Arlington Public Schools science supervisor Dat Le

Dat Le serves as supervisor of science for Arlington Public Schools.

Rising enrollment in Arlington’s public schools is putting the squeeze on outdoor-education programs, and middle-schoolers could be the ones to pay the price.

A growing student body at the elementary-school level may soon mean there are not enough days in the school year to send the usual cadre of students to the Arlington Outdoor Lab, located in Fauquier County.

The facility “is at full capacity,” Dat Le, supervisor of science education for the school system, said at the March 22 School Board meeting.

Currently, students in third and seventh grades take day trips to the facility. Fifth-graders go for an overnight visit which, for many, is a major highlight of the school year.

As the squeeze intensifies, school officials have concluded that the middle-school program may need to be reduced or eliminated to make sure the younger students have access.

“At the elementary level, it’s a great opportunity for students,” Le said.

The Outdoor Lab, set on about 200 acres, is owned by the non-profit Arlington Outdoor Education Association. It was conceived in the 1960s by Dr. Phoebe Hall Knipling, an Arlington science educator and administrator who believed students in an increasingly urbanizing community would benefit from access to nature.

At the March 22 meeting, Arlington School Board members said they were open to ideas to retain current programming in the face of increasing number of students.

“Is there any idea about expansion of facilities, staff or resources?” School Board member Reid Goldstein queried.

“We do have a plan. Of course, it will require funding. We would need staffing . . . and transportation,” Le said.

But with the school system facing a tight budget year – comparatively speaking, at least – such efforts may be put on hold.

One option: Using Arlington’s two local nature centers (Long Branch and Gulf Branch) more regularly.

“We sometimes we forget that we have these great centers,” School Board member Nancy Van Doren said.

Long Branch and Gulf Branch are operated by the county government. In addition, Arlington is home to Potomac Overlook Regional Park, operated by the Northern Virginia Park Authority, which also has a nature theme.

Le suggested the hiring of an outdoor-learning coordinator, who could develop plans for students using the local nature facilities.

The goal, he said, needs to be “a meaningful program, and not just walking around.”

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