Hit the “Pause” Button on rushed Arlington Public School enrollment policy

On Wednesday May 3rd, I testified before the House Democratic Caucus Steering and Policy Committee on how a better innovation strategy can boost economic fortunes for everyone. In response to Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA)’s question about the difficulties African Americans face when pursuing jobs in the tech sector, I emphasized the importance of strengthening our educational system so everyone has the STEM foundation needed to thrive.

For evidence, I shared the story of Arlington Science Focus (“ASFS”) — one of three 2010 Intel Schools of Distinction finalists for science among elementary schools nationwide that has spent the past twenty years integrating science, technology, engineering and math into a curriculum that must also meet Virginia’s Standards of Learning. How does this work? Our daughters will learn about the planets in science class, sing about them in music, and draw them in arts. A perennial Governor’s award winner, ASFS has delivered incredible results, especially for economically-disadvantaged students. Here’s the ASFS snapshot from Virginia’s quality scorecard:

The school has inspired the families of its diverse student body to fill in budgetary gaps to build on this progress, including a crowd-funded renovation of “Investigation Station” that enables a dedicated science lab teacher, Ms. Lin, to teach customized, hands-on lesson plans that take full advantage of this unique asset. No other elementary in school in Arlington has such a resource.

Rather than EXPAND access to ASFS to ensure all Arlington residents have the chance to lottery in to such an incredible resource, the Arlington School Board is rushing to vote in a new enrollment and transfer policy that would severely REDUCE access on account of re-classifying ASFS as a neighborhood school, jeopardizing its performance by changing its mix of students.

Worse, APS staff and School Board members are adamant about voting on this policy without any public impact analysis on how it would affect an already over-crowded system, or evaluation of whether the unique curriculum of ASFS qualifies as worthy of county-wide “option” status, as it is choosing to do with a Spanish-immersion program at Key Elementary.

While Democrats (rightly) attack Congressional Republicans for voting on an Obamacare repeal bill without the benefit of any independent analysis (CBO score), we appear to be complicit in our own School Board doing the exact same thing in its proposed changes (with complete silence from our County Board). Questions raised by families who are just learning of this proposed change include:

1) What criteria did the Board use in elevating the Key Elementary program to a county-wide option status and was ASFS evaluated under that same criteria? Has the public had any chance to review that analysis and weigh in, as we traditionally have under the now-clearly un-applicable, “Arlington Way” — an open process that welcomes public input and fact gathering to arrive at better policy?

2) How will ASFS handle the dramatic increase in student enrollment when students who are currently eligible to attend the Key school, through neighborhood preference, are forced into an already over-crowded ASFS? With a current enrollment at 121% of capacity, how will we handle the estimated 170+% enrollment within the same physical plant and shared spaces without compromising quality?

3) In justifying the current change in policy, School Board members are citing demand as a driver. To inform this debate, how many students are enrolled in each elementary school via lottery (i.e.., not via guaranteed neighborhood admission) and how has this changed over the past decade? By school, what percentage of families who applied for those lottery slots were awarded?

My wife and I are new to this debate this past month but do not understand why the School Board is rushing to vote on this policy, especially when re-zoning will occur in 2019–20 and we are two years away from adding another elementary school — a natural time to re-visit enrollment and transfer, as well as boundary policies. We attended our PTA meeting last week and heard even more disturbing commentary from the School Board and APS staff who answered questions.

In an era of “fake news,” we thought to share three messages that now appear to be factually incorrect, courtesy of some basic research:

Myth #1: “We are bursting at the seams at every school” — this refrain is one we’ve read and heard over the past several weeks, yet data on the APS site indicate quite clearly that our newest elementary school, Discovery, is currently at 93.7%, and projected to remain under 100% over the next several years.

Myth #2: “ASFS has never been a choice school, so we aren’t making any changes” — when my wife and I were evaluating schools for our eldest daughter, we relied on publicly available reports, including this article in Arlington Magazine, that clearly describes ASFS as an “option” for families living in a particular section of the County, which means admission is available via lottery:

When we moved back to Arlington in 2009, approximately 50% of the student population came in via lottery, a figure which has dropped to 20% this year given the over-crowding challenges.

Should the proposed enrollment and transfer policy take affect, this number will fall to zero.

Myth #3: “We offer “STEAM” programs everywhere” — we fully appreciate the aspiration to expand access to STEM-like programs, but we all know implementation of this strategy is quite difficult. The investment to integrate curriculum, build a culture that emphasizes this form of instruction, and to consistently deliver results, even among economically disadvantaged students, takes time and relentless focus.

Let’s take a look at the options available for our kids. There exists a county-wide option, Arlington Traditional, but it no longer serves enough economically disadvantaged students to even report its results on science standards:

Our neighborhood school, Taylor Elementary, shares this same problem — not enough economically disadvantaged kids to report its results:

Ditto for the other option available for our kids, Jamestown Elementary:

So what can we do? RESIST! Join us in seeking a delay on this vote until — at a minimum — we get answers to questions that have already been raised but not answered. Sign this petition on Change.org. Call your County Board members and demand that they speak up on this important matter to honor the spirit of the “Arlington Way” and ensure we have sufficient time — after these questions are answered — for public input and debate. Perhaps we might convince the Board to EXPAND access to ASFS by reserving at least the same share of students who currently lottery in — 20% — for future classes, but opened up to allow for ANY student in the county to apply!

We still have a few days before the School Board casts this ill-informed vote to change its enrollment and transfer policy.

Should we fail on this mission, we urge you to join us in recruiting candidates that believe in data-driven policy-making, understand that every family should have access to the kind of education that helps kids prepare for an innovation economy, and to restore the spirit of the “Arlington Way” that encourages public participation and debate, informed by data or evidence.