Arlington School Board boundary adjustments

Arlington School Board members Abby Raphael and Nancy Van Doren.

Arlington school officials have throttled back slightly on enrollment projections, but say the system remains on track for record numbers down the road.

“We still have high growth, but we’re not expecting as many students,” School Board member Abby Raphael noted after a Nov. 16 briefing with staff.

New enrollment projections for the 2016-17 to 2024-25 school years all came in lower than similar estimates made a year ago, but the trend continues upward: The current enrollment in pre-kindergarten to 12th grade of 25,238 is expected to reach 30,000 by the start of the 2021-22 school year.

All that growth will be on top of growth of 35 percent since 2007-08, when enrollment stood at 18,684.

“It’s been almost 10 years since we’ve seen anything close to normal growth,” School Board member James Lander said. (“Normal” in this case meaning around 2 percent per year.)

Enrollment in Arlington’s public schools now is at about the same amount as in 1969, when students of the Baby Boom generation were filling county classrooms. 

Enrollment in Arlington then declined through the 1970s – a time in which school officials closed and, in some cases, sold off school buildings – before flattening out for much of the 1980s. Modest growth levels from 1990 to 2003 were followed by several years of dips and then a renewed growth spurt.

Today’s elementary-schoolers will be the high-schoolers of the 2020s, and school officials envision that wave rippling through the system. By 2025, the projected number of high-school students will be 50 percent higher than today’s enrollment; growth is expected to be 29 percent at the middle-school level and 14 percent at the elementary-school level during the same period.

Enrollment can be a tricky business, even just a year out, as school officials found out this year – the actual enrollment of 25,238 students was 440 below the number estimated 12 months before. For 2014-15, the actual enrollment had been 376 students above the projection 12 months before.

School leaders say the “accepted standard” for fast-growing school systems is a 2-percent error rate in 12-month-out projections, which the school system has met each of the past three years.

It has been “a remarkable job with accuracy,” Raphael said.

The new data, with its slightly lower projected enrollment, had a ripple effect at the Nov. 16 School Board meeting, as Raphael and board colleague Barbara Kanninen pressed for an option that would reduce the capacity of the new Stratford Junior High School from 1,000 to about 850.

School officials aim to renovate the current H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program back into its original use as a neighborhood middle school, and cutting the size would also cut the cost.

Kanninen said a smaller Stratford would provide more money for other projects in the pipeline.

“We’re looking at $190,000 per seat for these seats; we have to be able to look at the voters and explain why we’re willing to spend this kind of money,” she said.

With the school system pushing up against the county government’s debt limit, “we need to dig in as a board and figure out where we’re going to get funds,” Kanninen said.

But a board majority of Lander, Nancy Van Doren and Chairman Emma Violand-Sanchez pushed back, saying the extra capacity was essential to deal with overcrowding.

“We still need 1,000 seats at Stratford,” Van Doren said. “It’s time for us to give significant relief to Swanson and Williamsburg. Those schools are overcrowded. They are absolutely overcrowded.”

Efforts by Kanninen and Raphael to postpone a decision on the concept plan for redeveloping the Stratford campus for two weeks were batted back by other board members, with the 1,000-seat concept design approved on a 3-2 vote.