By Erich Wagner (File photo)
Samuel Tucker Elementary School parent Robert Fobian encapsulated many of the fears felt by residents over the prospect of Alexandria City Public Schools redrawing the boundaries for local elementary schools at the district’s first community forum to discuss the initiative last week at T.C. Williams High School.
“My son started at kindergarten [at Tucker] this fall, and at our house, we’ve been managing and parenting and all of that over the last year under a little bit of a crisis because of the school’s [early class start date],” Fobian said. “[We] did decide it was the right school for us, and we’re really happy there. … But the thought of starting that process all over again is kind of concerning for us.”
Schools officials fielded questions from wary parents about the initiative for the first time in a public setting since agreeing in May to move forward with the first redistricting effort since 1999.
To date, much of officials’ focus has been on getting the infrastructure in place to go through the process. The school board has hired a third party consultant — J. R. Reingold and Associates, Inc., who has worked on redistricting both in Arlington and D.C. — to facilitate the effort, as well as appointed a steering committee and a review committee, both of which are composed of a variety of local stakeholders.
“Think of the steering committee as trying to figure out how all of these pieces and goals fit together,” said Michael Akin, president of Reingold LINK. “And then your review committee is the group sitting in a room, rolling up their sleeves and pulling at strings and lines saying, ‘If we move this boundary here, what’s that do for school population there?’”
The review committee, made up of two representatives from each school as well as two at-large members, will submit recommendations to the school board next year.
School board vice chairman Chris Lewis went over the process with residents, highlighting the goals of the initiative, aimed in part at reducing overcrowding at some elementary schools.
“We won’t be able to completely solve overcrowding, because we still only have a set amount of space, even with the capacity projects in our budget,” he said. “But it will spread them out in a more equitable manner, which is extremely important. The coming growth is concentrated in places like the West End, Arlandria and other pockets.
“We also hope that it will allow more students to attend their neighborhood schools. We’ll look at our policies around student placement and transfers, and finally, it’ll allow ACPS to maintain its commitment to providing a better learning environment for students and for staff.”
But some parents were leery about the prospect of a process that could require their children to adjust to a new school after having settled into their current teachers and curriculum.
“I know that at the same we’re having a discussion about school modernization, and a number of school are slated for projects that increase capacity,” said Ben Klein, father of a student at George Mason Elementary School. “Can you talk about how redistricting connects with the timeline of capacity projects? How can we prevent taking a kid from one school to another, and then with a construction project, having to move them somewhere else?”
“People make decisions and buy very expensive houses in the city based on the school district [the home is in],” said Rick Plotkin, a parent at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy. “I’d like to hear more about grandfathering. People might have two kids and have one child in one place and one in another, but moreso the issue is having chosen a school based on where you are.”
Lewis said issues like previously granted transfers and grandfathering of students is one of the many issues that the redistricting committees will have to grapple with over the next six months and stressed that is why parents need to get and stay involved as the process moves forward.
“Right now, those are things we still need to determine — you’ll ask questions about them and we’ll say we’re still working that out,” he said. “But we value the idea that kids should be able to go to the schools closest to them … Keep participating so we can get that right for the community.”
Some parents wanted to make sure ACPS would make sure staffing levels would be quickly adjusted to compensate both for changes in enrollment under the new alignment as well as for changes in the level of students needing extra support, like English language learners and those with learning disabilities.
“Alexandria has made great strides to give students what they need to be successful,” said Trisha Christopher, a science teacher at T.C. Williams and a Matthew Maury Elementary School parent. “But to make schools equal isn’t necessarily making them equitable. Changing demographics doesn’t fix that: you need to move staffing and supports so that students have what they need.”
Other parents worried about the idea of their child being moved from a rigorous, high-performing school to one that is struggling.
“I’m impressed with the progress and the commitment to make all schools successful,” said George Mason parent Jim Rosenberg. “Is there any consideration given to the issue of if you move a boundary that moves a child from a high-performing school to a low-performing school?”
Lewis encouraged parents to continue to offer feedback for the committee to consider, although that issue is not part of the goals set forth by the school board.
“Now this is just Chris Lewis talking, not my counterparts: This is public school. We take everyone and anyone living in the city, and we’re working as a team as best we can to make the schools as strong as we can and we think we’re making progress,” he said. “We see it in the scores, but we need support to continue that process.
“But you don’t get a guarantee of which school you go to; you get a guarantee of the best school you can in the neighborhood you live in. If you enroll your child here, I’m going to personally ask you to invest in making the schools as good as they can be, and we’re dedicated to drawing the lines and attendance zones in a way that is equitable for all students.”