For the second straight year, the Alexandria City Public School leadership has seen an unexpected leap in school enrollment. ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman announced last week that 2009-2010 enrollment is up another 4.9 percent, on top of last years unexpected 6.3 percent increase. This means that ACPS enrollment has increased by more than 1,400 students since the 2006-07 school year.
This second straight large increase begs several questions. The first is, why were this years projections so disparate from reality? Predicting enrollment is certainly not the most accurate science, but the system could have allotted for that by providing a cushion a worst-case scenario to influence its handling of the issue. School Board member Charles Wilson said that he was upset with himself for not ensuring that the Board had a detailed contingency plan for dealing with unexpected enrollment increases. After last years whopping enrollment jump, the largest percentage increase in Virginia, it seems reasonable for Alexandria residents to expect the superintendents office and school administration to be better prepared this time.
The increases have mainly taken place in the citys elementary schools, with Maury, Mount Vernon and Ramsay all seeing increases of more than 10 percent. The enrollment jumps at these schools, combined with several other schools that were already nearing capacity, means that some tough decisions loom. Does the city need to devote the resources to build another elementary school? If so, where? Or, does the city need to move away from the model that has allowed schools like Lyles-Crouch and Jefferson-Houston to run special programs with smaller enrollments than other schools in the city?
This continued growth in public school enrollment also raises, yet again, the issue of Alexandrias residency requirements. Perhaps, given Alexandrias relatively small geographic size, residency requirements should be handled at a central office, unlike currently where students just enroll in their local school. School officials discussed the possibility this spring, but this should be implemented as a policy. While central versus on-site enrollment would each have advantages and disadvantages, the central office enrollment method would enable the school district to more evenly distribute students to the various schools across the district.
Alexandrias proof of residency requirements also need to be re-examined. Our citys requirements are not as stringent as those in Prince William County, for instance, which requires a birth certificate, proof of a lease or deed and two additional pieces of residency proof to enroll. (Alexandria requires one fewer piece of proof.) Perhaps Alexandria should consider a different method of verifying residency to reduce the number of students who are illegally attending ACPS. Or perhaps students should have to re-verify their residency every two or three years instead of just at enrollment.
Given the current overcrowding and budget constraints, it would make sense for the School Board to establish a committee to investigate whether there are additional reasons why Alexandria is experiencing a jump in enrollment that far exceeds that of its neighbors. While neighboring jurisdictions are also experiencing growth Arlington Countys enrollment is up 3 percent this year they havent experienced growth at the rate of Alexandria during the past two years.
The School Board and superintendent are undoubtedly concerned about the rapid increase in enrollment, but it is time to move beyond words and take concrete steps to manage and if possible stem the influx particularly if this surge is being exacerbated by large numbers of students who shouldnt be attending ACPS. It is not fair to the taxpayers of Alexandria, nor to the students who legitimately attend school here, to be forced to attend schools so overcrowded that it may adversely affect student achievement.