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School Enrollment Set to Drop in Coming Years

Officials blame loss of affordable housing units for expected decrease in student population

The conversion of garden apartment complexes into condominiums is driving many students out of the county and causing a sharp decrease in the school system’s enrollment, a new report presented to the School Board last week stated.

The number of students enrolled in Kindergarten through Twelfth grade declined by 361 this year, bringing the total to 17,600. This is the fourth straight year that the school system’s population has declined, and school officials said the trend was likely to continue in coming years.

School officials are predicting enrollment will slide by another 280 students next year, and by 2011 only 15,801 students will be taking classes in Arlington- a 14.5 percent decline over the previous decade.

Although Arlington’s total population is growing robustly, the percentage of school-age children is on a steady decline. On the whole, the county’s population is expected to grow by 12 percent between 2000 and 2010, but the number of school-age children will decrease by more than 10 percent.

This decline will be “partially explained by a decrease in affordable housing in Arlington and renovations to apartment complexes that will adversely affect student populations, particularly in south Arlington,” the Arlington Facilities and Student Accommodation Plan stated.

In 2000, just over half of Arlington’s stock of rental units were deemed affordable. By last year that number had plummeted to 23 percent.

“So much of the affordable housing in the county has been lost... and there’s no end in sight,” said Alison Denton, a facilities planner for Arlington Public Schools. “This is definitely a concern.”

The other factor for declining enrollment is the shift in Arlington’s household composition, with fewer families with young children moving into the county.

Last fall more than 2,300 rental units in the county were in the process of conversion to condominiums, which tend to be owned by more affluent families who have fewer school-age children than families living in garden apartments, Denton said.

Several major conversion projects that are expected to be completed over the course of the next year may greatly affect the school system: The renovation of The Colonies on south 28th Street will impact nearly 300 students and the conversion of West Village/Shirlington Overlook units, which are being re-sold as luxury condos, will affect 279 students.

THE DROP IN ENROLLMENT will not be equally distributed across the county’s schools. Those in south Arlington, such as Abingdon and Campbell Elementary Schools, will see a significant decrease in the coming years, with both predicted be at or below 65 percent capacity.

Meanwhile, Tuckahoe and Glebe Elementary Schools, both in north Arlington, are expected to be over-capacity. Currently, Tuckahoe is at 111 percent capacity and it is unlikely that figure will drop anytime soon.

“The enrollment figures at Tuckahoe jump out and we need to look at that and see if there are ways to relieve their over-crowding,” School Board Chair Dave Foster.

Tuckahoe uses three trailers, or “relocatable units” as they are dubbed by school officials, to house students, but the classes themselves are not overcrowded, Tuckahoe Principal Cynthia Brown said.

“Ideally we would like for everyone to be indoors, but the portable classrooms get rave reviews from our staff and are quite comfortable,” Brown added. “It’s not at all a hardship.”

School officials are quick to point out that school population is cyclical, and therefore they are reluctant to make any drastic changes, such as redrawing the boundaries. For example, though Williamsburg Middle School is currently above capacity, the student population will drop to normal levels by 2009, without any interference by school officials.

“You can’t just redraw the boundaries any time there’s a dip in enrollment,” Denton said.

A drop in the student population means that there will be less money to spend on teachers and education programs. There is a provision in the school board’s revenue sharing agreement with the county that stipulates that the school budget fluctuate according to the number of students.

Schools may be forced to shed some teachers in the future and there will be increased pressure to continue offering all current programs, school officials said.

Yet there are also positive aspects of having fewer students. In an era of stiff competition for the best teachers, Arlington schools will not be forced to hire as many new ones.

Foster hopes that this will enable schools to further reduce class size, which would lead to more attention on individual needs. Schools will also have greater flexibility in how they use classroom space, and may have additional room for educational and training programs.

Campbell Elementary has developed partnerships with community agencies, and an early Head Start program is now in the school.

“You can never have too much space,” said Campbell Principal Laurie Baker. “We have continued to make an effort to provide day care opportunities.”