School board considers limiting county-wide program to Washington-Lee.

School board considers limiting county-wide program to Washington-Lee.

Fewer Arlington students would be able to attend the county's International Baccalaureate Program if the School Board enacts a measure put forth by Superintendent Rob Smith in a meeting Thursday, Oct. 19.

The school board is currently weighing six different options to revise the program which enables students to take advanced classes with international recognition. The action could place some limits on participation in the IB program. With one option, no more than five percent of the school's capacity could be made up of transfer students, board member Libby Garvey said; under another, only students who live near Washington-Lee would be able to participate.

Smith said the limits would resolve school capacity issues at Washington-Lee but hesitated to state that the idea of limiting participation in the IB program, which is mandated as a county-wide program, to Washington-Lee’s immediate vicinity was the best option.

"This isn't a proposal," Smith said. "It is an outline of how a proposal could work."

The measure could also require students who do not elect to finish the IB program to return to their zone schools. Students currently join the program during 9th grade; under the proposed changes, students would join during 11th grade. Many parents voiced concerns that the policy could force their children into an unfamiliar environment midway through high school.

"The only words to describe this is: artificial constraints," said Lynn Dorfmann, head of the Washington-Lee PTA. "During a meeting of Washington-Lee's PTA, we asked parents what possible benefit could they find to setting entry into the IB program at the 11th grade level. None of us could find any way that this policy would benefit our children. Since the reason does not appear to be that it is for the benefit of our children, the only answer we are left with is that its motives are political."

MINORITY STUDENTS could be particularly affected if the policy is implemented, according to Leslie Stockton, minority achievement coordinator for Kenmore Middle School. Arlington schools are working to get more minority students into the IB program, she said, but transferring them to new schools could have consequences.

"Peer support is a critical issue in having these students achieve academic success,” she said. "In my work, I've seen a great deal of the stress students, particularly among African-American and Hispanic students, are put under just when transitioning from middle school into high school. I would ask the board to consider this when making their decision.”

Until now, Arlington schools had no official policy when it came to admitting students to the IB program, according to board member Mary Hynes, only an unofficial “practice.” The initiative to institute a policy, she said, is based on the district’s on-going effort to codify its unwritten practices into written guidelines.

“What is wrong with the practice we had before?" asked board member Frank Wilson, who added that he sees serious detriment for students inherent in the proposal. Moving from one school to another, he said, “is fine if your family is in the military and you're moving all over the country, but if you're living in Arlington and you're stationary, that's not acceptable. The opportunity to enter this program needs to be at ninth grade. Do we have problems with capacity? Yes, and we haven't worked that out yet. But, I want this to be open to any child who qualifies."

SUPERINTENDENT SMITH presented statistical data on how the proposal would work and why changes could be necessary, but parents and even some members of the board struggled to understand how the numbers translate into a capacity problem that is best fixed by limiting enrollment to the IB program.

More concerns surrounded how the number of students who admitted to the IB program after the changes would be calculated. Board member Dave Foster asked Smith to re-examine his data in a way that would account for several different capacity projections, questioning the assumptions the proposal makes about Washington-Lee’s future enrollment.

According to school board statistics found on its web site, the high school is expected to have a total student body of 1,506 during the 2005 to 2006 school year. That number is projected to drop to 1,487 the following year and to hit 1,515 one year later. Hynes questioned how enrollment to the IB program works and how the district should officially determine what makes a student qualified to attend it. No standard method, she said, has yet been set forth to evaluate a student’s admission to the program.

“If we want accurate numbers on how to address this problem, we need to clear that up,” she said. “Until we do, I’m stuck on that issue and I’ll remain stuck there until I have an answer.”

The board is expected to act on the proposed changes to the IB program during its Nov. 4 meeting.