Group of school kids reading for education stock photo from Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.

In response to growth in attendance, Arlington County Public Schools (APS) is opening some new schools and shifting the location of county-wide “option” programs to better utilize resources. As a result, the School Board must approve new boundaries for neighborhood schools in the southern portion of the county on December 6.

For the past few months, battle lines have been drawn. The situation is complicated, and people rightly feel passionate about the schools their children will attend. However, changes will need to happen to make the system better. We must avoid falling into the familiar trap of focusing on the anxiety of middle class residents, rather than investigating why school boundaries are so contentious in the first place.

What’s happening with the elementary boundary process around Nauck

Currently there are two schools sharing the same building (Drew Elementary) in Nauck, a historically black neighborhood in southwest Arlington. One is a Montessori “option school,” which means that people from all over Arlington can enter a lottery to go there no matter where they live. The other, the Model School, is a community school, meaning it draws its students from within the designated school boundaries.

In Fall 2019, Arlington will open a new school building further north, which will allow the Montessori program to move into a building of its own. The goal is to relieve overcrowding, which by definition means that some students will have to move.

Drew Model elementary school by Arlington Public Schools.

This kind of reshuffling is happening throughout South Arlington right now. In some other areas, these changes have gotten relatively little pushback, particularly areas (like mine) that have a higher portion of renters. But the shifts in some neighborhoods (like around Nauck) have been met with substantial resistance, led largely by homeowners. In addition to the general fear of change, the particular boundary changes in Nauk are complicated by the divergent levels of poverty within nearby neighborhoods.

The primary controversy has centered on how APS will fill new capacity at Drew Elementary. Some neighborhood leaders in Nauck have been pushing to grow the neighborhood school and have it operate the whole building. Many see this as a way to correct a historical wrong from desegregation, where Nauck children were bussed out of the neighborhood rather than bringing in white children into what had been a “black school.”

However, the immediate neighborhood of Nauck does not enough students to fill up Drew Elementary. That’s when proposals for boundary changes began, proposing to shift the lines so students in some of the nearby communities would now come to Drew to fill it up.

APS has six “policy considerations” to ostensibly help guide this process with a set of objective goals. The most pertinent are proximity (how many students can walk to school), efficiency (how full a school is), and demographics (the percent of students who receive Free or Reduced Price Lunch (FRL)). In regard to demographics, APS established a goal to bring schools closer to the an average of 30% FRL students in each school. In South Arlington, schools average around 50%.

Over the past few months, APS has released a series of maps of new boundaries for public comment. With each iteration, a segment of the community that is proposed to attend Drew has been very vocal about not changing the boundaries in a way that would change their current school. Many have used these different policy goals in their arguments, saying that their current school is more walkable, or in some cases that the proposed shift would further concentrate students receiving FRL in Drew.

The first boundary proposal submitted by APS on September 26, 2018 filled Drew (orange) using lower-income communities along Four Mile Run. This caused concern that poverty would be concentrated at the new Drew school with a 60% FRL rate. Image by Arlington Public Schools.

The second boundary proposal submitted by APS on October 17, 2018 filled drew with the middle-income South Fairlington neighborhood (orange triangle at the bottom), which currently attends Abingdon Elementary (yellow area). This neighborhood pushed back hard, claiming their families can walk to Abingdon. This proposal lowered Drew's FRL rate to 49%. 

The superintendent's proposal that the School Board will likely approve on December 6 (with one modification to Fort Myer base families in the upper pink). Here Drew is filled with part of the Columbia Heights neighborhood just north of Nauck (orange here, but light blue in the other maps). This community had lobbied hard since the beginning to remain together at the new building that APS will open in 2019.

However, central to many arguments is the idea that if you change my student’s school, you are fundamentally breaking apart or destroying this community. Many have testified that they bought their home assuming a certain school, and it’s unfair to change that now. In the midst of all this blowback, the goal of opening Drew as a neighborhood school without a high concentration of poverty is being lost.

After a last-minute working session before the December 6 vote, the APS School Board seems poised to implement a new set of boundaries that leaves two schools under-enrolled, opens Drew with at least 55% FRL, and leaves the door open to do the whole thing again in two years.

The months-long process leaves citizens throughout the community feeling frustrated because it seems that APS is making changes to appease particular vocal constituencies, rather than following the data.

When it comes to elementary boundaries, we are having the wrong conversation

I’ve followed this debate for the past few months, and was pleased to see WAMU cover it. But the article frames the issue through the anxieties of white families who bought property assuming access to a certain school. It ignores the fact that the schools these families want to stay in are seen as more desirable because of the higher proportion of affluent families. It treats the prospect of changing schools as a terrible risk, rather than a necessary and expected part of a community that is growing.

Full disclosure: I am not directly affected by the coming changes. My son is three and I’m a renter. But I think a removed perspective is precisely what the county has been missing. Too many times during this process, APS has been offering new options to appease families with a short-term interest in preserving their status quo. This does a disservice to the thousands of Arlington children who will enter the system in coming years.

The author speaking at the public hearing on November 27, 2018. Image by the author.

The coverage of the Arlington school boundaries process, both through local articles, letters to the editor, and now with an article from WAMU, tell the same general story but from different perspectives: certain groups lay claim to the school they currently attend, and paint any change as a detriment to their neighborhood.

The family who opens the WAMU piece “made the decision to purchase” a home at the top of their means “because they saw it as in investment for the long term - both in the neighborhood and the schools.” Another family quoted later in the piece “decided to move from renting to owning a home because of [their] neighborhood school.”

The community engagement and rollout of different plans has been incredibly frustrating, but that is primarily because the school staff and the school board are bombarded with stories about how changing schools will ruin childhoods and “destroy communities.”

APS has a difficult task of drawing equitable boundaries that balance enrollment size, avoid heavy concentrations of poverty, and maintaining walkability. But this task is nearly impossible if they are also making decisions to avoid blowback from people who don’t want anything to change.

This framing ignores the problem of segregation in Arlington Public Schools. Like many school districts in the United States, Arlington has a segregation problem, driven both by housing patterns and decades of boundary decisions that have isolated affluent communities from lower-income segments of the community.

Some schools under consideration this year have only 25% or 30% of students on FRL, while others have 70%. When homeowners lay claim to certain schools, it is usually the ones with the least poverty and the most resources. The emphasis on walkability and neighborhood cohesion are noble, but not at the expense of undoing these historic wrongs.

School Board Chair Reid Goldstein spoke to community concerns at a recent public hearing, assuring us that decisions are not being made based on the vocal minorities. But this statement is hardly reassuring when the subsequent proposals continue to maintain or worsen APS’s key metrics.

Urbanism calls for better ways to make local change

Integration in schools by race and socio-economic status has been proven to reduce inequality among students. While integration helps everyone, education and segregation expert Nikole Hannah-Jones points out that for black children, integration is a question of “literally, will you receive a quality education or not? Will you be a full citizen in the country of your birth?”

Segregated schools mean affluent families control most of the public resources by walling off certain schools as enclaves. This is inconsistent with the values of equitable urbanism, which requires that we seek the most equitable use of public spaces.

The case of the Arlington Public Schools current elementary boundary revision is another example of the larger problem: local decisions being made by and for those with a vested interest in the status quo, rather than with the needs of future residents at the forefront. Since urban areas are about innovation and change, this becomes a drag on our ability to adapt and achieve equity.

I hope that urbanists can think about new ways to organize community engagement and guide neighborhood change in a way that centers the needs of our collective future, rather than deferring to the past.