Arlington, VA

Progressive Voice is a biweekly column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

 By Colleen Pickford

If you are an Arlington parent, you likely have heard that Arlington Public Schools staff presented two proposals in November for moving various elementary neighborhood and option programs in advance of a new elementary school opening at the Reed site in 2021.

These proposals are big, bold, and complex, and last week the process was narrowed down to Proposal 1.

The elementary school population in Arlington continues to grow faster than we can fund buildings — our land and funding are limited. In order to manage elementary school enrollment over the next 10 years, we must take a hard look at all our school buildings and how we are using them and consider program moves and boundary changes as part of a plan for making full use of existing space.

Community response to these proposals has been swift. Letters are being circulated, coalitions are being built, t-shirts are being printed and parents are insisting the process is flawed and must be halted for a year until more data or other solutions are provided to allay all concerns. Shouting from audience members and interrupting staff comments have recently disrupted public engagement meetings on the proposals, drawing media coverage from a local television station. For those who are concerned, I implore you to partner in this process rather than immediately work against it.

I understand the anxiety that comes with these changes. My children’s school, Oakridge Elementary, was part of the boundary process last year that resulted in nearly 200 of our students moving to Hoffman-Boston this year. The boundary change was the culmination of a five-year process where our community sought relief from overcrowding — but more time to discuss boundary changes didn’t make the conversation with our neighbors any easier. Even with triple-booked PE classes and so many classes our specialist teachers could barely rotate through the school, no one wanted to move.

I can tell you from living through this process that there are no perfect data and no perfect solutions. But the challenges before our school system grow with each newly enrolled student. Delaying those decisions now doesn’t make that any easier and it doesn’t change the fact that some students are going to have to move.

As parents and PTAs plan to engage in these changes, I offer the following advice:

  1. Understand the process and the rationale. Research as much as you can about what is happening and the approach APS is taking to address this challenge. Watch School Board meetings and work sessions to understand the rationale behind the proposals.
  2. Arm yourself with solutions. Come ready to be a partner in finding a better path for our community as a whole. Share your insights and ideas.
  3. Share your neighborhood perspective. Your insight about your neighborhood may bring data otherwise missed by folks not living there. For example, I was able to provide details about a development project in my neighborhood that APS didn’t have from the County, which significantly impacted the number of students in our school.
  4. Provide constructive feedback. The challenges before the School Board are huge and complex. The School Board and APS are working to find solutions for the 28,000 students across our school system. Lobbing insults or assumptions does not create an environment for collaboration.
  5. If not your children, then which children? Students are going to have to move. If your argument against these changes is based on self-interest rather than the impact of these changes on the other 28,000 students in the system, if will likely fall on deaf ears.

Every building or boundary change is challenging. It was hard for our community and we knew it was coming for five years. There were angry parents and anxiety-filled meetings, but in the end, bringing our student population in line with the size of our building was the right decision for the education of all students.

I hope as we move forward through the elementary school planning process that parents, School Board members and APS staff will engage with empathy and a focus on propelling the current process forward to a solution that creates the best results–for all of Arlington’s students.

Colleen Pickford is the parent of two Oakridge Elementary School students, Vice President of the Oakridge PTA, and Vice Chair of the School Board’s Advisory Council on Facilities and Capital Programs where she has served for four years.

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