Our View: It’s elementary — Redistricting will improve capacity crunch, foster community

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(Image/Alexandria City Public Schools)

Growth of any kind can be unpredictable and sporadic. Teenagers may have one big spurt, or several mini-growth bursts before reaching their final height. Even the hair on our heads doesn’t always grow in evenly — it has to be reshaped from time to time.

So it is with school populations. Alexandria last redrew its boundaries in 1999. Since then, our school district has seen a tremendous influx of new students, growing enrollment in Alexandria City Public Schools to more than 15,000.

This surge has created a capacity crunch across the school district — we simply don’t have enough classrooms to house all of our current and projected students. The uneven growth has also led to problems of disparity. Some schools, particularly at the elementary level, are more crowded than others.

Fortunately, our school officials are trying to address both capacity and redistricting needs at once to minimize disruption to families.

Their solution is essentially three pronged. First, preschool is going to become centralized in one location in Alexandria’s West End, freeing up about 20 elementary classrooms. While this is an intriguing idea, we remain concerned about the practicality of bus- ing 4-year-olds across town. But there’s no denying it will help with overcrowding.

Second, a new elementary school planned for the West End — to be located within a retrofitted office building — will provide 638 new elementary seats and ease overcrowding throughout the city.

Finally, new school boundary districts, approved by the school board last week, will take effect simultaneously with the opening of the new schools in fall 2018. This redistricting effort has taken two years and involved a team of 35 volunteers. There were also numerous opportunities for public input and multiple community meetings. We think the final plan seems reasonable.

Yes, some families are going to have to move from one school to another and there is no denying that this change will be both inconvenient and possibly disruptive for them. And some who volunteered their time and opinions on redistricting are going to be frustrated that their advice was not heeded. This happens with any big undertaking that involves many “cooks.”

As new school board chairwoman Ramee Gentry said, currently more than 1,000 elementary school children, about one out of every eight students, reside outside the boundary for their school. This means too few students are currently able to walk to school and more busing is required, which takes more time out of students’ days and costs the city more money.

Significantly, under the new districting plan and coupled with the new West End elementary school, almost 5,000 students will be within walking distance of their school, compared to the current 3,380.

Walkable schools are good for numerous reasons. In addition to the obvious benefit of exercise for students, a greater sense of community is built when students live close to the schools they attend. Money saved on transportation is also money that can be spent elsewhere — or returned to taxpayers.

No undertaking of this magnitude is going to please everyone. But we think the process was inclusive and the end result is admirable. Now let’s just hope there isn’t another unexpected growth spurt.

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