Arlington schools officials are pumping the brakes on a controversial plan to swap the Arlington Science Focus School and Key Immersion School buildings, after new projections revealed an unexpected increase in the county’s elementary school students in the coming years.
The school system had previously planned to move Key’s Spanish immersion program to the ASFS building, and vice versa, sometime in the next two years. The move was designed to solve some complex boundary issues in North Arlington neighborhoods, as some students currently zoned to attend ASFS actually live closer to Key.
But the school system’s plans have attracted some fierce community pushback since Superintendent Patrick Murphy rolled them out in September, with parents criticizing the logistics of the move and Murphy’s decision to press ahead with the decision without putting the matter to the School Board for a vote.
Yet Arlington Public Schools officials say the decision to “pause” the swap was driven instead by the newest data about school enrollment growth in the county, which staff presented to the Board last week.
APS planners previously believed that the county’s student population growth was finally beginning to level off after years of large jumps, but they’re now expecting a 24 percent jump in the student population between now and 2028.
Notably, elementary schoolers account for most of that change. Officials are forecasting a 21 percent increase in the elementary school population alone, which translates to about 2,778 more students over the next decade — that’s about 1,000 more kids than they expected the school system would add just a year ago.
“Given this projections update and the strong commitment APS has to the dual-language immersion program, the location for elementary immersion will be reevaluated to best meet the needs of our students,” APS staff wrote in an announcement on the school system’s website. “APS will reevaluate where the immersion program can grow, either at ASFS or other locations, while providing equitable access for all students in the immersion option.”
Both schools are currently overcapacity, and each one requires several trailers to educate those students. Some parents were already concerned that the swap would pose space problems even before these projection updates, as Key is both larger and currently holds more students than ASFS. A petition urging the Board to stop the swap has already garnered more than 800 signatures.
But with this new information in hand, the school system says it plans to keep studying the issue, with the goal of maintaining the “50/50 student balance of native Spanish speakers with speakers of English” for the immersion program wherever it might land.
“It’s important to consider the best locations for the immersion program at the elementary level to ensure equitable access for all students, and encourage participation by English learners along with native English speakers,” APS staff wrote. “This is critical to the integrity of the dual-language model and helps ensure that the academic benefits of the program are fairly distributed within a community.”
School officials hope to deliver a recommendation on a path forward to the Board by December, in order to include any adjustments as part of the next round of elementary school boundary adjustments. That is set to impact 14 schools in all, coming on the heels of the Board’s boundary changes for eight South Arlington schools at the end of last year.
More broadly, the new elementary school projections are igniting some big questions for the Board.
Planners reassured school leaders at their meeting last Thursday (Jan. 24) that this sort of surprise jump in student population is “not unprecedented,” and largely driven by the relentless pace of development in the county. But it’s concerning nonetheless for Board members, who only just signed off on a biannual update of the school system’s construction plans for the next 10 years.
“Our growth is continuing long-term,” said Board member Barbara Kanninen. “Until this update, the county and our data were kind of projecting we were going to level off at some point, probably around 32,000 students. You’re going beyond that… It really shows we have continual growth.”
Arvaye Robinson, the mother of two elementary school girls she had hoped to enroll in the Arlington Public Schools extended day program, stood in front of the Syphax Education Center this morning during the system’s technical problems that ultimately suspended sign-up indefinitely.
“I’m so disappointed,” Robinson said, exasperated, with her phone in her hand waiting to hear from a school staffer. “I wanted some confirmation.”
After setting an alarm for exactly 7:59 a.m. so she could hop online and enroll her children, Robinson realized that the site was down and that she would have to drive to the center to enroll her children in person. She was told that she would receive a call about placement, but she didn’t feel confident about that.
“They have the means to take payment, but no concrete confirmation,” said Robinson.
A father who overheard ARLnow interviewing Robinson cut into the conversation, calling the situation absurd and saying that it had thrown his work schedule out the window for the second year in a row.
Indeed, this is the second consecutive year that extended day registration has flopped. There are varying reports of exactly how many parents waited in line to secure a spot for their children, but one parent told ARLnow she saw at least 100 people in the Syphax Education Center’s lobby this morning.
The extended day program allows parents “who can’t juggle everything” to leave children in their school’s care before and after classes, according to the program’ director, Bobby Kaplow.
According to Kaplow, after last year’s technical failure with the same vendor, APS spent the year troubleshooting with the contractor, trying to find a solution.
“All year we worked with him, we told him what we needed, we told him what the problem was, can he see it on his end,” Kaplow said, adding that he had demanded that the contractor fly in from Michigan to be on-site for the enrollment rollout today in case any issues cropped up.
“I talked to him 20 minutes before it started today, and said, ‘Are we good?'” Kaplow said. The contractor told the director that there wouldn’t be any problems.
Kaplow suspects that the issue lies in the simultaneous, high numbers of enrollment attempts overloading the system.
Today’s 8 a.m. enrollment start time was just that — a start time. Technically, enrollment is ongoing, but some schools quickly incur a wait list for open spots and parents don’t want their child’s status to remain in limbo. Many wake up and pound the keyboard, as Kaplow put it, hoping to get their child in the right program right away.
He said that this year’s line of waiting parents wasn’t as bad as last year’s, which he recalls went “all the way down the hall and out the door and down the street.”
One mother tried to enroll her daughter in the program both on her computer and her cell phone before eventually going in person to the facility.
“When I tried to, the system was closed off,” she told ARLnow in Spanish. “It was the same last year.”
Typically, she makes $9 an hour as a cleaner. Having to take off the day, without notice, to enroll her daughter this morning was necessary, but it impacts her family financially.
“The worst is that we lost the day and we won’t get paid,” she said, pointing to two friends joining her in line.
Despite the difficulty, that mother values the extended day program, although she added that “when you have a low salary, it’s more or less very expensive.”
“This program is very important,” she added. “It’s just very slow for the people who need it.”