There is something about local elections in Alexandria that causes candidates, particularly challengers, to make outrageous claims about Alexandria public schools. One of the latest examples is a letter to the editors of local news organizations by city council candidate Phil Cefaratti, an independent who ran unsuccessfully in a previous election.
Cefaratti is a realtor by trade, and he states in the letter that many of his clients with young children are leaving Alexandria because of the allegedly poor ratings that our schools receive compared to other jurisdictions, a phenomenon that he dubs “family flight.” (Cefaratti does not cite a source for his claim regarding relative ratings.)
The allegation that families are leaving the school system may be convenient for attracting votes on November 3, but the facts do not support it. The chart below shows ACPS enrollment for the past decade and the continued robust growth in the number of students streaming through our schoolhouse doors. Over the past 10 years, enrollment is up a cumulative 50 percent.
Official enrollment data for the current year will not be available until November, but according to an ACPS spokesperson, the numbers look to be on target with the city-schools joint projections, which would be a growth rate similar to last year’s 4.4% increase. T.C. Williams, with 3,600 students in ninth through 12th grades, is now the largest high school in the state.
For some historical perspective, consider that current ACPS enrollment of around 15,000 is just a couple thousand students shy of the peak enrollment of 17,200 in 1970 at the height of the baby boom. The trough in enrollment was 9,300 students in 1990, and the number of students stayed at that level for roughly 15 years.
This increase over the past decade has taken the city somewhat by surprise. Ten years ago, consultants who were hired by the school division to make enrollment projections estimated that 2015-2016 enrollment would be 10,139. (Their “high” projection was for enrollment to be 11,376.) In recent years, however, the city-school’s joint near-term enrollment projections have been extremely accurate.
Factors that have led to the current rapid growth include the 2007 financial crisis that curtailed families’ ability to sell their homes and move to the outer suburbs; an increasing preference among families for an urban lifestyle that offers more convenience and lower transportation costs; and a rise in immigrant students that has affected school divisions across the D.C. metropolitan area.
We also know that more and more families are settling in Alexandria, and that contrary to Cefaratti’s assertions, they are not leaving. The Kindergarten Capture Rate, which is the share of births that became ACPS kindergarten students five years later, has been rising since 2005. To understand the degree to which this is taxing our elementary schools and the continued pressure it promises for the future, consider this: In each of the past five years, city-wide public-school kindergarten enrollment has been about double the size of the T.C. graduating class (which has also been on the rise).
“Once children enter into ACPS for kindergarten, recent trends have shown they are more likely to stay within the system,” according to the Long-Range Educational Facilities Plan, a report that was prepared jointly by city and schools staff and endorsed by the City Council in June 2015. Over the past decade, the Cohort Survival Rate—the share of students in each grade moving from one grade to the next—has also been increasing at all grade levels. This is a strong indicator that fewer families are leaving ACPS than in the past.
“There are myriad reasons why a family would leave Alexandria,” says one veteran Alexandria real estate agent who is very familiar with the schools, just as there are myriad reasons why families move to Alexandria, why some families choose private schools over public, and others choose public schools over private. For a city council candidate to claim that families are “fleeing the city” because of the schools just isn’t supported by the data. If there is a solid factual basis for thinking otherwise, I’d like to see the data to back it up.
This is important because this city council and mayoral election is very consequential for the short- and long-term future of our school division. The city council, not the school board, allocates the dollars that are available to ACPS for school construction, expansion and modernization. Those elected to city council in November may have more impact on our schools than those elected to the school board. Only two of the city council candidates, incumbents Tim Lovain and Justin Wilson, currently have children enrolled in ACPS.
Choose wisely, parents. Ask the candidates if they support more capital improvement program funds for ACPS to address overcrowding and rising enrollment.
Note to readers: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Mr. Cefaratti ran for city council three years ago. He ran six years ago.
Get Your 30 for 30 Fitness Pass at Chinquapin
During the month of October, first-time pass holders who are City of Alexandria residents can purchase a 30-day fitness pass to Chinquapin Park Recreation Center & Aquatics Facility for just $30. That’s a 40% discount off the usual cost for access to open swim, fitness equipment and sauna. Thirty-day fitness passes must be purchased in-person at Chinquapin (3210 King Street).