Arlington’s public schools are running out of room. Will the school board’s $474 million plan solve the space crunch fast enough?
When Cynthia Brown started her job as principal of Tuckahoe Elementary 18 years ago, the school had just two classes of kindergartners. This year, she expects six.
Built in 1953 to house 545 students, Tuckahoe is projected to enroll 715 students this fall. That’s 120 more than the 595 it had last year. “I can’t imagine having another 120 kids,” says Brown, who has already converted storage closets, teacher workrooms, a stage and more to instructional and educational use in an effort to accommodate the school’s burgeoning student body. “Every little nook and cranny has a purpose,” she says.
But Tuckahoe is running out of space. Located on a tiny shoebox of a site next to woods and county athletic fields, it has the smallest footprint of any public school in Arlington. Soon it won’t even have the small blacktop that adjoins its modest playground; the school is scheduled to receive four more modular classrooms this fall. With the six trailers already on site, that means Tuckahoe will have 10 trailers total.
Unfortunately for Arlington, school crowding is not limited to Tuckahoe. After almost a decade of hovering just above 18,000 students, enrollment hit 19,000 in 2008 and hasn’t stopped climbing since. Some 22,375 students are expected this September, and with the numbers now undeniably rising, local school officials and parents believe something must be done to add capacity to the system. Now.
“The issue is that the whole county is growing,” says Superintendent Patrick Murphy. “In 2021, we will have over 30,000 students and we will be shy 7,000 seats. There are going to have to be adjustments across the entire [schools] division. We want quality instruction and quality buildings.”
You’ll find the center of Arlington’s current school-crowding problem in the county’s northwest corner—a dense patchwork of family-friendly neighborhoods where bikes and strollers rule the sidewalks. Although six neighborhood elementary schools serve this quadrant (Ashlawn, Barrett, Glebe, McKinley, Nottingham and Tuckahoe), they aren’t enough. The area needed 317 more school seats for the 2011-12 school year. In five years, if nothing is done, that gap will hit 974 seats—enough to fill another elementary school and a half.
Other parts of the county are feeling the crunch as well. By 2017, Arlington Public Schools (APS) expects to need 497 more seats in the northeast quadrant served by Arlington Science Focus, Jamestown, Key, Long Branch and Taylor. In southwest Arlington, where kids attend Abingdon, Barcroft, Carlin Springs, Claremont and Randolph, elementary schools will need to find room for 334 more kids.
Even southeast Arlington—which during the 2011-12 school year had a surplus of 300 seats among its four schools (Drew, Hoffman-Boston, Oakridge and Patrick Henry)—is projected to be short by 80 seats five years from now. (Many of those currently unfilled seats are at Hoffman-Boston, which has been classified as an underperforming school— a status that allows families to transfer their children elsewhere. As a result, Hoffman-Boston is significantly under-enrolled, with just 404 students projected for 2012-13 in a building designed to hold 566 kids. A new focus on science, technology, math and engineering is expected to improve the school’s academic performance and appeal.)
Where are all these kids coming from? Much of the spike, as Superintendent Murphy points out, is reflective of population trends. From 2000 to 2012, Arlington County saw an 11.7 percent jump in its overall population and a 5.8 percent increase in kids between the ages of 5 and 19, according to county planning department estimates and U.S. Census Bureau data. During that time, the number of school-age kids in the county grew by nearly 1,400.
But population growth isn’t the only factor. “People are making different choices about where they are raising their families today,” says Sally Baird, who sits on the school board.
“For many years, the annual number of births in Arlington varied between 2,600 and 2,800, with the proportion of those kids enrolling in kindergarten five years later holding steady at just under 60 percent,” Baird explains. (The remainder moved out of the county, attended private schools or were homeschooled.)
Since 2006, however, the annual birth rate has consistently exceeded 3,000. And the proportion of Arlington-born kids enrolling in APS for kindergarten in 2011-12 was close to 80 percent.
Why the uptick? Recent turnover in Arlington’s housing stock is one likely factor, Baird says. During the housing boom, the county added more households with young children as older residents sold their homes. “We are seeing the same population surges in specific neighborhoods that [happened] in the ’60s and ’70s,” she observes.
At the same time, those kids are remaining in the system. Traditionally, the APS attrition rate from grade to grade was 2 to 3 percent as families left the county or transferred their kids out of public schools. “Now it’s less than 1 percent,” says Alison Denton, the school system’s director of facilities planning. She believes the drop may be a result of the weak economy and Arlington’s strong public schools. Families are staying put.
“Parents ask us, ‘Didn’t you see this coming?’ ” says Baird. “No. In 2006, when I was running for the school board, we were seeing declining enrollment. I remember being asked if I would have the courage to close schools.”
As the boom of elementary students moves up in the system, Arlington’s middle and high schools are expected to develop their own capacity issues. While secondary programs have more options, such as extended schedules, to manage a rising student population, those solutions won’t be enough to handle the 5,823 middle school students and 6,685 high schoolers who are projected to attend Arlington public schools in the 2017-18 school year. “We recognize that we have a critical need at the middle school level that is imminent,” says Denton.
So do parents, who wonder why APS isn’t moving faster to fix the problem.
“That’s a valid concern,” acknowledges Todd McCracken, who was appointed to the school board this spring. A resident of Tara-Leeway Heights, he has two sons in APS—a seventh-grader at Swanson Middle and a junior at H-B Woodlawn—and has actively served on the PTA, as well as on county-wide committees dealing with the 2010 school bond and previous capacity and crowding issues. “The system is moving [quickly] now,” he says. “That has been the challenge of the last year—how to move [quickly] while still being transparent.”
The solution, as decided by school officials in May after months of research and public meetings, is a $474 million capital improvement plan calling for a mix of new schools and additions to meet demand. The first wave of funding for the plan is expected to come, in part, from a $42.6 million school construction bond on the November ballot.
Under the plan, APS wants to build two new elementary schools: a neighborhood school on the Williamsburg Middle School site, and a magnet school (potentially open to students across the county) on the shared grounds of Carlin Springs Elementary and Kenmore Middle School. It also wants to build additions at Ashlawn, Arlington Traditional and McKinley elementary schools, for a total of 1,875 new seats to meet the estimated 1,890-seat need that is projected for 2017.
The first of these projects—a 225-seat building addition at Ashlawn, funded by the schools division’s capital reserves—could be completed as soon as 2014. Bond-funded projects would start coming online a year later, with the new 600-seat elementary school at Williamsburg in 2015; additions of 225 seats each at Arlington Traditional and McKinley in 2016; and the new 600-seat choice elementary school in 2017.
Many have taken issue with the timing. For parents who think the school system should have acted years ago to address the now-undeniable crowding problem, that timeline is unacceptably slow. But to neighbors in areas that will be affected by construction, these projects seem to be on the fast track, with little or no time allowed for their thoughts to be heard and incorporated into the plans.
“I haven’t heard a single person say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea.’ But there’s an awful lot of concerns being raised by everybody else,” says Peter Olivere, who, in July, finished up a four-year term as president of the Glencarlyn Citizens’ Association.
Residents of Glencarlyn—a historic and economically mixed neighborhood, which was established in the 1880s—believe that building a fourth school off Carlin Springs Road would significantly affect the traffic and livability of their neighborhood. (Kenmore Middle, Carlin Springs Elementary and Campbell Elementary are all located off Carlin Springs Road between Route 50 and Columbia Pike.)
“They’re just forging ahead,” Olivere says. “From a school point of view, this makes sense, but that’s just one part of it. This is a community.”
For many Arlington parents, the school crowding issue is equally personal: it affects their children, their neighborhoods and their pocketbooks. Arlington is known for excellent schools, and they want their kids to get a quality education. They also value the sense of community those schools foster. In many cases, they pay high housing prices to get those things.
But some parents have run out of patience waiting for the school system to address the crowding problem in any sort of significant way. Class sizes in recent years have inched up at the elementary and secondary levels to accommodate the influx of new students. After incremental bumps in 2010 and 2011, Superintendent Murphy proposed raising Arlington’s maximum class size overall in 2012—a measure that would have translated into classes as big as 24 students per kindergarten class, and 27 students in every fourth- and fifth-grade class.
This has exasperated Arlington parents who are fighting to maintain what they view as one of the school system’s defining strengths: smaller class sizes compared to those in surrounding areas. “If we wanted to have large classes like Fairfax, there’s an option: we can go move to Fairfax,” says Kathy Mimberg, whose son attended Tuckahoe.
(In 2012, the average elementary class size in Arlington County was 20.3, compared to 21.5 in Fairfax County, according to a Washington Area Boards of Education report.)
“School choice and smaller class size are the two things Arlington parents value the most,” says Noah Simon, the PTA president at Arlington Science Focus and a candidate for the school board this fall.
But with classes expanding and no immediate solution in sight, some parents are reconsidering their options and going private instead.
“We’ve seen an increase in transfers from the public schools in the past two years,” says Kris Carr, principal of Saint Agnes School, a private Catholic school in Arlington. “Parents tell us they are transferring due to overcrowding and larger class sizes.” At Saint Agnes, which expects to enroll 420 students this fall in grades K through 8, the average class has 21 students.
Educators tend to agree about the importance of smaller classes, particularly in a diverse county like Arlington. “Today’s classroom is the ‘one-room schoolhouse’ times three because we didn’t educate children with special needs or children with English as a second language in the one-room schoolhouse,” says Shannon Melideo, chair of the education department at Marymount University in Arlington. “The makeup of the classroom has changed significantly, and so has the way you teach and deliver differentiated instruction, plan lessons and assess students. Children deserve to be challenged on their level.”
Katherine Price, president of Jamestown Elementary’s PTA, was so frustrated about class-size increases in early 2012 that she started a Facebook page (“APS Parents Against Increasing Class Size”) and penned a public letter to the school and county boards about the issue.
“While we recognize that increased class size is viewed by the board as a three- to five-year interim solution, five years is a child’s entire elementary education,” Price wrote. “An entire generation of Arlington elementary-aged students will suffer if all we do is stuff additional chairs into existing classrooms and form committees to consider long-term alternatives.”Even at Jamestown, which was downright spacious at “only” 99.7 percent capacity in 2011-12 (but is projected to be at 107 percent capacity in 2012-13), Price says she’s already seen the impact of crowding as classrooms and other spaces have been reconfigured to make room for more students. Spanish teachers move from classroom to classroom with their materials on a cart. Special-needs students meet with teachers in a former lounge. “I’d rather have a relocatable,” she says. (Jamestown already has several trailers, which the school repositioned earlier this year after parents complained about where they were located on school grounds.)
Still Price, like many parents, views modular classrooms as a temporary solution to the capacity problem, and she’s tired of Band-Aids like trailers, bigger classes and closet-to-classroom conversions. “It is time to make the hard, painful decisions about long-term solutions,” she says, including new schools and boundary changes.
Parents at seriously crowded schools like Tuckahoe espouse similar views. While they say they’re happy with the quality of their kids’ education and relieved by the school staff’s ability to manage an ever-growing student population, they worry about the effects on the school at large.
“A casual observer would not realize that Tuckahoe is bursting at the seams,” Mimberg says, “but some activities are becoming less possible.” Music concerts are no longer all-school affairs, but rather are done by grade level, she says. Students are not guaranteed admission to popular school events. Assemblies often exclude a grade level for space reasons. Foreign language instruction, while desired by parents, isn’t offered because there just isn’t room. Parking at back-to-school night and other events tests everyone’s patience.
Under the expansion plan approved by the school board, schools in Northwest Arlington will get some relief, thanks to building additions and a new neighborhood school.
But these new school seats will also mean widespread boundary changes in Arlington, where many parents still remember the last—and highly controversial—redistricting plan. (In 2008, then-Superintendent Robert Smith proposed boundary changes that would have shifted more than 600 students, some from walkable neighborhood schools to schools that would have required a bus ride, in an effort to reduce crowding at several North Arlington elementary schools. The plan was scrapped due to protests from parents.)
“The real issue last time was, ‘Is enrollment static or declining?’ It was just starting to tick up, and people were unconvinced we were seeing a long-term trend,” explains McCracken. “We were also just talking about rearranging kids. We weren’t talking about adding capacity. If you’re going to add schools, then you’ve got to redraw boundaries. I am cautiously optimistic that it will be more amicable this time.”
Time will tell. While parents understand the crowding situation, they have their doubts about the school system’s plan to address it. “What we’re doing doesn’t make sense,” says Audrey Tsai, who lives in Glencarlyn and sends her two children to Arlington Traditional School. “If the growth is in the north, why are we not adding more schools in those areas? Yes, South Arlington needs schools, but North Arlington needs schools now. Will building a choice school in South Arlington [on the Kenmore site] help North Arlington? Will it help enough? No.”
Parents also wonder just how the redistricting will shake out, especially in terms of middle and high school boundaries. “I’m not worried about where we go now,” says Tracy Shiplett, a Tuckahoe parent who attended a public hearing in March on the capacity plans. “I’m worried about the logical progression. Most of us are planning to be here for a long time.”
Boundary changes can be unexpectedly difficult—especially on parents. “I’m a big believer in kids’ ability to adapt,” says Linda Gulyn, a psychology professor at Marymount University and an APS parent. “Kids will adapt more easily than adults will. Most parents of school-age children link to community life through school, especially elementary school. [When boundaries change], your sense of identity has to be reworked and relationships can conk out. That’s why parents care so much—so many of us are so busy” and don’t want to lose those hard-won connections.
Some parents wonder aloud why certain neighborhood schools that were closed can’t be reclaimed for public school use. As APS enrollment dropped from roughly 25,000 students in the 1960s to around 15,000 students in the 1980s, a number of schools were shuttered and eventually repurposed. Among them: the former Woodlawn Elementary, now home to Hospice of Northern Virginia; and Fairlington Elementary, which is now the Fairlington Community Center.
In Westover and its adjacent neighborhoods, many parents wish the idea of returning the Reed School building to neighborhood school use would have been taken more seriously. (Built in 1938 with two subsequent expansions, the Reed School was decommissioned in 1984. It now houses a preschool for Arlington County employees, a program designed to help teen parents stay in school, a special-education preschool and a county library branch.)
“Time and time again APS underestimates the amount of students in a particular school zone and under-builds new schools,” says Whitney Cobey, whose three children will attend McKinley and Swanson this fall. As evidence, she points to trailers (which some schools euphemistically refer to as “learning cottages”) that are already popping up next to new schools or recently built additions.
The Reed School building, she argues, is positioned in one of the fastest growing parts of Arlington, and its surrounding schools—McKinley, Tuckahoe and Glebe—are among the most overcrowded, according to APS calculations.
“When they renovated the Reed School a few years ago, it was built to support additional levels in case school crowding became an issue,” Cobey says. “Crowding was an issue then, and it remains an issue now. Busing the kids across the county…just doesn’t make sense to me. Keeping class sizes down, offering walkable solutions and preserving neighborhood communities does.”
But the Reed School, which was one of 60 options evaluated by the school system, didn’t make it to the final list of solutions. While it would have been cheaper in terms of construction costs ($32.7 million to renovate Reed and return it to neighborhood school use, compared to the $40 million needed to build a new school), that decision would have meant displacing a number of other county and school programs. It’s unclear where those programs would have gone, or how much it would have cost to relocate them.
“We really tried to take away the subjectiveness of the decisions,” Baird says, noting that the school board used statistical modeling software to help guide its planning recommendations.
In the end, the school board opted for a more straightforward solution: build a new elementary school on the Williamsburg Middle School campus. “Reed has so many different stakeholders, and it’s a smaller site than Williamsburg,” explains Denton, the school facilities planner.
The Williamsburg and Carlin Springs/Kenmore sites also offer the advantage of more flexibility for the future, according to the school board. By adding buildings there, APS gains school seats that could be used for elementary or middle school students in the years to come, depending on enrollment trends.
This reasoning has elicited skepticism among parents who question how realistic it would be to blend both students of different ages (elementary and middle) and different school programs (choice and neighborhood). “How in the world are you ever going to implement that?” asks Tsai.
Arlingtonians who live near the two proposed school sites are also questioning implementation—except in their case the concerns are traffic and pedestrian safety.
In North Arlington, the Rock Spring Civic Association circulated a petition asking the school board to study these issues and potential solutions before it commits to the Williamsburg site. According to Lynn Pollock, who chairs the neighborhood’s working group on the school expansion, 120 people signed the petition.
“I understand they have to put seats somewhere—I have no qualms about that,” says Pollock, who has two sons at Yorktown High. “But we want to make sure the traffic and safety issues are covered.”
That means planning appropriately for changes in traffic and walking patterns that occur in different seasons. “There is more driving [kids to school by parents] when it’s dark in the morning,” points out Pollock, who lives across the street from Williamsburg. “If I had a kid who had to walk to school when it was dark in the morning, I am sure I would be just as concerned.”
Residents of the Glencarlyn neighborhood, which would be affected by the new school at Kenmore, have similar concerns and have taken their case to the county board. Peter Olivere, who lives just north of Kenmore’s athletic fields, stresses that this is not a case of “not in my back yard” obstructionism. “We have some folks who don’t want the school there, but a lot of us recognize the need for another school, and going out and buying property in Arlington is expensive,” he says. “I can see that a school there makes sense.”
But he and his neighbors are taking issue with the plans to make the new school a choice program versus a neighborhood school. “This has the potential for turning into a real mess,” he says. “With a choice school, kids are coming from all over the county, not just the neighborhood.” That means fewer walkers, more buses, and more cars on already-jammed Carlin Springs Road.
“We will probably need some substantial modification to the streets, such as turn lanes…and those aren’t in the plans right now,” he explains.
Parking is another problem in light of the many school, community and sports programs that take place at Kenmore, Carlin Springs and the nearby athletic fields. “They’ve already saturated the street parking, so all the parking is going to have to go on the property,” he says.
Olivere’s frustration is palpable. An Arlington resident since 1978 and the parent of two Wakefield High School graduates, he feels his neighborhood’s concerns have been ignored. “There really has been no community input, no back and forth, no discussion,” he says. “The school board has been having meetings, but they have been presentations, not [forums to ask] ‘What are the concerns of the neighborhood? What do we need to worry about?’ ”
This approach, he says, is markedly different from Glencarlyn’s experience with the county board on commercial projects. He thinks the school system may need a refresher in the “Arlington Way,” which typically involves lots of give-and-take among residents, business owners and local officials to reach a consensus whenever new development is proposed.
“The last new school that was built on a new site where there hadn’t been a school was Carlin Springs. That was 10 years ago, and the last one before that was 30 years ago,” he points out. “The school board, staff and superintendent don’t really have the experience of dealing with the community.”
School board member Sally Baird says the school system will do its best to address any problems that arise at any of the school sites. “We’re a small county,” she says. “There is no space. Anywhere we build, there will be impacts, and as a board, we absolutely appreciate that. This board has committed itself to working collaboratively with communities adjacent to expansion sites.”
The larger Arlington community will have its say on the school plan in November, when the county places the $42.6 million school bond question on the election ballot.
Will it pass? History suggests yes; no school bond has failed since APS began putting school projects on the ballot in 1988.
Still, the school construction projects that are part of this bond referendum and future bond questions are already generating mixed reviews from parents and affected neighborhoods. And the immediate and long-term issues related to school capacity are far from settled.
With an overall shortage of nearly 3,500 seats across all grade levels projected by the 2017-18 school year, this year’s school bond question is likely to be the first of many for Arlington voters. “We are looking at having a bond on the ballot every cycle for the foreseeable future,” says McCracken. “That could become a more significant challenge.”
Especially given that Arlington also turns to bonds to fuel public investments in parks and recreation, roads, transportation, water and sewer and other infrastructure projects. As of press time, the county expects to ask voters to support $110.8 million in county bonds this November for Metro, the new Long Bridge Aquatics Center, road improvements and more. That’s in addition to the school bond proposal.
Other issues are more logistical than fiscal, but just as political. As the school system moves forward with new elementary schools and additions, it will begin identifying the likely communities to be served by those schools and planning the inevitable boundary shifts that are expected to occur throughout the county. “It’s going to get complicated, because we’re not only moving elementary school boundaries very soon, but also middle school and high school boundaries,” McCracken says.
The next round of capacity discussions may raise even thornier questions for the county and school officials. “I want a safe environment where kids can learn and an instructionally sound environment where good learning can continue,” says Murphy, whose superintendent contract was recently renewed for another four years by the school board. “But we also have to look at making adjustments [to] the priorities of five to 10 years ago” as school enrollment continues to climb.
Can Arlington continue to maintain its preferred school sizes in a highly urbanized county with limited available or affordable land for building new schools? Are parents’ expectations about class size realistic? Is it practical to continue offering magnet programs and school choice, given the space challenges at neighborhood schools? Does Arlington need—or want—a fifth high school? What type of educational program should the new choice elementary school in Arlington offer?
“This is a really important community discussion,” says Baird. “We need to make sure we’re not just solving today’s problem, but that we’re making decisions that will serve the school system for decades.”
Alison Rice recently moved to North Arlington, where her neighborhood school is Nottingham Elementary. She wonders if her daughter’s first-grade classroom will be in a trailer.