ARLINGTON, Va. (WDVM) — Next week, the future of more than 2,000 elementary school students will be in the hands of Arlington County School Board members as they vote on a controversial solution Feb. 6 that addresses the county’s growing student body, specifically in the Rosslyn and Ballston cooridor.
On its school boundaries section of its website, the county says enrollment projections for 2023-24 show “rapid growth of elementary school students concentrated along the major transportation corridors, including Rosslyn-Ballston, Columbia Pike, and Route 1, where APS does not have enough neighborhood seats.”
The county is opening a new school, called Reed Elementary, to accommodate some of the growth. The new proposal would shift student bodies at existing schools to fill empty seats.
“It’s very clear that [the proposal] doesn’t, in fact, clear the needed seats and it’s built on faulty assumptions. This process is not OK,” said Mary Kadera, McKinley Elementary School’s PTA president. “If this is happening to my school today, two years from now it could happen to your school and I don’t want any school to go through what we’ve been through.”
Kadera is one of many concerned parents in Arlington County from McKinley, Arlington Traditional School, and Key Elementary that are asking the school board to reconsider its proposal. If approved, the proposal would move the majority of McKinley Elementary students and staff to Reed. Key Elementary School and its Spanish immersion program would move to the Arlington Traditional School site, and Key School would become a new “neighborhood school,” without Spanish immersion.
If the proposal is passed, the county estimates more than 2,400 or about 23% of all neighborhood elementary school students would be reassigned to another school. Gillian Burgess’ kids, who attend Key Elementary, will have to move, but Burgess says the drive will be about the same. “This isn’t about what it does to my family. It’s about what it does to the system as a whole and particularly how it impacts less advantaged kids.”
Burgess is fighting for another alternative; if more seats are needed in a dense neighborhood like Key’s, Burgess wants a new building. “Because there’s so much density in this area and because it’s so close to the Metro it’s a really valuable property. I’m worried that this proposal doesn’t take any of that into consideration. We might be foreclosing opportunities to make better use of this space and at the same time have the cost of the proposal fall on our least advantaged kids.”
One of those disadvantages is what Burgess’ family is lucky enough to have: easy access to transportation, like a car. Key Elementary’s Spanish immersion program is what parent Jenny Rizzo calls one of the school’s greatest assets. A lot of Spanish-speakers may not be able to follow the program to its new location at Arlington Traditional School because of lack of transportation. “I’m able to get to the other building but we have a lot of students who live here in this neighborhood with different challenges and don’t feel like they’d be able to move with the program to another location in the county.”
Martha Tewode has two young children at Arlington Traditional School; one of the county’s most diverse schools that boasts its small achievement gap. Like Key, ATS is a countywide elementary school; open to any Arlington County residents. Tewode’s 6-year-old already travels 45 minutes by bus to get to school from South Arlington. If ATS is no longer a countywide elementary, her children will have to ride an extra 10 to 15 minutes.
“By the time they get to school, I don’t think they’ll perform as [well as] anybody who lives in that area,” Tewode said.
Parents and PTA members from all three schools have joined forces to petition the proposal, which already has over 1,500 signatures, even if it doesn’t affect their families directly. Kadera’s children will have already graduated elementary school by the time the proposal would go into effect, but she’s still fighting against it. “We were prepared to try to support this idea if there was solid data that was going to make the case to us that this really was going to be in the best interest of the county, but we haven’t seen this compelling case.”
The school board was not available for comment on Monday. The group says the school board claims moving the Spanish immersion program to a more central location, like ATS, would make it more accessible to Spanish-speakers.
“What we do know, based on a recent survey of a representative sample of current Key Immersion families, is that more than 60% of Spanish-speaking families in the Key community would likely be left behind–unable to move with the program to its new location,” parents say on their website.
Kadera says it’s been hard for parents to engage in the process because APS’ goals keep changing. As of Monday, the county’s goals include:
- Keep as many students together in each school community as possible;
- Enable walking to neighborhood schools as much as possible;
- Use all existing elementary schools to full capacity;
- Meet needs for seats in high-growth areas;
- Develop a plan that best utilizes existing school facilities located on available land in the county but not always matching where neighborhood seats are needed for current and projected growth; and
- Consider options that will best address recent student enrollment projections, which indicate that up to three new elementary schools may be needed in the next 10 years.