Consensus emerges around new school boundaries

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Consensus emerges around new school boundaries
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By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale

Alexandria City Public Schools appears to be moving closer to a new set of boundaries at the elementary school level, with the Alexandria City School Board expected to vote in January.

Two community meetings last week gave residents the opportunity to examine several proposals under consideration and the ability to leave anonymous feedback on Post- it notes by each plan.

Since ACPS last redrew its boundaries in 1999, it has faced a capacity crunch, as enrollment has increased by 3,200 students since then 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 current school year. But the school board twice voted to extend the process — to the 2017-2018 school year and then to 2018-2019 — to include details around a proposed new elementary school on the West End and other factors. Under the proposal, existing office space would be retrofitted for use as a school. The new boundaries are set to go into effect for the 2018- 2019 school year.

At a meeting last week at Francis C. Hammond Middle School, attendees were presented with four options, down from five earlier this month. In a presentation by third-party consultants Reingold, project manager Zachary Abaie said that of those five prior options, options one and two had been culled by the school board’s redistricting review committee since they did not fit the criteria for new boundaries.

The criteria act as a roadmap for the review committee and the community, giving all parties a yardstick with which to determine if a boundary proposal will fulfill the district’s needs.

Instead, Abaie said that options three, four and five had been joined by a new option six, which he said was devised to build on the positives of option five.

Abaie said option six provides cacity relief to overcrowded schools, impacts the fewest students, supports walking to school and has no demographic impact. He said its only drawback is the lack of capacity relief for schools in the east of the city.

In an interview, redistricting steering committee chairwoman and school board member Ramee Gentry said the new option is part of an evolutionary process that sees various ideas come forward and be refined.

Those new versions come from Cropper GIS, a consultant that uses geographic information system data on where students live, demographic information and other factors to draw boundaries.

“You tend to have a first round of options, [and then] people start making some deci- sions about things that can immediately be put off the table, some things they like, some things they maybe only like a part of,” Gentry said. “One thing [Cropper] really encouraged the committee to think about is to not necessarily confine themselves to think- ing about a particular option in total. They should talk about elements from one option that they liked, and elements from another option that they liked.”

Under the sixth option, data from the consultants said that 1,357 students in kindergarten through fifth grade would be impacted by a move to a new school, the least of all the options currently on the table. And option six would mean 3,440 students could walk to school, down from the current total of 3,839 but more than the other options. That figure assumes there would be no walkability to the proposed new West End elementary school.

Feedback on the sixth option appeared, based on the Post-it notes submitted by residents, to be broadly, but not unanimously, positive.

“For its ability to preserve school communities, walkability, the mix of students within schools, this plan is easily the most palatable,” one respondent wrote.

But concerns still weighed heavily around the option, which was criticized for not addressing overcrowding in the east of the city and for making life difficult for some students that would be transferred to other schools under the plan.

“[Samuel] Tucker [Elementary School] students transferred to [James] Polk [Elementary School] will commute 20 minutes in the morning instead of five,” one respondent wrote. “This fails the transportation criteria.”

“If [the] concern is [George] Mason [Elementary School] overcrowding, address while leaving this [option] for the west side,” another wrote.

Options three and four both came in for criticism, with one respondent calling the third choice “completely unacceptable” as they felt its demographics did not represent the city’s values.

Gentry said such a forum allowed people to collaborate and take the time to examine maps and boundary lines in detail, making the engagement process stronger.

“It’s nice to have the immediacy of seeing the map and be- ing able to put the Post-it note right by it,” she said. “What I’ve noticed is people, they might even be starting to write some- thing, but they stop and look at what other people have written. It’s a crowd-sourcing activity; people get inspired by the other things they’re seeing.”

The steering and review committees will continue to meet, with another series of community meetings on the boundary proposals slated for next month, incorporating attendees’ feedback. Public hearings on redistricting are scheduled for December 8 and January 19, and the school board is expected to vote January 26 on the new boundaries.

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