School board moves to ease some redistricting concerns

School board moves to ease some redistricting concerns

By Chris Teale (File photo)

The Alexandria City School Board is looking to ease concerns over its efforts to redraw school boundaries at the elementary level, as some parent organizations have expressed fear over the fate of special curricula, class sizes and grandfathering of current students.

Since the last redistricting plan was passed in 1999, Alexandria City Public Schools has faced a capacity crunch, as enrollment has increased by 3,200 students in that time and is not expected to plateau until 2030. The new effort, which began in March 2015, aims to enable more students to attend elementary schools in the neighborhoods where they live and reduce the number of those bussed across the city. ACPS anticipates enrollment to rise by 4 percent each year for the next five years.

The new school boundaries initially were slated to go into effect in time for the 2016-2017 school year. But in February, the school board voted to extend the process until this fall to firm up details around a proposed new elementary school on the West End, among other factors. Under the proposal, existing office space would be retrofitted for use as a school. The new boundaries are now set to go into effect for the 2017-2018 school year.

A desire to firm up school board policies that would affect redistricting also drove the decision to push back the redrawing of boundaries by a year, and the board looked to craft some of those policies at an April 25 work session.

Board members raised concerns about the removal of language that keeps the students to teacher ratio per classroom at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy lower than across the rest of the system. Currently, the ratios of students per teacher at Lyles-Crouch are capped at 8:1 for kindergarten; 20:1 in first grade; 22:1 in grades two and three; and 24:1 for grades four and five.

At other city schools, ratios are capped at 22:1 at kindergarten, 24:1 at grades one and two; and 26:1 at grades three through five. Lyles-Crouch PTA president Stacy Chittick said in an
interview those caps are in place due to the physical constraints of the school building.

“Now we’re at the point where we’re using the teachers’ lounge for teaching,” Chittick said. “We have a talented and gifted class that meets in the hallway. We’re using resource rooms for some of our special education, English language learners and even two of our second grade classrooms.

“This is not unique to Lyles-Crouch. This is a problem across all of Alexandria, that we are bursting at our seams and we do not have enough seats to house the volume of students that we have in our boundaries right now.”

At the work session, Superintendent Alvin Crawley said space considerations weighed especially hard on Lyles-Crouch and schools on the West End like Samuel Tucker Elementary School. Crawley said system-wide discretion must be exercised on how many students can fit into a classroom, or else there is a risk of being in violation of fire codes and negatively impacting the learning environment.

“It’s not just one school where we’re seeing this happen,” he said. “It’s a number of schools that have done what I call creative use of space for instruction, and we want to make sure that as we look at this school we’re looking at our other schools and making adjustments.”

After suggestions by school board members Veronica Nolan and Hal Cardwell, language will be added giving Crawley broad discretion to achieve smaller class sizes.

Crawley and school board members moved to quell anxiety that exemplary programs — schools with non-traditional curricula — would come under threat from redistricting, especially where families from outside the host school’s boundaries can opt in. He said
that if a program is deemed exemplary — 11 have that designation right now — it would not be threatened.

“Certainly we want the flexibility,” Crawley said. “But given the constraints we’re going to see as a result of crowding and ultimately the distribution of students through redistricting, it is also an opportunity to build in programs that are working within our school division.”

The issue of grandfathering remains a hot topic for the school board, as members look to determine which students impacted by redistricting should be allowed to continue at the school they currently attend. A memo by third-party consultants J.R. Reingold & Associates
Inc. said grandfathering is designed to allow students to remain at their current school if they are nearing the end of their time there.

The consultants recommended a limited approach to grandfathering, allowing either students in their final year or last two years to continue in their current schools if they are affected by the new boundaries. They also recommended not allowing siblings to be eligible for grandfathering.

Data prepared by ACPS staff indicated that if fifth graders are exempt from redistricting, a total of 2,182 redistricted students would be able to remain at their current school, while if the
fourth and fifth grades are exempt, that number would increase to 3,730.

Discussions on grandfathering are set to continue, as redistricting steering committee chairwoman and school board member Ramee Gentry noted that Reingold’s recommendations are based on best practices from other divisions.

The policy discussions around redistricting are set to continue, while the school board is set to adopt ACPS’ fiscal 2017 budget May 26. The school board is expected to vote to approve a redistricting pathway late this year or in early 2017.