Eight South Arlington elementary schools will soon see changes to their attendance boundaries, now that the School Board has signed off on a final map and put an end to a contentious, messy debate over boundaries that roiled several school communities over the last few months.
The Board voted unanimously last night (Thursday) to approve a boundary map drawn up by school officials just a few days ago, a move that could send as many as 413 elementary students to new schools starting next year.
Arlington Public Schools officials designed the boundary process to meet a series of different concerns. Not only is the school system facing rising enrollment numbers across all of its schools, but officials needed to account for the opening of Alice West Fleet Elementary School next year. The school system is also gearing up to convert Drew Model School into a “neighborhood” school, drawing its attendees primarily from the communities surrounding the Nauck building, and move its Montessori program to the building currently serving as Patrick Henry Elementary.
Accordingly, the process involved drawing new boundaries for both Drew and Fleet, while shifting some students primarily from Oakridge and Long Branch to those schools, as well as Hoffman-Boston.
But APS leaders and Board members have come under fire from virtually all sides as they’ve managed this complex series of moves.
Many parents at Henry felt betrayed by proposals that would send roughly a fifth of the community to Drew instead of Fleet, even though they felt school officials had long promised to avoid such a change. Others at Drew fretted that the boundary changes wouldn’t do enough to even out demographics at each South Arlington school, while Abingdon parents were alarmed by a prior proposal to move some students in Fairlington to Drew instead.
Even still, Board members expressed confidence that the map they’ve approved will best serve the needs of the entire school system, despite the acrimony that marred the process.
“It’s a solution we need to have happen at this point because of our rising enrollment,” said Board Chair Reid Goldstein. “This boundary change is not perfect. No boundary change is perfect.”
Yet plenty of parents arrived at Thursday’s meeting to decry the entire process, with many lamenting that the Board has managed to break their trust that future efforts will be managed competently.
“You’re failing Drew and Fleet,” parent Susan Hampton told the Board. “I don’t know why you’d willfully increase economic segregation… I’ve lost my faith in the process.”
Notably, even some Board members expressed regret that they couldn’t do enough to better spread out students eligible for free and reduced price lunch (a key indicator of their family’s economic means) across the eight schools. While the new map will reduce FRL rates at some schools, Barcroft, Drew and Randolph will all still have at least 50 percent of their student bodies eligible for free and reduced lunch.
“I certainly didn’t meet all the goals we laid out for this,” Goldstein said.
But Board member Monique O’Grady argued that the new map still took major steps toward addressing racial inequality in the county, primarily with how it will transform Drew’s future. She noted that the Nauck community has long hoped for a “single-focus neighborhood school,” though students there have been constantly bused away from the area, dating back to the days of the Jim Crow era.
While some parents at Henry proposed transforming Drew into a countywide “option” program as one way to avoid more boundary changes elsewhere, O’Grady stressed that converting Drew into a pure neighborhood school is the best way to meet the community’s needs.
“Now Drew will follow in the footsteps of Oakridge and Abingdon… which now enjoy huge support from the families they serve,” O’Grady said. “I believe Drew will enjoy similar success.”
Other parents were similarly pleased that the Board’s map will keep the entirety of the Fairlington community together at Abingdon, even though it will leave the school a bit overcrowded for now. The Board chose to leave some schools a bit under-capacity — including Fleet and Drew — to allow for growth over the years, and avoid more boundary changes. Then, it hopes to address any remaining issues in the 2020 boundary drawing process.
“[This map] acknowledges that our neighborhoods continue to fill with elementary-aged children who want to take advantage of our excellent schools, and gives our county and our kids room to grow,” said Claire Rosenberger, an Abingdon parent.
But many remain nervous that the 2020 changes will proceed similarly turbulently, and warned parents to be vigilant moving forward.
“Successful civic engagement does not require that everyone agree with end result, but it does require transparency and accountability,” said Joe Everling, a Henry parent who has been fiercely critical of the Board’s process. “To my utter amazement, that has not happened here… there is no oversight for this board, except for the citizen voter.”
Arlington school officials recently realized they made a critical error in calculating school enrollment rates as they prepared a final proposal for the redrawing of attendance boundaries in South Arlington, prompting the last-minute introduction of a new map to correct that snafu.
The School Board is gearing up for a final vote this week on boundary changes at eight elementary schools, which will conclude a lengthy, contentious process stretching over the better part of the last six months. Superintendent Patrick Murphy put forward what was meant to be a final proposal last month, but officials then tinkered with that map to better distribute students across the schools involved and reduce overcrowding.
The school system released the result of some of that work last week, with figures initially showing that the new Alice West Fleet Elementary School would open next fall at close to 100 percent of its planned capacity. The school’s opening helped prompt the boundary adjustment process in the first place, and the school system’s methods for determining which communities will head to Fleet have become particularly controversial in recent weeks.
However, staffers soon discovered they’d erred in counting the number of students set to head to the school. The proposal actually would’ve opened Fleet at about 82 percent of its capacity, far below the standard officials hoped to hit.
Accordingly, the Board convened a new work session for last night (Tuesday) to examine a revised map accounting for that mistake. That new proposal would leave Fleet closer to 90 percent capacity instead, largely by redirecting some students currently attending Long Branch Elementary School to Fleet. The Board will ultimately have a chance to vote to approve this newest map, or any of the other six proposals the school system has worked up thus far.
“We’re trying to be as clear as possible here, and we realize there are ongoing confusions about the data and about the process,” said School Board Chair Reid Goldstein. “Unfortunately, there’s not much time for Board members and the community to absorb all this.”
Lisa Stengle, the APS director of planning and evaluation, told the Board that the change won’t pull all that many students away from Long Branch, a process officials hoped to avoid given the last-minute nature of the change.
Instead, the school system discovered that a variety of students attending the Ft. Myer Cody Child Development Center at Joint Base Myer (some of whom are the children of active duty service members) currently attend Long Branch or even Patrick Henry Elementary after receiving a special waiver to do so. Those students would be sent to Fleet instead for the next two years, Stengle said.
“We just need to give Long Branch a little breathing room,” Stengle said. The school will open at about 101 percent of its capacity under the latest plan, down from its current 113 percent.
School officials were optimistic that the change will work out for the best, filling more of Fleet but still allowing for a little bit of wiggle room at the school moving forward. But, given the acrimony that the boundary process has generated everywhere from the Drew Model School to Abingdon Elementary to Henry, Murphy was also quick to acknowledge that this latest error came at an unfortunate time.
“I think we continue to get better at this,” Murphy said. “And I look forward to continuing to refine things in the future.”
Goldstein was similarly conciliatory, particularly after parents at Henry accused him and other school officials of delivering assurances that their community would move as one to Fleet this year. Drew’s Montessori program is set to move to Henry, forcing current students out of the building, and the school system’s latest plans call for about 20 percent of those students to go to schools other than Fleet.
Parents even dug up emails from years ago featuring Goldstein providing such promises, and he expressed plenty of regret for having done so.
“I wish I could go back and keep my mouth shut at the time when it would’ve been a good idea to do so, but I can’t,” Goldstein said. “I apologize for creating an impression two and half years ago that the future would have ironclad certainty… I’ll be much more circumspect about future events as we go forward.”
Board members also addressed a proposal from some Henry parents to convert Drew into a hybrid neighborhood-option school drawing in students from across the county to its STEAM program. Its backers hoped such a change would help keep the Henry community together and build a strong base of support for Drew, but many in Nauck resisted such an effort.
Board member Monique O’Grady pointed out that part of the intent of moving the Montessori program out of Drew was to “give Drew its neighborhood school back,” and she felt the STEAM proposal ran counter to that purpose.
Goldstein praised the proposal, noting that “some parts of it are very intriguing and some parts are attractive.” But he also agreed with his colleagues that it would be too difficult to manage such a change on such short notice, particularly without consulting with the Drew community first.
“We just wouldn’t be able to do this in two weeks,” Goldstein said. “We don’t know yet how to define a future option program, how to identify where we need it and where the optimal location is.”
Even still, Goldstein and his fellow Board members praised the community for being engaged enough on the issue to come up with such a proposal in the first place. And, with the Board set to approve a final map tomorrow (Thursday), O’Grady urged concerned parents to channel that energy into a positive outlet going forward.
“The desire to stay at your current school doesn’t necessarily mean you’re against another school, just that you’re passionate about where you are,” O’Grady said. “We hope you’ll bring that passion to your new school.”
The following Letter to the Editor was submitted by Amelia Black, a Nauck resident living within Drew Model School’s attendance boundaries and the mother of two young children.
She penned this note to the Arlington School Board as it weighs a redrawing of South Arlington school boundaries. Parents at Henry Elementary School have proposed converting Drew into a neighborhood school accepting countywide transfers for a “STEAM” program in order to address some of their boundary concerns. The Board has dismissed the possibility of such a proposal, and is set to vote on a final boundary map next month.
My name is Amelia Black, and I am a parent of two children under the age of 5, and I live in the Drew neighborhood walk-zone. The views expressed here are my own.
I am writing because I have been frustrated to learn of the recent proposal by some community members to scrap this whole boundary process and make the new Drew neighborhood school a ‘hybrid option school.’ I thought it was ridiculous on its face, but learned it has been shopped around with all School Board members and even has a full PR campaign complete with ARLnow article and attempts to convince neutral stakeholders like Drew’s principal and PTA president.
I am not sure what you all think about this proposal, but I am hoping it is non-idea for you like it is for me. The school has been an option school for decades and has not had the benefit of a single community rallying around its success like other schools have had. You all know the history of the school, how we all got this point, and I hope that going back now is not considered an option.
I personally support map 6 with some reservation, in particular about filling the school and students not opting out, ultimately delaying Drew congealing into a strong community school. Changes that I hope would be considered 1) all Pre-school seats, including leftover non-VPI seats, should be given to Drew families living in this boundaries so as to encourage families to come into the school 2) Large numbers of students should not be allowed to stay at their former neighborhood school just because it has some extra capacity.
However, I am also formally requesting that you do what you feel is the best long-term solution for all students. The inherent problem with having all us parents constantly engaged in any process like this is that we all would do ANYTHING to prevent real or perceived threats to our children’s’ optimal development.
Parents can pull out charts, spreadsheets, and videos but none of us are objective, and we all want what we feel is the best solution RIGHT THIS MINUTE for our precious children. But often, what is best for those being the loudest right now is not necessarily the best solution for the long-term. We elected you all to gather our input and then make an objective decision that is best for all students, not just the ones who have time and resources to make our voices heard. I’ve shared my opinion, and I am telling myself I’m objective, but I’m biased like every other parent, and I hope you will each do what you feel is most fair to all involved.
As a final thought, please though there have been many flaws in this process that I hope you will seriously reflect on in making improvements for the future, please do not delay this decision. Please make efforts to pull the band aid off now and make a decision on December 6. Delaying the decision will only give people more time to creatively combat the inevitably painful acceptance of changes coming next year.
ARLnow.com occasionally publishes thoughtful letters to the editor about issues of local interest. To submit a letter to the editor for consideration, please email it to [email protected]. Letters may be edited for content and brevity.
Photo via Google Maps
(Updated at 9:50 a.m.) Many parents of Patrick Henry Elementary School students have expected, for years, that their community would move as one to Alice West Fleet Elementary when it opens next fall.
They believe Arlington school officials have repeatedly promised them as much over the years, as deliberations have progressed over the best way to build a new South Arlington elementary school, then shift Drew Model School’s Montessori program to Henry’s old building. That’s why so many Henry parents are now furious that Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s proposal for a redrawing of school boundaries would send more than a fifth of current Henry students to schools other than Fleet.
School leaders, however, argue they’ve never made such promises about keeping the entirety of the Henry community together. The current boundary process is aimed at better spreading out students across eight different South Arlington elementary schools, and officials argue that it’s likely impossible they’ll be able to please every single parent as they look toward the greater good for the whole school system.
But some parents believe there’s a better way to achieve school officials’ stated goals for the boundary process, which simply involves a little bit of creative thinking. They’d much rather see the school system transform Drew into a science and technology-focused program that accepts transfers from across the county, as a way of simultaneously solving overcrowding issues in the area and avoiding a major breach of trust with the community.
“South Arlington has always been on the back end of receiving support for its schools,” Gary Belan, a parent of two current Henry students, told ARLnow. “But this whole process has not only been a disservice to the kids at Henry, but the folks at Drew. It does a minimal amount to set either up for success.”
After releasing a slightly revised version of Murphy’s map and holding a public hearing on the boundary proposals last night (Tuesday), the School Board won’t approve a final map until Dec. 6. Some early proposals would’ve moved all but a small section of the Henry community to Fleet, though some came at the cost of angering parents in Fairlington by moving students from Abingdon to Drew, and Board members stress that all of the draft maps remain on the table for debate.
Yet some parents who’ve spent years working on committees guiding Fleet’s opening have lost faith that the Board will listen to Henry’s concerns. For instance, Joe Everling, who worked on the Building Level Planning Committee for Fleet, believes the Board “wasted my time” and “co-opted me into this flawed process.”
“The ‘Arlington Way’ is often all about asking for feedback and then doing whatever you want anyway, and that’s what’s happening here,” said Everling, the parent of two kids currently at Henry and a third approaching school age. “They’re talking to us like we’re kindergarteners, telling us we didn’t hear what we heard… We’ve been working with them, not fighting with them. But then they reveal something that doesn’t even reflect what they’ve been promising.”
Yet Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia insists that moving Henry to Fleet was merely a “general plan” developed as the school system began planning for a new elementary school in 2013, and never an explicit promise.
“When APS began this boundary process, the School Board listed eight schools to be included in this process and none were to be exempt from possible boundary changes,” Bellavia said.
School Board Chair Reid Goldstein was even more emphatic during an Oct. 24 work session, arguing that parents were mistaken in assuming that Henry’s student body would move together to Fleet. He even conceded that some school officials, himself included, might have given parents the wrong impression about the matter, and should’ve expressed more uncertainty about the future.
Goldstein went on to explain that he’d requested a correction to an ARLnow article which reported on APS officials reassuring Henry parents that all students would move to Fleet, after several parents mentioned such assurances at an October School Board meeting. He argued that the article was “inaccurate” and “further inflamed” tensions over the matter.
“Staff has attempted to quell this rumor but, unfortunately, it still persists in some places,” Goldstein said. “I’m addressing it here to hopefully, finally, put it to bed.”
But Everling points to a number of school documents delivered to various committees over the years dubbing Fleet “a new school for Henry Elementary.” The Board’s April 2016 motion approving plans for Fleet even refers to it as such; a January 2018 presentation on the school’s design similarly notes that the Board “identified Patrick Henry Elementary as the school community that will occupy the new elementary school.”
And, in a May 2016 email to Douglas Park Civic Association leaders obtained by ARLnow, Goldstein himself looks to quell what he dubs “rumors” that the Henry community will be split up in the move to Fleet.
“To fill up the new building, we need to move all of the Henry students there,” Goldstein wrote. “Removing current Henry students from that new boundary zone is counter-productive to accomplishing this goal.”
Superintendent Patrick Murphy has revealed his final proposal for new elementary school boundaries to forward along to the School Board, with a new map designed to simultaneously the answer the concerns of some Fairlington parents and reduce overcrowding at Barcroft Elementary.
Arlington Public Schools officials have spent months drawing up map after map to guide attendance boundaries at eight South Arlington elementary schools set to go into effect next fall. Each one has prompted fresh rounds of concern among parents nervous about seeing their kids moved to different schools, as the school system prepares to open up the new Alice West Fleet Elementary next year.
Murphy’s new proposal, released yesterday (Monday), incorporates changes made to several prior maps worked up by APS staffers.
Perhaps most notably, the proposal keeps the entirety of the Fairlington community within Abingdon’s attendance boundaries, rather than sending some students in South Fairlington neighborhoods to Drew Model School. Parents from across Fairlington vigorously protested previous proposals to do so, arguing that it would unnecessarily split up the community and require plenty of busing to help students reach Drew.
School officials worked up a map last week to leave Abingdon’s boundaries unchanged, but that proposal would’ve left both Drew and Fleet with far fewer students than the buildings are designed to hold. Meanwhile, Barcroft, in particular, would’ve remained substantially over its capacity.
Murphy’s new map would move 100 students out of the school, reducing it from being at 149 percent of its capacity next year to 120 percent. Randolph would also see a slight decrease of about 40 students, and Drew and Fleet would absorb most of the students from those schools.
Neighborhoods just off Columbia Pike would be primarily impacted by the change, with a cluster of streets behind the Walter Reed Community Center and others around Alcova Heights Park all moving to Fleet.
The superintendent’s proposal would mean that Fleet will open at about 88 percent of its planned capacity, while Drew will move to about 92 percent of its capacity. Abingdon remains relatively unchanged, and is scheduled to be at about 120 percent of its capacity, but school officials hope to address that in a new round of boundary adjustments in 2020.
Next year, Drew will see hundreds of students leave the building, as the Montessori program moves to Patrick Henry Elementary. Yet parents there worried the school system’s initial plans would involve unfairly packing the school with students from low-income families, as measured by the percent of the student body eligible for free and reduced price lunch.
Murphy’s proposal would mean that about 56 percent of the school’s population would be FRL-eligible, down slightly from the 60 percent figure that officials initially proposed. Of the eight schools included in the process, only three will have more than 50 percent of the student bodies eligible for free and reduced price lunch, the school system’s target benchmark throughout the boundary process.
The School Board will get its first look at the superintendent’s boundary proposal at its meeting Thursday (Nov. 8), with a public hearing set for Nov. 27. The Board plans to pass a final map by Dec. 6, and could make plenty of changes to Murphy’s proposal between now and then.
Photo via Arlington Public Schools
Amazon in Talks to Come to Crystal City — Per a widely re-reported Washington Post scoop, Amazon “has held advanced discussions about the possibility of opening its highly sought-after second headquarters in Crystal City.” An Amazon executive, meanwhile, tweeted that “the genius leaking info about Crystal City” is “not doing [it] any favors.” [Washington Post, Twitter]
Crystal City Isn’t Alone — “Amazon.com Inc. has progressed to late-stage talks on its planned second headquarters with a small handful of communities including northern Virginia’s Crystal City, Dallas and New York City, people familiar with the matter said, as it nears a final decision that could reshape both the tech giant and the location it chooses.” [Wall Street Journal, Washington Business Journal]
Jewelry Store Coming to Ballston Quarter — “ninetwofive, formally Wuayra Peruvian Silver Jewelry, is offering sterling silver jewelry and fine accessories in its new location at Ballston Quarter in Arlington, VA beginning this November.” [PR Log]
Officials: We’re Listening to Boundary Concerns — “Arlington school leaders say nothing has been cast in stone when it comes to adjusting elementary-school boundaries, but that the clock is ticking toward decision-making… The schools whose boundaries are in play in this round of adjustments include Abingdon, Barcroft, Drew, Fleet (the new school to replace Patrick Henry), Hoffman-Boston, Long Branch, Oakridge and Randolph elementaries.” [InsideNova]
APS Asked About Graduation Rates — “Arlington school officials are being pressed by one board member to be more specific in analyzing data related to graduation and drop-out rates of minority students. School Board Vice Chairman Tannia Talento says minority students — those classified as black, Latino and Asian — could end up ‘falling through the cracks’ if more attention isn’t given to their individual cases.” [InsideNova]
Miss Steindorff Remembers — A nursing home employee in Minnesota used social media to help a former Walter Reed Elementary teacher, Miss Steindorff, remember the names of students in one of her classes, as depicted in a photo she kept. Students in alumni groups the employee reached out to helped fill in the gaps in Miss Steindorff’s memory, while sharing their own fond memories of their teacher, shortly before she passed away. [Presbyterian Homes & Services]
Arlington school officials are proposing a new boundary map that would keep South Fairlington students at Abingdon Elementary, answering the concerns of parents there who worried the school system’s process of drawing new attendance lines would break up the community.
The school system has wrestled for months now with the thorny question of how to best tinker with the boundaries for eight South Arlington elementary schools, in order to address overcrowding concerns and prepare for the opening of Alice West Fleet Elementary next fall. Previous proposals for new maps initially irked parents at the Drew Model School, prompting Arlington Public Schools officials to propose an option moving some students in Fairlington neighborhoods from Abingdon to Drew to help address those worries.
But that proposal has touched off a fierce backlash of its own, with some in the community arguing it would force the unnecessary of busing of Fairlington students and damage the community’s strong ties. Now, APS leaders are offering up yet another new option, leaving all of Fairlington at Abingdon and moving some Columbia Heights and Alcova Heights neighborhoods to Drew instead.
Such a change would leave Abingdon substantially overcapacity, with Drew and Fleet still with plenty of space. Yet, in a work session last Wednesday (Oct. 24), school officials indicated it could end up being a workable solution for the county’s boundary conundrums.
“We can’t maintain everyone’s status quo, because we’re in a growth environment, so something has to give,” School Board Chair Reid Goldstein said at the meeting. “In our economic environment, we also need to ensure we fill school buildings, but the results aren’t going to be perfect.”
School system figures show that Abingdon will likely sit at 124 percent of its designed capacity by next year, and the latest proposal would bring that down to just 120 percent, a reduction of about 20 students. By contrast, the boundary map involving the disputed Fairlington changes would’ve dropped Abingdon to 98 percent.
Still, some Board members expressed uncertainty about the value of such a trade off, wondering if it could create problems at Abingdon down the line — APS projections show Abingdon reaching 131 percent of its capacity by 2021, under the latest boundary proposal. Meanwhile, Drew will be at just 74 percent capacity under that plan, and Fleet will open at 90 percent of its capacity.
“In the long run, we don’t want to have to build a new school because we’re not using these facilities well,” said Board member Barbara Kanninen.
Yet APS planning director Lisa Stengle pointed out that Abingdon, Barcroft and Long Branch will all be included in both this year’s boundary process and the redrawing of boundaries set for 2020, giving school officials a chance to address overcrowding at Abingdon in the coming years. She added that process will include more school’s in the county’s northern half as well, allowing for more possibilities in shifting around students.
Stengle also noted that the newest proposal would bring down the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch in Drew’s attendance boundaries compared to previous maps. Parents at Drew expressed concerns that previous efforts would’ve unfairly concentrated low-income students at the school, as the FRL rate is a proxy for the economic diversity of each community.
The newest proposal would mean that 57 percent of students eligible to attend Drew would qualify for free and reduced price lunch, down slightly from the 60 percent figure that initially concerned parents. As of now, about 52 percent of the school’s attendees are FRL-eligible.
“We still haven’t found that sweet spot yet where all the considerations are exactly where we want them to be,” Stengle said.
Board members indeed sought to stress that they were well aware that any boundary proposal is bound to make at least some people unhappy, and Goldstein was careful to note that all of the maps offered up by APS officials over the course of the process “are all still possibilities at this time.”
But Kanninen, in particular, called for a cooling of tempers among parents worried about their children changing schools, urging anyone anxious about a move to a new school to simply call up their prospective principal and learn more about the curriculum before worrying too much.
“We are creating new communities when we do this,” Kanninen said. “Please keep an open mind and get excited about the possibilities.”
Superintendent Patrick Murphy will offer up a final boundary map recommendation next Monday (Nov. 5), ahead of a planned Board vote on the matter in December.
The following Letter to the Editor was submitted by Mike Rosenberger, a parent of a second grader at Abingdon Elementary who has deep concerns about a proposal by Arlington Public Schools officials that would send some students in South Fairlington neighborhoods to Drew Model School instead of Abingdon.
The School Board has spent the last few months considering a redrawing of boundaries for eight South Arlington elementary schools, precipitated by the opening of the new Alice West Fleet Elementary next year, and tempers have frequently flared over how the changes will impact Drew, in particular. But one APS proposal designed to alleviate those concerns has prompted new worries among Abingdon parents.
The Board is still considering a variety of proposed maps, and will approve final boundaries in December.
I am writing regarding the proposed elementary school boundary map released at APS’s “What We Heard” meeting on Oct. 17. APS’s proposal to bus the students of southern Fairlington from the walkable Abingdon school zone to Drew Model School is not in the best interests of the children and does not reflect the values or the limited transportation resources of the county. The failure of the “What We Heard Proposal” to address in a fair and appropriate way several of the county’s guiding principles in the redistricting process means that this map should be withdrawn from serious consideration.
One of APS’s objectives in establishing new elementary school boundaries is to ensure that most students can attend the school closest to their home. Under the current proposal the students of southern Fairlington, all of whom live within one mile of Abingdon, would be bussed up to two miles to Drew Model School. This proposal would effectively eliminate the popular options of walking and biking to school for all southern Fairlington students, despite the know health benefits of walking or biking to school. Virginia’s Safe Routes to School initiative recognizes that children who walk or bike to school are more active, more physically fit, and more ready to learn when they arrive at school than students who are driven or bussed to school.
Increasing the school transportation needs of Fairlington also has important consequences for APS’s future capital and operating costs. The fiscal year 2019 school budget already allocates $18.3 million for transportation and was only balanced by extending the useful life of buses by three years. Arlington County is already being forced to make difficult financial decisions about existing tax rates and services. The School Board must look for opportunities to stabilize or reduce transportation costs and concentrate its budget on children’s educational needs.
The walk from southern Fairlington to Abingdon is through a safe neighborhood that features contiguous sidewalks, crosses no major roads, has no traffic lights, and, for some children, would be as short as .3 miles. Expanding the Abingdon walk zone would be a common-sense decision that supports APS’s dedication to the welfare of the whole child and would seize a valuable opportunity to reduce transportation needs from the current levels.
I ask the School Board to consider the significant benefits of leaving the southern portion of Fairlington within the borders of Abingdon Elementary School. I understand that redrawing school boundaries is a difficult process. Finding a better alternative to the current proposal would not only be in line with Arlington County’s efforts to promote walkable communities, but would also serve the health interests of the children of southern Fairlington and APS’s limited transportation resources and budget.
I encourage APS to withdraw the “What We Heard Proposal,” to explore other options, and to think more creatively about possible solutions to the challenges we face as we work to ensure our schools meet the needs of our communities.
(Updated Wednesday at 4:10 p.m.) As the heated process of setting new boundaries for eight South Arlington elementary schools lurches forward, parents at Patrick Henry Elementary are trying to deliver a single message to school officials: don’t break up the community in the move to Alice West Fleet Elementary.
Fleet’s planned opening next fall precipitated this process of drawing new boundary lines for the schools in the first place, with most Henry students set to move to the new school and the Montessori program currently housed at Drew Model School will move to Henry’s building.
Parents at Henry have long sought reassurances from Arlington Public Schools officials that the community would move as one to Fleet, without any neighborhoods being redirected elsewhere. The school system has released two different maps for public scrutiny over the last few months, and both have so far stuck firm to that request.
That fact was not lost on roughly a dozen parents who testified at the School Board’s meeting last Thursday (Oct. 18). Though the new boundary proposals have stoked outrage among families at Drew and Abingdon alike, they’ve largely satisfied parents with kids set to make the move from Henry, who are urging school leaders to stay the course throughout the remainder of the boundary process.
“We are a community that lives on Columbia Pike,” Melanie Devoe told the Board. “This will keep our students together, as we’ll have students who are learning together in elementary school all stay on the same campus through middle school.”
Erin Wasiak, co-president of the Henry Parent-Teacher Association, similarly praised the Board for keeping families along the Pike together, noting that the road acts as “our ‘Main Street’ and our town square.” Even still, she would note that the school system’s latest proposal would divert a few neighborhoods on the east side of S. Courthouse Road to Hoffman-Boston instead, a change that would only affect a relatively small number of students, but still struck Wasiak as a bit concerning.
“We’re as close or closer to Fleet as we are to the school you want to put us in,” Nicole Hallahan, a parent of a current Henry student set to move to Hoffman-Boston, told the Board.
APS spokesman Frank Bellavia stressed that officials are working to focus on contiguity as part of the process, though he noted that the school system “cannot guarantee that any individual school community will stay together.” As Lisa Stengle, the APS director of planning and evaluation, put it at an Oct. 17 community meeting, “We don’t want islands in places.”
“Boundary proposals align with the policy considerations, reflect what serves all students, and explore how changes to one school affect other schools,” Bellavia wrote in an email. “Change will be continual within APS due to ongoing enrollment growth, and APS is responsible for ensuring equity for all students across schools and programs.”
Nevertheless, between the changes with the Henry boundaries and the proposal to send some South Fairlington students to Drew instead of Abingdon, parents say the county hasn’t always managed to meet that particular goal.
“You just have to look at the map to see it’s oddly gerrymandered,” Claire Kenny, a parent of an Abingdon student, told the Board. “Please don’t punish our children to fix past redistricting efforts, or to fulfill promises to other communities.”
APS planners only proposed those Fairlington changes in the first place to create a more even spread of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, a measure of their families’ economic means, at schools across South Arlington. Some parents worried too many economically disadvantaged students were being lumped in at Drew, and Henry parents also urged the Board to keep the issue as a prime focus throughout the rest of the boundary-setting process.
“It’s important to have racially and culturally diverse schools that prepare our students to effectively relate with others,” said Megan Haydasz, a parent of a Henry student who’s been active on other school equity issues in South Arlington in the past. “Yet high concentrations of poverty limit a school community’s resources and may unconsciously limit student outcomes compared to other schools.”
Arlington school officials have hit a bit of a snag in the complex, contentious process of setting new boundaries for the county’s southern elementary schools — changes they’ve proposed to address concerns from Drew Model School parents have generated a new backlash from the Abingdon Elementary community.
Some parents living in the Nauck neighborhood initially raised concerns that proposed boundary tweaks at Drew would drastically change the school’s socioeconomic make-up, leading to a substantial boost in the number of students receiving “free and reduced lunch,” a measure of each family’s economic means, at the school. They feared such a shift would amount to packing poorer students into a single building, rather than maintaining a more balanced percentage at each South Arlington school.
Accordingly, Arlington Public Schools planners offered a change to the new boundary map, which is being crafted as the school system prepares to open Alice West Fleet Elementary School ahead of the 2019-2020 school year. The zoning change would send a few neighborhoods in the southernmost reaches of Fairlington, an area roughly bounded by N. Quaker Lane and King Street, to Drew instead of Abingdon in order to better balance out the “free and reduced lunch” population at each school.
However, that suggestion was immediately met with fierce criticism from the Fairlington community. A petition protesting the change launched on Friday (Oct. 12) has already garnered more than 1,000 signatures, and the Fairlington Citizens’ Association fired off a pointed letter to the School Board on Sunday (Oct. 14).
“Shifting South Fairlington students to another school will weaken the fabric of the community, diminish the cohesiveness of the community, and disrupt social and educational connections that currently exist,” Citizens’ Association President Guy Land wrote. “It runs counter to the community-centric focus Arlington has for years promoted.”
Beyond even that broad criticism, Land and the petition’s authors argue that the change would be an inefficient one from a transportation perspective, charging that it would increase the number of students forced to ride the bus to school instead of walk.
“Bus rides from Fairlington to Drew would significantly lengthen the ride for kids,” the petition reads. “This would put a greater strain on APS transportation, which is not a luxury APS has.”
Yet APS staff pointed out in a presentation to the Board last Wednesday (Oct. 10) that such a boundary change would have substantial benefits in balancing out the free and reduced lunch divide between Drew and Abingdon.
They noted that Abingdon had 41 percent of students living in its attendance boundary eligible for free and reduced lunch, as of last October. Meanwhile, Drew stands at 66 percent, a number that is a bit deceiving, as it reflects the move of the Montessori program to Patrick Henry Elementary next year, and the program generally includes kids from wealthier families. With Montessori students included, Drew’s free and reduced lunch percentage is closer to 52 percent.
The first boundary proposal would’ve dropped Abingdon’s free and reduced lunch percentage down to 34 percent, while moving Drew to 60 percent. The newly revised proposal would bump Abingdon up to 45 percent, compared to 49 percent for Drew. And, in a bid to ease some worries over the boundary change, APS could allow rising fifth grade students and their siblings to be exempt from the switch, with APS transportation provided.
The newest boundary map would also address the concerns of parents at Drew that students could be zoned to matriculate to one of three middle schools, instead of just one, under the first APS proposal. The new map would have Drew students eligible for two middle schools instead.
Parents and community members now have until Oct. 29 to offer comments on the latest boundary proposal. APS plans to release a final map on Nov. 5, with the School Board expected to take a final vote on the matter on Dec. 6.
The ever-contentious process of setting new elementary school boundaries is picking up steam in Arlington, with the school system spending the next few weeks collecting community feedback ahead of a School Board vote before the year is out.
Arlington Public Schools will hold an “open office hours” with planning staff tonight (Oct. 3) to let parents discuss the proposed boundary maps, and will accept online comments on the redrawn boundaries through next Wednesday (Oct. 10).
This latest boundary adjustment, designed to accommodate the opening of Alice West Fleet Elementary School ahead of the 2019-2020 school year, is set to impact a total of eight elementary schools in all. The current list proposed by staff includes:
- Long Branch
Abingdon, Barcroft and Long Branch are also set to be impacted by boundary changes in the fall of 2020, as will 12 other schools.
But, in the meantime, school officials hope to sort how to best tweak boundaries around the South Arlington elementary schools, in order to equitably reduce overcrowding and move students into Fleet in an orderly way.
Current estimates show that five of the schools involved in the process will see substantial decreases in student populations as part of the change. Abingdon, Barcroft, Long Branch, Oakridge and Randolph are all currently over their designed capacities, and all will see population drops by anywhere from 13 percent to 40 percent.
Even still, some parents are wary of the proposed boundaries, particularly those with students at Drew Model School.
Miranda Turner, a parent who lives in Drew’s attendance zone in Nauck, told ARLnow that she was particularly concerned that the school “seems to get the short end of the stick” under the current proposal.
“It’s really complicated, and I get that… but, in a world that involves necessary trade-offs, it’s not clear to me that there are any tradeoffs here to make up for the negatives,” said Turner, who has two kids currently in the school’s Montessori program and a third who could someday attend the school.
Turner is primarily concerned that the proposed changes would mean that Drew students could advance to three different middle schools, instead of just one, which might separate students from classmates they’ve befriended over the years. She chalks up part of the problem to the way the new boundaries extend out a bit to grab areas that won’t be within walking distance of Drew, another disturbing factor to Turner.
She also notes that the school system’s data show that Drew would see its possible population of students eligible for “free and reduced price lunch,” a measure of their families’ economic means, jump up to 83 percent.
The school system presents figures show that 85 percent of students at the school are currently eligible, but Turner points out that’s only because APS staffers aren’t considering the demographics of the Montessori program, which features students from much wealthier backgrounds. Drew officials reported in October 2017 having just over 51 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch, when considering the whole population.
With the Montessori program set to move to Patrick Henry Elementary School next year, Turner feels the current boundaries are a missed opportunity to keep the school’s current demographic mix a bit more like it looks currently.
“This change is going to make Drew one of the most low-income schools in Arlington, where it’s relatively balanced right now,” Turner said. “And that’s going to present real challenges when it comes to things like funding the PTA.”
APS planner Robert Ruiz isn’t sure that such a comparison is wholly appropriate, however. The figures APS staff are using in the boundary process represent the possible universe of students who are eligible to attend Drew by dint of living within its boundaries, but they could end up heading elsewhere. Meanwhile, the 51 percent figure Turner is pointing to is indicative of the students who actually attend Drew in practice, so it’s no guarantee that the change will be as drastic as the one Turner describes.
By the school system’s data, Drew’s attendance zone would actually see a 2 percent decline in the number of students eligible for a free and reduced price lunch. It’s a drop that Lisa Stengle, the APS director of planning and evaluation, points out is a small one, but could always change the more planners talk to the community and Board members.
“We’re really still working through and talking to the Board about: are there other options?” Stengle said.
Turner is hoping that school officials will listen to some of the Drew community’s concerns, perhaps by leaving some students in the Columbia Forest neighborhood set to be sent to Drew remain zoned for Abingdon instead. She’s well aware that tinkering with the current map in any way will prompt a domino effect for other neighborhoods, but she’s hoping that APS will be able to come up with a proposal that presents fewer problems for Drew, specifically.
“There is no answer that will make everybody happy, but we think there are improvements that can be made,” Turner said.
The open office hours are set to run from 7-8:30 p.m. tonight at Kenmore Middle School. The Board is also planning to hold a work session on the issue on Oct. 10, where APS officials are hoping to get a bit more insight into what the Board hopes to prioritize.
A public hearing on the boundaries is set for Nov. 27, then the Board plans to pass a new map on Dec. 6.