Dr. Tara Nattrass

Tara Nattrass, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Arlington Public Schools, makes a point at the Nov. 2, 2017, School Board meeting.

Arlington school officials are slowing down the process of determining an instructional focus of the planned mini-high school adjacent to Washington-Lee High School even as they move forward with repurposing the existing Arlington Education Center building to serve a student body expected to total between 500 to 600 students.

Senior school staff have proposed, and School Board members seem accepting of, waiting to determine the instructional focus of the facility until a task force on the school system’s strategic plan completes its work.

Doing so will provide the school leadership with a big-picture view of all high-school needs in the county, not a piecemeal approach, said Tara Nattrass, the school system’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

“What do we want as a community?” asked Nattrass, rhetorically, during a Nov. 2 briefing of School Board members.

The new tack is a decided change in direction; in June, School Board members had instructed Superintendent Patrick Murphy to bring back ideas for instructional programs at the Education Center site for review by December.

School Board members seemed fine with the change; School Board member Nancy Van Doren credited staff with “being bold enough to stop” and make a mid-course correction in the process.

“It makes sense that we do the strategic plan first,” Van Doren said, pointing out that the planning process for the Education Center site already was much further along than similar ones in past years.

“We are going at light-speed compared to what Arlington usually does,” she said. “We are not used to doing it.”

There were some quibbles over the staff proposal: School Board Vice Chairman Reid Goldstein voiced concern that the task force working on the strategic plan might get off track without specific direction, while board member Tannia Talento said the school system needs to be out in the community, explaining what was happening.

“One of the things I’m always concerned about is that we’re all on the same pace,” Talento said. “There has to be something [communicated to the public] that shows why we moved course.”

But it appears that the proposal won’t face headwinds when it comes to action on Nov. 19.

“It sounds like we have a plan,” School Board Chairman Barbara Kanninen said.

Arlington school officials plan to spend $24 million to renovate the five-story, half-century-old Education Center from its current use as the school system’s headquarters to a mini-high school. The school system is planning to move administrative staff out of the building and into leased space on Washington Boulevard in the Penrose neighborhood, which will allow the renovation project to move forward with a targeted completion of 2022.

School officials say holding off on designating an instructional purpose for the new facility should not impact the construction schedule, as renovation of the Arlington Education Center can move forward with flexibility designed into the floorplans.

School Board members earlier this year voted to address an expected deficit of 1,300 high-school seats by creating specialty programs at both the Education Center and the Arlington Career Center. Combined, the two projects are budgeted at just under $104 million.

School officials acknowledge that, with student enrollment at record levels and still rising, the additional seats might only be a stopgap solution. At present, they have neither a location nor funding for a fourth major high school, which some activists are pressing for.