Whenever I listen to or participate in conversations around the city on the topic of overcrowding in our schools, several myths often crop up.
Myth 1: Students whose families live in neighboring jurisdictions are part of the problem.
In order to enroll a kindergartener or a transfer student in ACPS, parents must supply two types of proof of residency in Alexandria. When veteran parents observe a car with Maryland or D.C. tags in the school drop-off lane, they often assume that the student should not be enrolled in ACPS. Undoubtedly, some out-of-district-students are improperly attending school in Alexandria—perhaps because their parents find it more convenient, or because of an inferior school in their home district—but there’s good reason to believe that the numbers here are small. A few years ago ACPS re-enrolled an entire grade and found only a few cases where the student was not a genuine resident of Alexandria. More often, the out-of-state vehicles are driven by non-custodial parents or other relatives who share drop-off duty, or parents who haven’t bothered to register their car in Virginia—but that’s a separate problem, not ACPS’ issue.
Nevertheless, ACPS has hired a full-time residency specialist for the secondary schools to focus on the problem of out-of-district students.
Myth 2: Recent new development is driving increased enrollment.
Well, partly, but not mainly. Residential housing units—single-family houses, townhouses, apartments and condos—that are 30+ years old generate four times as many ACPS students per unit as do units that are fewer than 30 years old. While we must plan for future enrollment growth from residential development that has sprung up in recent years, that development has not been the predominant cause of rising enrollment during the past five years.
Myth 3: Rising enrollment is due to immigrants.
As is the case with Myth 2, that’s part of it, but only part. There are currently about 1,350 more ACPS students who are identified as English Language Learners (ELL) than there were five years ago, but they account for less than half of the total enrollment increase during that time.
So what then is driving the enrollment boom? As noted above, immigration is certainly one factor, but there’s more to it. Ten years ago it was common for families to move out of the city in search of a larger house when child #2 reached school age. Over the last decade, it’s become more common for families to stay put in Alexandria, perhaps because they are choosing a more urban lifestyle or because they are more satisfied with the education that ACPS provides. Ten years ago there were 951 children enrolled in kindergarten in ACPS; this year there are 1,475, which is just a bit above the average of 1,460 over the past five years.
Myth 4: As the economy continues to improve, more families will choose private over public schools—so the solution to overcrowding is around the corner.
Despite the fact that there are several excellent private schools in our city, the percentage of school-age children in our city who attend private school is roughly the same as it is in Fairfax County and only slightly higher than the national average. A 2013 Census Bureau report found that there is no evidence to show that the Great Recession led to the nationwide decline in private school enrollment. (More likely explanations, according to the report, are charter schools, of which Alexandria has none, and the homeschooling movement.)
Myth 5: Redistricting will solve overcrowding.
When the redistricting effort was launched in 2015, the school board struggled to articulate what it hoped redistricting would accomplish. Many months later, after tens of thousands of consulting firm dollars and hours of volunteer community members’ time have been spent, and after a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty has been created among parents with young children, it’s still not clear. Shifting students around like tiles in a Rubik’s cube does not make the cube bigger. Some of the almost dozen different redistricting plans that have been produced actually make our schools less diverse. And none of them address overcrowding at the middle schools and T.C. Williams.
Additional elementary capacity will soon be coming on line in the west end of the city—where it is most needed—at the larger new Patrick Henry K-8 school and at the building on Beauregard that can likely be retrofitted for a school facility. The most logical step forward for the school board is to cut its losses on a city-wide redistricting plan and limit redistricting to the west end, which will fill the new classrooms at Patrick Henry and at the new site, and provide a small amount of temporary relief for east-end schools that are accommodating some of the west-end overflow students. As MacArthur Elementary and subsequent schools move into swing space for modernization, the school board should consider adopting a system of tweaking boundary lines as each of the newly-modernized schools is re-opened.
This recent Washington Post column outlines two scenarios for how public education could be affected if President-Elect Donald Trump’s choice for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, is confirmed. Any initiative to reduce or eliminate Title 1 funds for schools that serve children living in poverty would significantly impact ACPS.
Friday, December 9: Family Splash Night at Chinquapin Aquatics and Recreation Center (3210 King Street) from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. The featured school is Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 but all families are welcome. Admission is $4 per person. These events are co-sponsored by the Alexandria Parks & Recreation Department and Advocates for Alexandria Aquatics. The next Family Splash Night will be on January 27, with John Adams as the featured school.