To the Editor:
Alexandria’s School Board has spent a year dodging decisions about Jefferson-Houston School, including opportunities to pause and evaluate whether the new $44 million building was needed given documented east-side classroom overcapacity and the school’s academic slump since 2008.
But this avoidance must give way in the face of an emerging crisis. Enrollment estimates for the new building in FY2015 are now so low that the board must embrace the nuclear option — redistricting — or face grave questions about their fiduciary duty to taxpayers. Without decisive School Board action, City Council would be justified in cutting the ACPS capital budget to the bone this spring and in the future.
On Nov. 14, ACPS staff told the board that enrollment in the new building — designed for 740 to 850 PK-8 students — would total only 386 when the doors open in eight months. Then in mid-January the joint ACPS-Planning & Zoning Long Range Educational Facilities Plan work group unveiled new estimates that predict only 336 students in fall 2014 (FY2015) and a mere 414 by fall 2019 (FY2020), when the group also projects that peak enrollment in Alexandria public schools will begin to decelerate.
School Board members want to believe that forcing parents who opted out of Jefferson-Houston under No Child Left Behind in years past to return will be a no-pain way to make up the numbers. But in November ACPS staff released a neighborhood school analysis finding only 99 students living in the Jefferson-Houston zone who attend other Alexandria public schools. Repatriating these kids won’t boost enrollment to full utilization. Rapid build-up in Potomac Yard isn’t swelling Jefferson-Houston’s numbers either, and two sites are already set aside for a future school in the Yard.
Some believe the new Jefferson-Houston building was meant to lure parents into the middle school at Jefferson-Houston, with this vanguard then paving the way for a similar, voluntary socioeconomic transformation of grades 1-5. That isn’t likely to happen. According to ACPS staff estimates, enrollment for grades 6-8 will only increase by 25 students by FY2020.
Academic performance in Jefferson-Houston’s middle school grades in subjects like reading are as unimpressive as those in the struggling lower grades, small class size is not a persuasive sell, and there are more electives and activities at George Washington Middle School.
ACPS now appears to be rethinking building a PK-8 building at Patrick Henry but is clinging to the model at Jefferson-Houston “to stabilize the population.” That euphemism means ACPS leaders are sticking to PK-8 lest the student population fall to an even more embarrassing low.
On top of all this comes news that in February ACPS will be seeking Planning Commission and Council approval to add a trailer at Douglas MacArthur School to handle overcrowding. Does the School Board seriously believe they can install trailers at schools close by while leaving Jefferson-Houston half-occupied?
There is only one viable alternative: redistricting. A 2007 Virginia Department of Education efficiency audit of ACPS stressed that “each attendance boundary should be analyzed for irregularities and inefficiencies. Steps to correct deficiencies should be outlined.” If a school is not 85 percent occupied by core ACPS student populations — not by adult Zumba classes and bagpipe bands or non-reimbursing programs like Head Start — then the board must tackle comprehensive redistricting that properly realigns population with unused capacity.