School board approves redistricted boundaries

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By Chris Teale (Image/Alexandria City Public Schools)

The Alexandria City School Board approved new boundaries for public elementary schools in the city, bringing to an end a process that lasted approximately 18 months.

The new boundaries will go into effect for the 2018-2019 school year and require approximately 474 students to change schools when they are implemented. A total of 8,432 students were enrolled in pre-K through fifth grade as of December 2016.

Alexandria City Public Schools officials said a more detailed timeline and information about the transition toward the new boundaries would be published soon.

Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley said staff and the board have a “full acknowledgement that it does not represent a single solution for addressing overcrowding and capacity issues in our school division.”

“We know that we have to have multiple strategies in addition to a redistricting process that allows us to look at the distribution of our students,” he said.

The board approved the new boundaries by an 8-1 margin, with Bill Campbell casting the lone dissenting vote. Campbell said he had concerns with the potential negative effects on some families, a lack of precision on grandfathering and some missed opportunities around walkability.

ACPS had not drawn new elementary school boundaries since 1999. Since then, officials said enrollment has grown by up to 500 students per year. According to staff projections, enrollment is anticipated to rise by 4 percent annually, and is not expected to plateau until 2030.

The new boundaries are contingent on the acquisition of the proposed West End elementary school at 1701 N. Beauregard St., which would add 638 seats in a retrofitted office building. It is projected to open in fall 2018.

Under the plan, 4,992 students are within walking distance of an elementary school, up from 3,380.

The new boundaries ensure that all elementary schools except Mount Vernon Community School and George Mason Elementary School fall within the optimal 90 to 110 percent utilization rate of students living within the attendance boundary compared with a school’s overall capacity. Mount Vernon and George Mason still will be considered more overcrowded by that benchmark.

But discussions among board members centered on several remaining issues, including a section of the city — planning block 22 — that is currently in the zone for Samuel Tucker Elementary School but would be added to the soon-to-be-rebuilt Patrick Henry School’s zone.

At a public hearing, multiple parents raised concerns about that boundary change. Board member Chris Lewis suggested adding planning block 22 to the Tucker zone, but others disagreed and felt it would require more public engagement.

“I’m looking at the whole school system, the whole city,” said board member Ronnie Campbell. “I don’t think it’s fair to take. Politically, it would be the right thing for me to do. But looking at the whole city, I’m saying no because then we’re going to have other people coming to us, and it won’t be just a week or two to make another vote. It’ll be opening the whole thing back up.”

Lewis’ motion to add planning block 22 to the Tucker zone was defeated by a 5-4 motion. School board member Veronica Nolan noted that current Tucker students in block 22 are able to stay at the school.

Nolan and Bill Campbell clashed on a proposed boundary shift that would have zoned approximately 13 students according to staff data to Jefferson-Houston School from Matthew Maury Elementary School. The plan failed, 6-3.

“My concern is, what would the uproar be from the community that we are holding up this process for 13 students as well as having this conversation tonight with all the 18 months that has occurred with the community and public comments, staff work, board work and the review committee?” Nolan asked.

“This is about our neighborhood, and an opportunity to say to anyone new to the area, whether you are black, brown, rich, poor, anything, we want you at Jefferson-Houston,” Bill Campbell responded. “We don’t want you to have to volunteer, this is in your neighborhood.”

Some people in planning block 72, currently zoned for George Mason but set to shift to Charles Barrett Elementary School, had wished to see the school board revisit its grandfathering policies.

The policies, approved by the board on January 19, permit students in grades four and five and their siblings to stay at the school they currently attend for a maximum of two years.

Siblings of fourth- and fifth- grade students have the option of attending their newly zoned school or remaining at the previously zoned school until the older sibling transitions to middle school.

Families wishing for their fourth- or fifth-grade student or their siblings to remain at their current school must submit a notice of intent to stay form by January 15, 2018.

Nolan offered her apologies to those families negatively impacted by the new boundaries, and promised ACPS would do all it can to help the transition.

“I understand that frustration, I understand that these were children involved, and I want to apologize to anyone who is very frustrated with the process and disappointed with the end result,” she said.

ACPS officials said the transition process will include open houses at elementary schools, opportunities to meet new teachers, staff and PTA representatives as well as other activities. Crawley said he plans to activate a system-wide planning team to work on a transition plan to be shared with principals.

In April, that plan would be brought to the board and the community, with activities to be hosted from May until August 2018.

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