Building on Our Strengths: Developing an Effective Planning & Engagement Process to Address the Challenges of Growing Enrollment A Case Study of Arlington Public Schools’ ‘More Seats for More Students’ Campaign
Arlington Public Schools, located in Northern Virginia, currently serves approximately 23,000 students in 22 elementary schools, five middle schools, three high schools and one secondary school. APS enrollment grew at a faster pace than ever —by 18 percent or 3,400 students from fiscal years 2009 to 2012—due to population growth and a demand for high quality education. Based on our current facility capacity, projecting that growth forward would yield a deficit of more than 7,000 seats in 10 years. Our challenge, then, is to relieve existing overcrowding in schools and to plan effectively for the future in order to maintain the level of quality that we are committed to and our community expects. Our board moved decisively and thoughtfully to develop a 10-year Capital Improvement Plan to fund facility needs of our growing population. We also set out to develop an effective process that provides for meaningful community engagement in making the difficult decisions that surround capacity management—including establishing school boundaries for new schools and modifying boundaries for existing schools to better balance and manage APS resources to ensure a quality seat for every student. This comprehensive effort, known as the “More Seats for More Students” program, has already yielded impressive successes and demonstrated results. Boundary changes are by their very nature emotionally charged issues, which provide challenges for school administrators, parents and the community. Nonetheless, in any planning effort, addressing school boundaries is an inevitable and critical discussion to have. At the heart of the matter is the school district’s ability to continue to provide quality education to all of its students. However, the long-term success of the effort depends upon the school district’s ability to clearly communicate its challenges and effectively engage the community in the process. The following is a case study of the initial implementation of the MSMS program, to demonstrate how APS worked through a solution to engage the community in decision making, elicit meaningful feedback, develop a predictable and repeatable process, and create a boundary plan affecting seven elementary schools. The study was presented to the school board without community opposition and received the board’s unanimous approval.