions.

Decades of research justifies emphasizing socioeconomic status

Decades of research shows that socioeconomic integration is an important component to reducing achievement gaps and improving instructional outcomes for all students. Low family income correlates highly with low achievement. See also: “From All Walks of Life” by Richard D. Kahlenberg; “Integrated Education and Mathematics Outcomes: A Synthesis of Social Science Research” by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson and Martha Bottia; and research briefs from The National Coalition on School Diversity.

Given that research shows that social composition of the student body is the most influential school factor for student achievement, shouldn’t we expect our school system to address this question?

The School Board’s own rules require promotion of demographic diversity

Promoting demographic diversity already is one of the criteria (Policy 30-2.2) that the School Board explicitly must consider in revising school boundaries. While APS could utilize a variety of available data to determine demographic characteristics for purposes of school boundary revisions, one comprehensive measure definitely available is current student participation in the Free or Reduced-Price Meals Program (FARM). As of October 2015, the percentage of students participating in this program at our three comprehensive high schools was:

  • Wakefield (46%)
  • Washington-Lee (31%)
  • Yorktown (14%)

There are much more marked disparities in FARM participation in elementary and middle schools. In 2015, FARM participation at the elementary level ranged from Jamestown (2.46%) to Carlin Springs (81.8%). In middle school, FARM participation ranged from Williamsburg (9.16%) to Kenmore (51.57%). The county-wide average proportion of students who qualified for FARM in 2015 was 30.13%.

Conclusion

The instruction offered at all three of our comprehensive high schools is excellent. The difference lies in the socioeconomic status of their cohorts of students. That difference impacts the student experience and overall achievement. Exposure to people who are different provides a vital opportunity to learn life skills including conflict resolution, resilience and critical thinking.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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