By Julie Jakopic, Chairwoman, board of trustees, Hopkins House (File photo)
To the editor:
As part of its proposed remedy to address classroom overcrowding, Alexandria City Public Schools has requested funding from city council to create a pre-K center with the intention of relocating its 4-year-old pre-schoolers from neighborhood school buildings into a single facility.
Over the past several weeks since this proposal was made public, I and many other members of our community have engaged in many conversations with members of the school board and city council about this proposal. Based on these conversations, there is one thing about which we all agree: Our schools and our students need us to invest in them.
Where we continue to disagree is the plan to use a single, leased building in the short term — and two in the long term — to house classrooms for 360 or more 4-year-olds.
We appreciate the time that chairwoman Karen Graf, vice chairman Chris Lewis and the other members of the school board have spent sharing their vision and the challenges they face regarding classroom and school building overcrowding. There is little doubt that there is already a classroom capacity challenge that, without action, will quickly grow into a crisis.
We clearly need at least one new elementary school building, especially on the West End. It is understandable why short-term leased space is proposed as a temporary solution to accommodate the 500 additional students expected to enroll in ACPS each year, as it will take time to locate a site and construct a new school building.
But removing pre-schoolers to a single building, away from their neighborhoods, other children and familiar environments, creates new problems in the quest to solve the capacity issue.
There is no developmental evidence that a site this large can be an effective and appropriate learning environment for young children. Ample, authoritative research, conducted by well-respected educators, indicates that that inclusion, rather than separation of children of mixed abilities and socioeconomic status, benefits all children.
Additionally, the school district’s plan puts at-risk students in a separate facility, away from the diverse student environments present today in our neighborhood schools. While the school system already transports children outside their neighborhoods, it is not ideal, and doubling the number of 4-year-olds crisscrossing the city on school buses is certainly not an improvement.
It is still not clear what models the school board considered before proposing this particular plan, or why this particular model was chosen. What is clear is that the school board is relying on the ACT/Early Childhood Education Workgroup to vet ideas and provide guidance.
We understand this workgroup was created by the school board and city council to support the Children Youth and Families Collaborative Commission in implementing the children and youth master plan as it applies to young children — not as a mechanism to vet and endorse programmatic proposals, to replace the input of other interested members of the community, or to sidestep the commission.
Our schools and our students need us to invest in them. They undoubtedly need at least what the school board has asked for and then some. But we should be planning for the best option for all our children, not pitting the needs of older students against the needs of younger students. After all, the 4-year-olds are only that age for a year. Then they become our 5-year-olds and ultimately our high schoolers.
Our littlest citizens need the investment of city council. But they also need a different plan than separating these young, vulnerable children from their neighborhoods into a large, distant building, away from the very environments that help them to grow and excel.