Two months after Arlington Public Schools floated plans to turn Nottingham Elementary School into a “swing space,” parents returned to the School Board with a message.
The assumptions the school system relied on for this plan are flawed, they said.
Arlington Public Schools is planning how to use its buildings in the coming decade. The goal is to balance enrollment among schools with empty seats in North Arlington and over-capacity schools in South Arlington, while keeping costs down. It aims to do so by improving how it uses existing schools with a surplus of seats.
One solution could be closing Nottingham Elementary School, in the Williamsburg neighborhood at 5900 Little Falls Road, and turning it into a “swing space.” For $5 million, it could become home to any school community temporarily displaced by renovations. Reaction to this idea, proposed in June, was swift. Several parents mobilized, forming a Facebook group and circulating a petition, which had nearly 750 signatures as of publication.
After receiving a charge from the School Board in June to “poke holes” in the data, a group of Nottingham parents told ARLnow they did just that.
“We found, in a bunch of ways, the forecasts are critically flawed… The main issue is that APS used pandemic enrollment to project future enrollment,” one parent, Aaron Beytin, said. “At the beginning, I was upset about Nottingham. Now, I’m worried about the direction of the overall county. We’re looking at a probable capacity crisis.”
Enrollment had been increasing by 3% on average in the decade prior to the pandemic, statistician and parent Paul Winters said last night (Thursday) during a School Board meeting. Rather than assume this trend would continue, he says APS assumes Covid-induced falling enrollment would continue.
“Ignoring these concerns will lead to overcrowded schools and a worse educational experience for our children,” he said. “A more reasonable approach would be to discard the Covid data and use the pre-pandemic years, or even APS’s own projections from 2019.”
The school system maintains that its staff are in lockstep with county counterparts on these projections.
“APS and Arlington County demographers collaborate to ensure the longer-term projections are using the same factors,” it said.
APS says it used the three most recent school years — which the parents consider pandemic years — to project enrollment for grades 1-12. The school system projected kindergarten rates with actual births going back to 2018-2019, using addresses associated with births to map where new students are located.
The parents say the strongest sign that projections relied on pandemic years is how APS weighted the ratio of births to kindergarten enrollments.
The school system says it placed more weight on birth-to-kindergarten ratios for 2016-21 and 2017-22 than 2015-20 because “of the impacts of the pandemic on that cohort that year.”
The birth-to-kindergarten ratio in these years had fallen as a result of the pandemic, the parents say. They argue APS gives 2020, 2021 and 2022 outsized influence compared to the 2015-2019 school years, when the birth-to-kindergarten ratio was higher.
APS counters that birth rates are in fact declining in Arlington, like the region and nationwide.
“U.S. fertility rates have been declining since 2007, due to women delaying childbirth until later in life and as a result having fewer children,” the school system said. “The number of births have fallen across Virginia and were first experienced in the rural parts of the state in the late 2000s. During this same time, Northern Virginia experienced less of a decline in births.”
More recently, Northern Virginia has slowed down with the rest of the state as births “fell from an all-time high to its lowest level since 2000, when the region’s population was a third smaller than today,” APS said.
Beyond the data, other Nottingham parents say the school system has not thought through all the consequences of using Nottingham, which is not centrally located, as temporary swing space. This includes extracurricular opportunities lost to commuting, more hassle for parents if their child has to be picked outside of the bussing schedule, and more traffic.
They say the school system should find a solution closer to where the renovations will take place. APS has not yet released a list of schools set to be renovated, though one is expected next month.
“We think that these renovations should be done. We just think that the solution for what APS does in the meantime needs to be different,” parent Jenn Loeb said. “You’re going to need the capacity in South Arlington.”
Parent Arhan Gunel says the Nottingham swing space plan trades “an enrollment inequity for a commuting inequity.”
“That’s not actually improving those children’s lives,” he said. “They need more capacity — that’s the solution.”