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Teachers and staff at Gunston Middle School greet students on the first day of school (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Arlington Public Schools is pausing an impending middle school boundary process, citing stable enrollment this fall.

Earlier this year, APS was bracing for overcrowding at a few middle schools. It proposed busing some students from Dorothy Hamm and Swanson to under-capacity Williamsburg Middle School. It also floated moving the Spanish language immersion program from overcrowded Gunston to Kenmore Middle School.

Now, administrators say enrollment needs are not pressing enough to warrant these changes just yet. The Arlington School Board endorsed a plan Tuesday to postpone the process for one year. The changes would now affect students going into grades 6 and 9 in the fall of 2026.

“As of last week at each middle school, only one school exceeds capacity: Gunston has two students beyond its design capacity,” Dept. of Planning and Evaluation Executive Director Lisa Stengle told the board on Tuesday. “Every middle school fits right now. So the urgency that we had to change middle school boundaries may not be as urgent as it was when we started this process.”

She attributed this to the home address confirmation process this summer, when APS changed how it verifies students living in Arlington and unenrolled non-resident fifth and eighth graders.

While this effort was underway, several families were voicing their opposition to the proposed boundary changes. Most vocal were Hamm families opposed to plans to bus students to Williamsburg, who said their children would forfeit the option to walk to school.

School Board members opined that walkability becomes the sticking point of most boundary processes and these efforts prioritize walkability — above other priorities, such as demographic diversity — as a result.

“The knottiest problem here… is the dichotomy between walkability and demographics because they both can’t be achieved at the same time,” School Board member Reid Goldstein said.

“We’ve heard, in the past, that when staff goes out to the community and talks about potential boundary changes, they hear ‘Well, we like walkability,’ and then we we just lean in the direction of walkability, which of course does not enhance demographics at all,” he continued.

APS may still, one day, move the immersion program from Gunston to Kenmore, in an effort to get more secondary students to stick with the program, says Director of Strategic Planning Iliana Gonzales.

Most immersion students live within the boundaries of Kenmore and Thomas Jefferson middle schools and may discontinue the program because of travel distance to Gunston, she said. Last year, a task force convened to develop a vision for the dual-language immersion program recommended moving the program to a more centrally located middle school — a change afforded by the then-forthcoming boundary process.

But School Board members and administrators are also concerned about where to put the program because it may impact the balance of native English and Spanish speakers. Only about a third of immersion students in elementary and middle school were classified as English learners, according to a 2022 report.

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Gunston Middle School (file photo)

Arlington Public Schools is mulling moving the Spanish Immersion Program at Gunston Middle School to Kenmore starting two years from now.

The move would be part of a planned middle school boundary process also set to go into effect the same school year. APS is looking to balance middle school populations, as, without boundary changes, Gunston and Swanson are projected to become overcapacity and Williamsburg and Kenmore are projected to have seats available.

The school system says relocating the immersion program would also bring it to an easier-to-access school. In the Glencarlyn neighborhood, off of Route 50, Kenmore is more centrally located than Gunston, which is near the border with the City of Alexandria.

“We believe that by moving the program to a centrally located school, we will be able to enhance the program’s offerings and create new opportunities for our students to flourish,” staff said in a letter to parents, posted on the DC Urban Moms and Dads forum. “The decision to relocate this program was driven by our commitment to provide the best possible educational experience for our students.”

The change would apply to incoming sixth grade students. APS administrators say they will be spending the summer studying how this would impact students and whether those in grades 7 and 8 can finish their time in the immersion program at Gunston.

“Students who are enrolled in the program at that time will remain in the program and will be transferred to Kenmore when the program relocates to Kenmore,” reads the letter to parents.

Two-thirds of immersion students at Gunston are projected to fall within the new boundaries for Kenmore after a potential boundary process, per a presentation during a recent work session.

“I understand the rationale for wanting to move immersion out of Gunston for a variety of reasons, but what caught my attention is talking about transportation impact and congestion,” School Board member Mary Kadera said during the work session. “This is not meant to throw a total wet blanket over the idea of immersion at Kenmore but I would be interested… to understand congestion on Carlin Springs Road and the Kenmore site specifically.”

As a parent of students who went to Kenmore, she says she can appreciate the congestion on Carlin Springs Road and difficulties getting in and out of the Kenmore parking lot.

“We already have a bit of a knot there,” she said. “I’m concerned about moving an immersion program to that school when we know that a healthy number of immersion students end up being driven by a parent.”

Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Operations Renee Harber agreed that transportation is top-of-mind for staff with this potential change. She projects the total number of buses going to Kenmore would increase from 11 to 19, without any decrease to Gunston, which needs buses for the Montessori program also located there.

“[Transportation] is a concern of ours,” she said during the work session. “We have to really review and study additional transportation demand options for this.”

Cristina Diaz-Torres, who is now the School Board Chair, encouraged families to “poke holes” in the handful of programmatic changes on the table so they can be improved.

“Our doors are open and are going to be open for the entirety of the summer and we really want to hear your thoughts and perspectives now and also in the fall,” she said. “This is not a decision that any of us are going to be taking lightly.”

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Parents and students are once more rallying behind the German language program at Arlington Public Schools, the future of which is unclear.

When students returned to school on Monday, Aug. 30, those enrolled in German 2 and 3 found out they had no in-person teacher. They instead received links to virtual German classes taught by Fuel Ed and Oklahoma State University, respectively, while German I students were told to choose another language, as virtual education would not be conducive for beginning instruction.

Germanophiles are worried about the program’s existence now and in the long term. For some, it feels like déjà vu, as the community rallied around German and Japanese a few years ago when enrollment was low and APS was considering the future of these programs.

“APS is cutting programs, pushing things online, and making it harder to learn language, when they should be starting early, making it fun and making it so they are actually learning something,” said Suzette Lohmeyer, whose son is enrolled in German 3, and would’ve been bussed to the Arlington Career Center this year for German before his class went online.

Two weeks after school started, the school system tells ARLnow it now has a temporary teacher for German I until a permanent replacement is found. APS added that it remains committed “to providing strong in-person linguistic support” to German 2 and 3 students.

“Our current German teacher has agreed to stay and teach German synchronously (she will be virtual while the students will be at the Career Center with a classroom monitor) until a permanent replacement is found,” spokesman Frank Bellavia said. “Schools will begin modifying student-schedules so that they can begin German 1 by next week. We will continue with our search, but this news gives us time to make sure that we hire a highly qualified German teacher.”

This teacher had resigned before the start of the school year, and APS attributed the problems to the timing of her announcement.

“The timing of the departure of our German 1 teacher has presented some scheduling and recruitment challenges but we are committed to finding a solution,” Bellavia said.

Low enrollment has threatened German in the past. It has the fewest students enrolled of the world languages offered, according to APS data. While Japanese was also on the chopping block a few years ago, enrollment has since increased, resulting in a second teacher getting hired for this fall. German, meanwhile, hovered between 43 and 56 students between 2015 and 2020. This spring, 35 students listed German as their preferred course for the fall, according to APS.

Regardless of enrollment, Lohmeyer and Judith Davis, whose children are studying German and whose families are dual U.S.-German citizens, say the program should stay because one of Arlington’s sister cities is in Germany.

Further, the parents say that the now-returned teacher has been thrown under the proverbial bus. They have built a coalition of other families frustrated by situation, as well as other current and former students and parents, and are pushing for more information, greater transparency and stopgap solutions.

“We have a values gap at the moment,” Davis said. “This is not just a bunch of parents trying to cause trouble: We’re just saying ‘This is not acceptable.'”

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Morning Notes

DES Wants to Reunite Stuffed Bunny With Owner — The Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services is searching for the owner of a stuffed animal believed to have been accidentally thrown away during Taste of Arlington on Sunday. “Let us know if someone is missing a good friend,” DES tweeted. [Twitter]

APS to Keep German, Japanese Classes — “Superintendent Patrick Murphy on May 17 confirmed the decision to keep German I, II and III and Japanese I, II and III, which had been slated for elimination due to low enrollment. The turnaround came after students and parents complained.” [InsideNova]

Flanagan-Watson Get Promotion — “Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz has appointed Shannon Flanagan-Watson as deputy county manager, effective May 21, with oversight responsibility for Arlington Economic Development, Arlington Public Libraries, and a portion of the Department of Environmental Services, one of the County’s largest departments.” Flanagan-Watson has served as the county’s business ombudsman, working to help solve regulatory problems for Arlington businesses. [Arlington County]

Risk Warrant Bill Fails — A bill introduced by Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48) to create risk warrants — allowing law enforcement to confiscate the guns of troubled individuals if a court order is granted — failed in the Virginia legislature this session. [WVTF]

Patriots Win District Baseball Title — The Yorktown Patriots baseball team won the Liberty District high school tournament and title for the first time since 2012. [InsideNova]

Get Ready for Memorial Bridge Work — Major work to rehabilitate the aging Memorial Bridge is set to begin in September and will cause significant traffic impacts. The work “will require long-term lane closures and short-term detours, which will be disruptive to traffic and likely send vehicles to other Potomac River spans, tying those up more than usual, per the NPS. One of the sidewalks will also be closed ‘during much of the construction period.'” [Washington Business Journal]

Budget Limits May Limit New HS Amenities — “Those who descended on Saturday’s County Board meeting hoping to win support for more rather than fewer amenities in a potential fourth Arlington high school came away with no promises from board members. If anything, those elected officials who addressed the subject did so in an effort to – delicately – tamp down expectations.” [InsideNova]

Wrong-Way Crash in Pentagon City — A driver reportedly hopped a curb, drove the wrong way down Army Navy Drive and smashed into two vehicles in Pentagon City around noon yesterday. [Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Arlington Public Schools will not offer high school students beginner’s level Japanese and German classes this fall, and some parents and students are speaking out about it.

Much of the loudest advocacy has been geared toward supporting up the Japanese classes. Public comments after a world languages presentation at last week’s School Board meeting (May 3) focused on the ways that the Japanese classes have made an impact on students.

“It’s not just a language, it’s not just something people take because they want to get the advanced diploma,” said one student, Juliana Logan. “It’s not an easy language, we take it because we care and we want to learn more about it.”

Another student, Liam Mason, started a Change.org petition that, as of May 4 (Friday), had garnered more than 1,800 signatures over the past week. The petition isn’t clear as to how many of the signers are Arlington residents.

Mason spoke of his strong desire to learn the language, calling the news of the phase out “devastating.”

The demand for Japanese and German courses has shrunk in recent years, according to Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia.

In 2015-2016, 65 students signed up for German and 54 signed up for Japanese. By the next school year, 2016-2017, those numbers dropped to 42 and 37 students respectively.

Though the numbers rose by two students per language in 2017-2018, Bellavia said that the numbers for 2018-2019 German and Japanese enrollment were low. There were 33 requests for German, or six less than in 2017-2018, and 41 requests for Japanese.

Bellavia added in an email to ARLnow that the school system “often [has] attrition from level one to level two… that means that there are even smaller levels at the advanced language level.”

“Therefore, we have decided to use our resources for courses that have a greater level of interest throughout APS,” he said.

Supporters have noted that the reason for the relatively low requests, compared to much more popular languages like Spanish or French (with a respective 2,326 and 673 enrolled students in the last school year), is due to school counselors advising students to switch to Chinese and the lack of a Japanese and German option at the middle school level.

Mason described how many students tend to stick with their middle school language as they advance grade levels, and that German and Japanese are thus dealt an unfair hand during enrollment.

“Counselors have told children to disenroll and it’s not offered in middle school, [yet] numbers are increasing by a surprising margin,” said Mason. His comments continued, stating that he believed that the anticipated larger class sizes would add more students to the program.

According to Bellavia, the advice from counselors came after it was determined that there would be insufficient enrollment for the 2018-2019 school year:

APS counselors do not advocate for one world language course over another. Students were given the same opportunity to select Japanese and German as they were all world languages within APS.  Each year, students select those courses they are interested in taking. Once all of the course requests are approved, school staff review the requests and then determine the number of sections needed for each course.  Each year, there may be some courses for which there is not enough student interest to run the course. Once it was determined there was not enough interest to run Japanese and German for the 2018-19 school year with the current model, counselors advised students that another option would need to be selected.

We are in the process of determining other potential options for offering these languages to those students who are interested.

A committee, Save Japanese in Arlington Public Schools, has been formed by the parents and students, seeking a one year deferment of the decision to allow for community input.

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