Friday, January 25, 2008

Neither Smith's Nor ECCC's Proposals Wins Full Favor

Last night's working group meeting was intentionally long on discussion, short on decisions.

They might not have agreed on what constitutes an overcrowded school, or how long “short term” use of a trailer is, but one thing the Arlington Public School Board and Superintendent Robert Smith agreed upon last night was that the superintendent’s proposal to ease overcrowding at a few north Arlington elementary schools will not be implemented as written.

APS School Board Chair Ed Fendley at last night's meeting. (Click to enlarge image.)

Neither will the recommendations of the Elementary Crowding and Capacity Committee, a group formed by the school board last February. One decision they could agree on was that no decision would be made regarding overcrowding at the Jan. 31 school board meeting, but they would have a plan by the Thursday Feb. 14 meeting.

At the end of a three-hour working group session, watched by about 70 people from the public, the board could not even agree on which proposal to work from and amend. The superintendent’s proposal largely relies on shifting the schools’ boundaries to solve overcrowding at Tuckahoe Elementary School and others, while the ECCC recommendation largely relies encouraging parents to send their children to “cluster schools” where there is space to absorb them.

“It doesn’t matter to me which one we work off of, so long we address what we discussed here tonight,” board member Frank Wilson said. He had been vocal all night in wanting to make sure the board stays focused on easing Tuckahoe’s problem of overcrowding. “I want to see this translated into a deliverable.”

(Click to enlarge image.)

The discussion moderated by Chairman Ed Fendley was not intended to bring consensus but just to get a sense of how highly school board members prioritized a variety of issues. The board often asked for input from APS staff, and ECCC Co-Chairs Anne Steen and Daphne Miller. Since it was a working group, audience members were not allowed to address the board.

Mr. Fendley said the conversation would be among board members, adding later that he did not expect to get “universal acclimation” on any issue at the meeting.

Board Member Libby Garvey, whose husband died of a heart attack Saturday, was not present at the meeting.

Much of the meeting was spent trying to define terms.

How long is “long term” when planning to ease overcrowding?

“Your operational definition of ‘neighborhood’ would be?” asked Superintendent Smith. Is a “neighborhood” for the school the same as “neighborhood” as defined by a civic association, board members wondered.

Mr. Wilson said it could be boundaries such as Columbia Pike or I-395, but it can be defined “in many different ways,” he said.

The meeting, as intended, ran long on discussion, but short on specifics.

New school board member Abby Raphael wanted to define what problem they were trying to solve.

“There have already been a couple comments about Tuckahoe, and that’s clearly a school that’s…projected to be the most overcrowded, but…there are a number of other schools that are projected to be overcrowded as early as this fall,” Ms. Raphael said. “So it would be helpful to know what problem it is we’re trying to solve.”

Mr. Fendley responded that “that’s on our list” of issues to be discussed. Number 9 was “How to determine when crowding becomes a problem.”

When they got to that topic, School Board Vice-Chair Sally Baird said that she thought schools entered “Red Zones” of overcrowding when the use of trailers (or “relocatable classrooms”) might be of use for a couple years before finding a more permanent solution.

Mr. Fendley said, “I feel deferential to school communities in this.” He added that he wanted to respect the school community’s feelings on whether they considered themselves “overcrowded.”

Superintendent Robert Smith at last night's meeting. (Click to enlarge image.)

But that begged the question of whether something should be done anyway—would parents whose children had grown into a school that became overcrowded not feel the crowding as badly as new parents coming in?

On the issue of “walk zones,” whether children should attend a school they can safely and easily walk to, Ms. Baird said, “I feel we’re moving away from preserving walk zones…Whatever we do, we [should] preserve walk zones.”

“Walk zones are not going to be the solution to everything,” Mr. Wilson replied. “That’s extremely important to neighborhoods for me” but it is not everything.

But even there the question of definition became, “What is a walk zone?”

Mr. Fendley said crossing an arterial road, such as Wilson Boulevard, Glebe Road or Arlington Boulevard is not a walk zone, he said.

Mr. Fendley told those in attendance that there is no policy on grandfathering but that it was a common practice among previous boards.

“In all kinds of different ways,” Superintendent Smith, added quickly. His proposal allowed grandfathering for rising fourth and fifth graders and their younger siblings who already attend the school. Students not already enrolled in a school would go to wherever the new boundary would send them.

Ms. Raphael brought up the idea of different grandfathering schemes for different schools. Would grandfathering regarding the students from Barcroft Elementary, a school with a year-round schedule, who attend K.W. Barrett Elementary be the same as that of students at F. Scott Key School and Clarmont Elementary, the county’s Spanish immersion schools. Would the grandfathering in those schools be the same as that of students affected by a simple boundary change, she wondered.

“I haven’t worked out where I am on all this, but I think we need to be thinking about [it],” she said.

“What’s wrong with keeping the family together?” Mr. Wilson asked.

Regarding where and how pre-K students are educated, Ms. Baird asked if there was an advantage to having students taught in the schools; she wondered if having a central location was as good for that population.

Although the benefits of pre-K education have long been shown through research the superintendent said, “The question of whether there’s value added in pre-K is a well-answered question. The question of whether you have it in one location or another, I think that’s probably less clear, although I’d be glad to be persuaded that there’s some research on that that I’m not aware of.”

The room discussed for quite some time the need for continuity for the students, but wondered if that is more important than other questions of maintaining walk zones, or using trailers.

The school board has a working group session next week discussing the Foreign Language in Elementary Schools program, a pilot program in some schools. The superintendent, Ms. Raphael, and Ms. Baird spoke to the notion that the program does not need its own space in a classroom, but can taught in the students’ regular class. The rooms freed by moving FLES out of its own room might ease some of the crowding.

At the end of the evening, Mr. Wilson said, “It think we have had a very healthy and good discussion,” but he added that he did not want it to be regurgitated next week. He wanted to get down to decisions, and wanted to know what the next steps were.

The board needs to get to the “nitty-gritty” Ms. Raphael said. “I think we need to get to another level of detail”

Mr. Fendley reminded the board that next week they have another work session and before that time, he encouraged the board to reflect on the discussion, and to share their views with each other.

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