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Board Approves School Boundary Changes

Some parents satisfied with final draft, others concerned over transportation

Some Arlington elementary-school students will find themselves in different classrooms when the new school year begins. The School Board approved a measure Thursday night to redraw the boundary lines in North Arlington that determine which schools they attend.

What began as a heated debate between parents and school district staff during the summer ended with many on both sides expressing satisfaction with the final draft of the changes.

"It took a lot of hard work to come to this consensus we have tonight," said Kate Mesches, president of the McKinley Elementary School PTA. "A lot of people thought this was a done deal once the boundary scenarios went up on the Web site."

But not everyone is content. Some parents continue to voice concerns over transportation for students and admissions to special academic programs.

"The boundary change proposal considered for the schools north of Arlington Boulevard is disappointing," said Rebecca Kraft, president of the Douglas Civic Association, whose third-grader attends Randolph Elementary. Kraft said the transportation plan favors North Arlington families over those in South Arlington.

The boundary changes are aimed at resolving an anticipated overcrowding problem in North Arlington elementary schools. The School Board appointed a committee Sept. 9, 2004, to study the proposal, which has undergone transformations since. The final version moves several planning units — segments on the district's boundary map that represent clusters of homes and apartments — from one attendance zone to another. Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students and their siblings in any school affected by the changes will be able to stay at their original schools and be bused there, but only for the next three years.

The changes will also move one class of Montessori preschoolers from McKinley Elementary to Ashlawn Elementary. Some parents from McKinley asked the Board to keep the program there, calling it an integral part of the school.

"It is a part of the school, and it is part of the neighborhood," said Rachel Walker, a McKinley parent.

THE BOARD VOTED on each part of the boundary changes separately, amending each one to ensure the language was concise. When it came time to evaluate the removal of McKinley's Montessori program, Board members put forth alternatives that may be explored later.

"My suggestion would be to add a new section of Montessori at Ashlawn and to keep the one at McKinley where it is," said member Elaine Furlow.

Board member Mary Hynes suggested opening a section of Montessori at Barrett Elementary.

"If we were to do that, we'd be in a position to offer transportation," she said.

Furlow added that the option of adding a new Montessori program to one of Arlington schools could be examined after the changes take place.

Yet school transportation remains the subject of some controversy.

"The proposal is to encourage transfers, with transportation provided, from each of the neighborhood schools in North Arlington," Kraft said. "Priority for admission is to North Arlington students first, South Arlington second. No transportation would be provided to South Arlington students."

KRAFT HAS COLLECTED more than 80 signatures on a petition asking the School Board to re-examine its decision on transportation for students in South Arlington.

"Compare this to the Drew Model School program, located in South Arlington, which is offered to students countywide," she said. "Yet for a unique program located in North Arlington, priority is to be given to North Arlington residents, and transportation provided only for North Arlington residents."

She added that "South Arlington families are not second-class citizens. Our children should have the same opportunity to attend schools with unique programs as anybody else in the county."

The planned boundary changes include a measure that will make Barrett Elementary into a cluster school with a focus on mathematics, science and the arts for six feeder elementary schools. Those schools include Ashlawn, Glebe, Long Branch, McKinley, Nottingham and Tuckahoe. Students living within the attendance area around Barrett will be provided bus transportation.

The Board also amended a school transfer policy for elementary schools. It now states that the number of students attending a neighborhood elementary school from outside its attendance boundary will not exceed a total of 5 percent of the receiving school’s total enrollment based on the previous year’s student population report. Any neighborhood elementary school that is not projected to reach 95 percent of its capacity within the next three years may exceed the 5-percent transfer limit, but only from schools at or projected to reach 95 percent of capacity within the next three years. The Board agreed to review the impact of its decisions by December 2006.

"I WASN'T TOO happy when this process began, but it looks like everybody, or at least almost everybody, is satisfied," said Jane Jenkins, a parent whose child attends Long Branch Elementary.

Redrawing the boundary lines was an involved process that included a public hearing.

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks," said School Board member Frank Wilson. "When this began, I was a Doubting Thomas. I didn't think we could bring these schools together and come to an agreement. The next thing is for North Arlington and South Arlington to come together and share in this process of bettering education for all of our children."