New school enrollment projections have reignited the long-dormant debate over the wisdom of building a fourth comprehensive high school in Arlington, as officials plot out the best strategy to educate a student population that won’t stop growing.
The issue reemerged in earnest late last month, when Arlington Public Schools planners unveiled some startling new data that could upend the School Board’s long-term construction plans.
It was not exactly breaking news when planners revealed that the school system’s enrollment is projected to grow by about 24 percent over the next 10 years. APS has added an average of 800 students annually for the last five years, after all.
But school leaders were a bit surprised to see that growth continuing apace, after initially expecting the number of students flowing into the county start falling through 2028, not rising. Even more notably, the new projections show about 2,778 additional elementary schoolers set to enroll in Arlington schools over the next 10 years, about 1,000 more than school planners projected just a year ago.
Considering how young those students are, that number could demand a major reexamination of the school system’s plans to add new high school seats.
The Board decided back in 2017 to build room for 1,300 high schoolers split between the Arlington Education Center and the Arlington Career Center, avoiding the expensive and difficult task of finding space for a fourth comprehensive high school in the county. But these new projections have some Board members wondering if that will be enough to meet these enrollment pressures.
“One of the bottom lines of this is that the 1,300 high school seats is not enough,” Board member Barbara Kanninen said at the group’s Jan. 24 meeting. “This looks, to me, like we’re really going to need that full, comprehensive high school after our Career Center project. And, to me, that means we need to start thinking about what that package of high school seats is really going to look like.”
New County Board member Matt de Ferranti also raised some eyebrows by suggesting in his introductory remarks on Jan. 2 that the county should fund a new high school, but not all of Arlington’s elected leaders are similarly convinced.
Superintendent Patrick Murphy urged the Board to “take a breath, look at this one year, and see if these patterns begin to play themselves out over a long period of time,” and some members agreed with a more cautious approach to the new projections.
“APS enrollment is growing faster than the available funds we have to address our growth, for operating needs (teachers, textbooks, buses) as well as for capital projects (building and expanding schools),” School Board Chair Reid Goldstein wrote in a statement to ARLnow. “It’s important to remember that student enrollment and projections are just a snapshot of one major factor. That’s why we will continue to emphasize flexibility in our planning so we can be responsive and adaptable to address our future community and operating landscape.”
But, for some parents who have long demanded a new comprehensive high school in the county — joining Wakefield, Yorktown and the newly renamed Washington-Liberty — the new projections only underscore the urgency of what they’ve been asking for this whole time.
“I think the data have been suggestive for quite some time that Arlington will need a fourth high school, and it seems to make the most economic sense to do that project all at once and not in pieces,” Christine Brittle, a market researcher and APS parent who has long been active on school issues, told ARLnow via email.
But Brittle did add that it was “surprising” that Kanninen sees a need for a new high school even after the Career Center project is finished.
It remains an open question just how the Career Center will look once the school system can add 1,050 new seats there, work that is currently set to wrap up by 2025 or so. As part of deliberations over its latest 10-year construction plan last year, the Board agreed to build some of the same amenities at Arlington’s other schools at the Career Center.
But the county’s financial challenges meant that the Board couldn’t find the cash to build all of the features to make the Career Center entirely equivalent to a comprehensive high school, and a working group convened to study the issue urged the Board to open it as an “option school” instead of requiring students in the area to attend a school without the same amenities as others elsewhere around the county.
Accordingly, Brittle would rather see the Board simply expand its plans for the site instead of setting out to build a whole new school.
“I’m actually agnostic about whether the Career Center is the correct location for a [fourth high school], so perhaps APS is going to revisit that decision in light of these new projections,” Brittle said. “However, assuming they are going forward with the Career Center project, it certainly makes the most sense to do that project now as a full, fourth high school.”
Such a switch would come with its own complications — as the school system’s Montessori program leaves Drew Model School, it’s currently set to move into the old Patrick Henry Elementary, which sits next to the Career Center. Any move to transform the site would likely require finding a different home for the Montessori students instead, at least in the long term.
“It would be far cheaper to find some additional, offsite-but-nearby field space, add a pool to the already robust Career Center plans, and find another building to repurpose for elementary Montessori, rather than building a large choice high school, which they may or may not fill, and then having to turn around and build a fourth comprehensive high school elsewhere (with money Arlington does not have),” Megan Haydasz, an APS parent who’s advocated for more amenities at the Career Center, told ARLnow via email.
However, Kristi Sawert, the president of the Arlington Heights Civic Association and a member of the Career Center working group, pointed out that APS is already pretty far down the path when it comes to moving the Montessori program to the Henry building. The Board recently agreed to reprogram hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the building to prepare for the Montessori students’ arrival, which she sees as an admission that “APS has no plans to tear it down to create a full-scale fourth high school (especially given that APS has a huge money deficit).”
“But I could be wrong,” she wrote in an email.
Still, that sort of option may well be on the table. Some Board members saw a need for more high school seats, but they didn’t share the same conviction that a fourth comprehensive school is the only way to achieve that goal.
“We’re going to have to put [these students] in a high school,” said Board member Nancy Van Doren. “1,300, 1,400 seats, that’s not enough, and we don’t have a school for all those kids in the [Capital Improvement Plan].”
Yet part of what drove Kanninen’s conviction that APS needs both new seats at the Career Center and a new high school is her belief that the county’s 10-year enrollment projections don’t tell the whole story.
Many of the new students planners expect to see in the coming years are young enough that they won’t be reaching high school by the time 2028 rolls around, convincing Kanninen that the data don’t paint a full picture of the school system’s in the distant future.
“The future kindergarteners you’re projecting won’t be in high school in 10 years, it’ll be 20 years,” Kanninen told APS staff at the Jan. 24 meeting. “We’re not seeing in this projection how many high school seats we are going to need… We need another high school down the road. We really need to clarify that story, and it’s really clear from this data in a way it never has been before.”
New Elementary School at Reed Site Approved — “The Arlington County Board today approved a new elementary school for up to 732 students at the Reed site, 1644 N. McKinley Road, in the Westover neighborhood. The Board voted unanimously to approve a use permit amendment for Arlington Public Schools to renovate and expand the existing Reed School/Westover Library to create a neighborhood elementary school.” [Arlington County]
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County Board Discusses Legislative Priorities — “A highlight of the County’s package is a call for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution that was proposed by Congress in 1972. Both the Arlington League of Women Voters, and the Arlington Civic Federation have called on the General Assembly to ratify the ERA.” [Arlington County]
Arlington Projects Win at NAIOP Awards — Nine of the 29 real estate development projects lauded at the Best of NAIOP Northern Virginia Awards on Nov. 15 were Arlington projects. [NAIOP]
Neighborhood Conservation Projects Funded — “The Arlington County Board today approved $2.9 million in Neighborhood Conservation bond funds for projects in Cherrydale and Arlington Forest… The $1.84 million Cherrydale project will improve N. Monroe Street, between 17th Street North and 19th Street North… The $1.08 million Arlington Forest project will make improvements to Edison Park.” [Arlington County]
How DIRT Chose Ballston — “DIRT co-founders @jlatulip and @jamcdaniel visited many parts of D.C. and the greater DMV area before deciding to open in Ballston. ‘We noticed very quickly that this was a special community, one that we could call home and grow with. We love the energy of the neighborhood — Ballston is a young, active community, which fits DIRT perfectly.'” [Instagram]
Flickr pool photo by Tom Mockler
Construction could soon get started on the new elementary school planned for the Reed School site in Westover, as the project looks set to earn the county’s approval this weekend.
The County Board is set to vote Saturday (Nov. 17) on a few zoning and easement tweaks for the property, located at 1644 N. McKinley Road. Arlington Public Schools is hoping to open the building in time for the 2021-2022 school year, and it will serve at least 732 students in all.
The school system’s plans call for the demolition of part of the existing school on the site, in order to allow for the construction of a new “two and four story school building, containing approximately 112,919 square feet, on the northeast side of the existing building,” according to a staff report prepared for the Board.
The School Board signed off on designs for the $55 million project back in August, and the plans have since earned the endorsement of the Planning Commission as well.
The lone change county planners are recommending is an alteration of a walking path to connect the school to Washington Blvd.
Originally, the path would run through an existing parking lot, up a small slope. But the slope was large enough to prompt some concerns about its accessibility for pedestrians with disabilities.
Accordingly, planners are recommending an alternative design to run the path parallel to the parking lot instead. To do so, the school system will have to cut back on nine parking spaces in the lot (bringing its total down to 133 spaces) in order to keep costs for the project down, a key concern for the School Board.
Both county staff and planners are recommending that the County Board adopt these plans, including the path alteration.
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APS Delays Release of Construction Cost Report — “Arlington residents will have to wait a little longer for an analysis of the reasons behind the high costs of school construction in the county. The audit committees of the County Board and School Board had been slated to meet Aug. 7 in a joint session to discuss a report by school-system auditor John Mickevice on school-construction costs. That meeting, however, was called off.” [InsideNova]
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Jail Holds Creative Writing Contest — A 26-year-old man who’s in jail on a heroin possession charge won the Arlington County lockup’s first-ever creative writing contest yesterday. His prize-winning poem, in part: “I dream about the future. I dream about the past. I dream about the mountains. I dream about the sea. I dream of all the places that I would rather be.” [NBC Washington]
InsideNova Not Available in Europe — More than 1,000 U.S. news websites are blocking users from Europe after the EU implemented strict new privacy regulations known as GDPR on May 25. Among the sites that are no longer accessible from Europe, as seen in this screen shot from last month: InsideNova, which publishes articles from the Arlington Sun Gazette newspaper. [Nieman Journalism Lab]
Plans for a new elementary school on the Reed School property in Westover are coming into focus.
The School Board got its first look at new design renderings for the building Tuesday (July 17), which is set to open in time for the 2021 school year and serve at least 725 students in all.
The $55 million project will involve the construction of a four-story structure alongside the existing Reed building, located at 1644 N. McKinley Road, and the renovation of the rest of the old building. Ultimately, the school will have 32 classrooms, 133 parking spaces and several new athletic fields and playgrounds for students.
Wyck Knox, a principal with the design firm VMDO Architects, told the Board that his team is also working to working to make classrooms in the building “adaptable.” Should school leaders ultimately want to open up more common space for group lessons, he says designers are “working really hard to keep columns and pipes out of the walls, so you can take those walls down” if need be.
Knox added that designers envision a fully accessible walkway stretching around the perimeter of the school, and he even plans to include space for an “outdoor classroom” alongside the building’s new fields and playgrounds.
But throughout all of the planning process, Knox stressed that the school’s designers have examined “cost control measures,” considering that the project’s price tag has been a subject of some controversy in the past, and the cost of all school construction in the county is a frequent sore spot for Arlington officials.
Cost estimates for the Reed project remain about $5.5 million higher than the $49.5 million in bond funding the school system secured for the effort. The county and Arlington Public Schools are planning to split the burden for that remaining amount, though designers are still hoping to bring the cost down to the original figure, as the School Board asked this spring.
Ben Burgin, the school system’s assistant director of design and construction, assured the Board that the remaining design work would involve the additional study of costs of things like emergency electrical systems, roofing or site amenities. He ultimately hopes to “deliver a new cost estimate by the fall.
The school system will ultimately need a use permit from the County Board before proceeding with construction, which they’re aiming to request in time for the Board’s Nov. 17 meeting.
But first, the School Board will need to sign off on the updated designs for the school, and will likely do so at its Aug. 2 meeting. The Board was broadly pleased with the newest sketches laid out, though Chair Reid Goldstein did reiterate his interest in seeing costs come down, considering the school system’s construction funding squeeze.
Audrey Clement, a frequent independent candidate for public office who is challenging Board member Barbara Kanninen this fall, wasn’t so optimistic.
“It will force 9- and 10-year-olds to march up three flights of stairs several times a day,” Clement told the Board. “While this scheme furthers APS’ commitment to a more-car diet, it will impose physical hardship on students and drive up costs.”
In related news, The Children’s School, a co-op daycare for the kids of APS employees displaced by the Reed school redevelopment, earned county approval Tuesday to build a new facility at the site of the old Alpine Restaurant on Lee Highway.
(Updated at 4:40 p.m.) Arlington school leaders believe they’ll need plenty of help from the County Board to build enough schools to keep pace with a rapidly growing student body over the next decade — but the county’s own financial pressures will likely limit just how much it can lend a hand.
The School Board and County Board convened for a joint meeting on Tuesday (May 29) as officials pull together their respective capital improvement plans, documents outlining construction spending over the next 10 years, in order to better coordinate the process.
Though neither board has finalized its CIP, the School Board is a bit farther along in the process and is currently eyeing a roughly $631 million plan for approval. But to make that proposal more viable, the Board told their county counterparts that they’ll need help in a few key areas: finding off-site parking and athletic fields for high schoolers, taking on debt to build new schools and securing more land for school buildings.
“Given the constraints we have, we have to be very creative,” said School Board member Nancy Van Doren. “And we need help.”
While County Board members expressed a willingness to work on those issues, they’re facing their own problems. County Manager Mark Schwartz’s $2.7 billion proposal comes with hefty cuts to some transportation improvements and neighborhood infrastructure projects, as the county grapples with increased funding demands from Metro and a shrinking commercial tax base.
In all, Schwartz is envisioning sending $396 million to Arlington Public Schools for construction projects through 2028, but even that amount might not help the school system meet its planned building needs.
“The amount of money we have in there for schools does not match the amount of money the schools are asking for,” Schwartz said during a Wednesday (May 30) town hall on the CIP. “They’re asking for more.”
In part, that’s because the School Board has been working to find a way to add more space for high school students a bit sooner than they originally anticipated, and add more amenities for those students in the process.
Members have spent the last few weeks wrestling with how to implement a “hybrid” plan the Board approved last summer, avoiding the need for a fourth comprehensive high school by adding seats to the Arlington Career Center (816 S. Walter Reed Drive) and the “Education Center” site adjacent to Washington-Lee High School (1426 N. Quincy Street). They’ve been especially concerned with how to most efficiently add features like athletic fields and performing arts space to the Career Center site, over concerns from parents that building space for high schoolers without those amenities would present an equity issue.
As of now, the Board is nearing agreement on a plan to build out space for a total of 1,050 high schoolers at the Career Center by 2024, complete with a multi-use gym and “black box” theater. APS would add a synthetic field on top of an underground parking garage at the site two years later.
The Arlington School Board viewed the proposed concept design for a new elementary school in Westover last week.
With a desired opening date of September 2021, the 725-seat elementary school at the Reed School site has a total project cost estimate of $55.1 million, which is about $6 million more than what was approved by the School Board on June 16, 2016.
A chart underlining funding sources noted that the $6 million extra would come from a “to be determined” source, though staff requested that cost cutting measures be explored to bring the cost back down to the initial $49 million. Construction funding for the elementary school is set to be put to a bond referendum for voters in November.
The existing structure, according to a School Board document, is “appropriate for early childhood program” but has several issues to be addressed, including an “inefficient layout,” “visibility/security,” and the fact that it is “space constrained for older students.”
The “recommended scheme” allows for the lowest total energy use per square foot, classroom transition times, required parking, and loss of open space, and “keeps the most site amenities.” Downsides to the concept design, noted officials, included “minor utility relocation” and constructing a “four-story building next to a two-story building and homes.”
The project will expand the existing Reed School, at 1644 N. McKinley Road, that currently houses The Children’s School, the Westover Branch Library, and the Integration Station, a pre-K student program for those with disabilities.
Voting Now Underway — Voters in Virginia have started heading to the polls to vote in a number of local and statewide races, including the competitive, nationally-significant race for governor. In Arlington, races for County Board, School Board and the House of Delegates are on the ballot. [WAMU, InsideNova]
Arlington Man Loses 45 Lbs Hiking — An Arlington accountant, 27, took 5.5 months off of work to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. He lost 45 lbs in the process and was the subject of a magazine feature. [Washingtonian, People]
APS Pumps Brakes on Focus of New High School — “Arlington school officials are slowing down the process of determining an instructional focus of the planned mini-high school adjacent to Washington-Lee High School even as they move forward with repurposing the existing Arlington Education Center building to serve a student body expected to total between 500 to 600 students.” [InsideNova]
Props for Arlington’s Pet Decision — Arlington’s recent ban on “wild and exotic pets” struck the right balance between resident safety and pet owner rights, writes an Arlington pet advocate and a longtime pet care professional. [Washington Post]
Flickr pool photo by Mrs. Gemstone
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More Than 40 Drone Flights Detected at Fort Myer — A study to detect unmanned aircraft found that 43 drone flights were picked up over Fort Myer over a 30-day period beginning in August. It is in the middle of a no-drone zone, with flights requiring specific permission from the Federal Aviation Administration. The report suggests the flights could have been from “well-intentioned” tourists at the nearby Arlington National Cemetery and other National Parks. [WTOP]
Leaf Collection Begins Next Week — “The Arlington County government’s vacuum-leaf-collection program is slated to begin November 13 and run through December 22. Each civic-association area is slated to get two passes during the cycle, with signs posted three to seven days before each pass, government officials said. Schedules also will be posted online. Residents wishing leaves to be vacuumed away should place them at the curb by the posted date, but avoid putting them under low-hanging wires or near parked cars.” [Inside NOVA]
APS to Slow Down Planning for Instructional Focus of New High School Seats — Arlington Public Schools and the Arlington School Board agreed to slow down the process of determining an instructional focus for the 500-600 new high school seats at the Education Center until a task force looking at the school’s strategic plan has finished its work. The plan had been for Superintendent Patrick Murphy to bring initial ideas for the site to the Board in December, but staff said slowing down would allow a “big-picture view of all high-school needs in the county.” [Inside NOVA]
Virginia Man Tried to Board Plane With Loaded Gun at Reagan National Airport — A Manassas man tried to board a plane at Reagan National Airport last Thursday with a loaded gun. The Transportation Security Administration detected the 9mm semi-automatic handgun during security checks, confiscated the firearm and cited the man on a weapons charge. It was loaded with seven bullets. [WJLA, WRC]
Flickr pool photo by John Sonderman
A working group will soon begin evaluating the Arlington Career Center and planning for more high school seats there — and even looking into the possibly of a new comprehensive high school on the site.
The Career Center (816 S. Walter Reed Drive) is set for a renovation and an addition of 700-800 high school seats in time for 2022. The Arlington School Board voted in June to use it alongside the Education Center to add 1,300 high school seats, in a so-called “hybrid” option.
And according to a draft charge for the Career Center Working Group, it will assess the following as it helps prepare the site for the additional seats:
- Estimate total project cost with low, middle and high cost alternatives within the funding limits approved by the School Board
- A vision and plan for the site that could include further additions and renovations that might develop in phases into a H.S., and that includes Arlington Tech and existing programs. This will be developed through a community engagement process in concert with the County.
- Options for common spaces, including recreational and performance spaces, that might also be shared with the community Draft Charge for CCWG
- Parking requirements including structured parking
- Physical education programs and field space
- Timelines and funding requirements
- Assume current programs continue to exist; provides funds for instructional spaces
- [Patrick Henry Elementary School] must remain an elementary school for the foreseeable future
- APS’s FY2017-26 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) – provides funds for instructional spaces – does not include funds for public spaces available at other high schools
At a meeting tomorrow night (Wednesday) at Washington-Lee High School (1301 N. Stafford Street), the county’s Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC) and the Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (FAC) will meet to discuss the plan for the renovated Career Center.
And at that meeting, commission members will look to identify any additional factors that must be weighed, and also ask whether the site should be considered for the proposed fourth comprehensive high school in the county.
When School Board members approved the “hybrid” option, they also directed Superintendent Patrick Murphy to explore “options describing cost, timeline, capacity, location and program for a [fourth] comprehensive high school in the FY 2019-2028 [Capital Improvement Program] process.”
Under a timeline proposed by APS staff, community engagement will begin next month and last through May, after the two commissions review the proposal. In parallel, the working group will do its work, before making a presentation to the School Board in May.
Work to rebuild the Wilson School in Rosslyn could cause some inconveniences for those in the area as crews closed a sidewalk and street near the project.
Due to construction at the school at 1601 Wilson Blvd, 18th Street N. is closed to non-construction traffic between N. Quinn Street and N. Oak Street for the entirety of the project.
And pedestrians walking along that side of Wilson Blvd near the soon-to-be-rebuilt Fire Station 210 and a 7-Eleven convenience store will need to cross over as the sidewalk outside the school is closed too.
Construction on the new $100 million building appears to be underway, with work expected to be done in fall 2019. It will house 775 students from the future H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs.