By Ramee Gentry
Last week, the Alexandria City School Board completed a redistricting process, which began nearly two years ago, with the adoption of revised school boundary lines.
Alexandria has not redistricted its school zones since 1999. This is an unusually long time between boundary adjustments for any school division, and particularly in contrast to our neighboring jurisdictions, which have made multiple changes to their school boundaries in the past 16 years.
Like the entire region, Alexandria has experienced significant growth in our student population, and shifts in the areas of our city that produced the highest numbers of students. As a result, significant imbalances in capacity have grown across our schools.
Currently, more than 1,000 of our elementary students have been reassigned to a school other than their current boundary school, requiring multiple bus runs to various schools. Realignment of our boundaries was the only way to address this issue.
The school board’s approach to redistricting was to seek the highest level of community engagement and feedback. After establishing a set of goals and criteria for redistricting, the school board engaged an outside consultant to provide geographic information system data analysis and mapping options.
It appointed a redistricting review committee composed of 35 volunteer community members, including representatives from each school as well as at-large members. It also established multiple forms of community engagement and feedback, including a phone line, email notifications and response forms and a series of community forums that allowed residents to give feedback as the review committee considered various map options for boundary adjustments.
As the process continued through the fall, maps were revised based on updated data, response from the community and deliberations from the review committee.
All of these efforts culminated last month, with a final map recommendation from view committee, a public hearing before the school board and a final vote by school board members. While not everyone will be pleased with certain elements of the revised boundaries, the process led to a strong majority consensus that the approved map provides the best balance of all of the redistricting criteria across the school district.
The final map achieves the goals of redistricting while at the same time minimizing the number of students impacted. Once fully implemented, the new school zone boundaries will significantly increase the numbers of students who are able to walk to school, while at the same time maintaining and in some cases improving the level of diversity that is seen in our schools.
The increase in walkers is due not only to shifts in boundaries, but also from ending the extreme imbalances in capacity levels seen in our schools. Through this process, Alexandria City Public Schools will be able to reduce and ultimately all but eliminate the need to transfer students away from their neighborhood school, ending years of uncertainty for incoming families as to where their children will attend school.
While every effort has been made to minimize impacts, redistricting efforts inevitably require the movement of some students to different schools, and we know and understand why affected families do not welcome this.
Throughout the redistricting process, we heard from families at each of our schools, and their preference was clear — they wanted to remain at their current school.
While it was impossible to avoid moving students, it is a wonderful testament to the strong, thriving communities that exist at each of our schools.
Clearly, whatever school you attend in ACPS, you find a warm, caring environment that fosters student success. Each of these school communities is ready to welcome the new students and their families that will be joining them when redistricting is implemented in the fall of 2018. In the meantime, ACPS has already begun work on a series of programs and events designed to give affected families multiple opportunities to visit and learn about their new school. One of the most important takeaways from this redistricting process is that 15 years is too long to wait for another redistricting discussion. We are all aware of the many new developments occurring throughout the city.
A regular schedule of analysis will allow us to monitor these developments and consider smaller, more incremental adjustments to boundaries that will reduce impacts and the need for a redistricting process as long and challenging as this has been. On behalf of the school board, I wish to thank all of the members of the redistricting review committee for their efforts, and the community at large for the passionate engagement they brought to this process.
Such robust community engagement is one of the greatest strengths of our city and our school district. We look forward to continuing this conversation with our community as we move forward not only with redistricting implementation, but also with all of our efforts to ensure that every child succeeds in ACPS.
The writer is the chairwoman of the Alexandria City School Board.