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APS proposal to change middle school boundaries already has some opposition

Plans from Arlington Public Schools to redraw middle school boundaries have already prompted opposition from some families.

A new petition is circulating that calls on the Arlington School Board to reject the proposal and keep Dorothy Hamm Middle School, one of the affected schools, walkable.

“This proposal is being rushed through an approval process in the summer/early fall without the benefit of proper input from those who will be most impacted by the change,” reads the petition, which had 148 signatories before publication. “Middle schoolers from a great many households located within a few short blocks of Hamm will now be forced to take a bus to a school 3 miles away.”

APS is developing plans to address declining enrollment at Williamsburg Middle School and over-capacity problems at Gunston and Swanson middle schools. It proposes bussing several students from Dorothy Hamm and Swanson to Williamsburg, even though many live within walking distance of their current schools. Additionally, to reduce enrollment at Gunston, APS is considering relocating the Spanish language immersion program to Kenmore Middle School.

The proposal has elicited negative reactions from some parents of both current and former Dorothy Hamm students.

The Parent-Teacher Association of Taylor Elementary School, which feeds into Dorothy Hamm, also sent an email to families expressing its opposition to the changes and shared its plans to advocate against them.

For its part, APS says it is aware that fewer students would be able to walk to school if the proposed changes go through. Per a presentation from the school system, about 55% and 70% of students live within walk zones for Hamm and Swanson. These numbers would drop to 40% and 60%, respectively.

“We know that, in order to fill capacity at the building, we’re going to move probably quite a few walkers from Swanson and Dorothy Hamm to Williamsburg in order to even out capacity across schools,” APS Planning and Evaluation Dept. Executive Director Lisa Stengle said during a June work session on the proposal.

Current conditions for middle schools in Arlington (via APS)

The proposed changes would reverse a decision APS made in 2017 boundary process to prioritize sending students to schools within walking distance. Stengle said staff at the time knew the tradeoff would be overcapacity at Swanson and vacant seats at Williamsburg.

Swanson is currently projected to reach 105% capacity by 2025, while Williamsburg is expected to drop to 71% capacity in the same timeframe, per the APS presentation. Although Swanson’s overcapacity issue is predicted to lessen by 2027, Williamsburg’s enrollment is forecasted to continue declining.

“This recommendation possibly fills middle schools closer to capacity, increases the number of students who require transportation based on current policy and practices and requires more information to determine transportation costs,” Stengle said.

Projected school utilization rates in Arlington in 2027 (via APS)

The authors of the “Keep Hamm Walkable” petition say the proposal separates a cohort of students who would otherwise attend Taylor, Hamm and Yorktown High School together. The writers also emphasized the benefits of walking, noting that it encourages physical activity, provides additional sleep time, and contributes to reducing pollution.

Some signatories lambasted the plan as “bonkers” and nonsensical.

“Our community promotes living a car-free [lifestyle], we are seeing the daily effects of climate change, the benefits of walking to school/work are well understood and APS already has a shortage of bus drivers,” writes one mother, who says both her children have benefitted from walking to Hamm. “This proposed solution seems to cause more problems than it solves.”

While the petition calls the process “rushed,” Stengle stressed the opportunities for public review and feedback during the June work session.

APS has posted data that staff used to come up with the proposal, which Stengle said community members can review before a firmed up proposal is released in October. A public hearing is scheduled for November, with the School Board set to cast their votes in December. The new middle school boundaries would take effect in 2025.

Changes to the elementary school boundaries are slated to take effect in 2025, or potentially earlier, depending on the results of an ongoing discussion regarding the use of Nottingham Elementary School as a “swing space.” Meanwhile, high school boundary modifications are planned for 2026, aligning with the scheduled opening of the under-construction Arlington Career Center.

Next year, between March and September, the community will also be able to engage with plans to revise School Board policies on boundaries, such as clarifying how APS is supposed to take demographic information into account when drawing boundaries.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing the reaction from community members over the course of the next several months and considering the needs of each individual community and the community writ large,” Cristina Diaz-Torres, who has since become the School Board chair, said back in June.

“We are all members of the individual school communities but no one school community supersedes the overall community that is Arlington,” she continued. “We’re a small county and this is our village.”

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