Arlington schools prepare for crowding with creativity, not new buildings

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 8:35 PM

Arlington County school officials predict that the system's facilities will be at capacity by 2013, but there are no plans to build new schools to alleviate possible crowding.

Instead, officials are trying to maximize buildings' use by increasing class sizes, adjusting transfer policies and using temporary space.

"There comes a point where a building can't take it anymore," Sally Baird, a School Board member, said at an Arlington County Board meeting this week.

The school system is currently at a 37-year high in enrollment. More than 1,000 new students enrolled this year, bringing the total to 21,240 students, Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy said. That is a 5 percent increase from last year.

The pressure is particularly acute at elementary schools. On average, the lower grades are at 95 percent capacity, and the kindergarten class alone has more than 2,000 children. School officials expect the number to continue rising.

"We are recognizing that this is moving in a direction that we need to have conversations about additional space, but what that is is in the long-term," said Marjorie Tuccillo, assistant superintendent for administrative services.

No new schools are planned for the next six years. Renovations to Wakefield High School, due to be complete in 2013, are expected to add only a few hundred seats, officials said.

That is where "being really creative" with finding space comes into play, said Libby Garvey, the School Board's chairman.

In preparation for this school year, the board voted to increase class sizes by one student in kindergarten through third grade and as well as in middle- and high-school grades. A similar step is being considered for the 2011-12 school year, too. There are currently a maximum of 23 kindergartners, 24 first-graders and 26 second- and third-graders per class.

The limits in middle and high school hover around 24 students per class. To gain classroom space, computer labs were removed and laptops were put on carts. Relocatables, or trailer classrooms, have been added. Washington-Lee High School is offering an extended-hour school day.

School officials are considering transferring child care or pre-kindergarten classes to the Wilson Building, off Wilson Boulevard, next year when the current occupant moves out. To do that, they would also have to discuss transportation and food services, among other programs, said Linda Erdos, a schools spokeswoman.

"Lots of options are on the table, but no decisions," Erdos said.

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