At first, as Arlington school board member Torill B. Floyd noted, the plan "sounded like a school board's dream." Instead of fighting a potential school closing, here was a group of parents actually asking that their children's elementary school be closed and merged with a neighboring one.
But the dream ended abruptly when parents from a third elementary school vehemently protested the proposed merger. They said such a change would threaten the stability of their children's school, which in recent years has had an increasingly transient enrollment.
The Arlington school board is considering closing some of the county's 22 grade schools next fall because of declining enrollments. Current policy is to seriously consider closing those grade schools that have fewer than 220 pupils in grades 1 through 6.
Those guidelines make Woodmont Elementary School, with only 204 students this year and a projected enrollment of 165 in grades 1 through 6 next year, an uncontestable candidate for closing.
Because of this, as Woodmont PTA co-president Rebecca DePriest told the school board last week, the school's staff and parents of Woodmont students agreed to ask the board to close the school at the end of this school year and transfer the staff and pupils to nearby Taylor Elementary School.
What's more, the plan has drawn enthusiastic support from the staff and PTA at Taylor, which has an enrollment of 375 this year but could accommodate nearly 700 children.
The merger proposal has not pleased parents of children at Key Elementary School, which over the years has lost parts of its former school district -- single-family residential neighborhoods -- to the Woodmont school district. The Key parents would like to regain the Woodmont students who live in what once was Key's district and perhaps pick up others who might be transferred to Taylor if the merger were approved.
They have argued that approval of the Taylor-Woodmont proposal would set a bad precedent for future school mergers if schools are allowed "to chart their own destinies," as one parent called it.
DePriest, however, noting that school Superintendent Charles E. Nunley had encouraged the Woodmont PTA to get involved in the school's "destiny," said the school community believes its plan represents "a responsible, sensible approach to a difficult and emotional problem."
Taylor PTA co-president William Moore said the merger would help both schools. He said it would bring the Taylor enrollment up to 500, thus eliminating the need to mix half-classes from different grade levels and allowing students with roughly comparable abilities to be grouped together.
Taylor PTA treasurer Durwood Settles estimated that closing Woodmont would save the school board $120,000 to $150,000 at a time when the board is under pressure to cut costs.
But parents from Key Elementary School view the merger proposal, which the school board will discuss at its Dec. 17 meeting, as a threat to the academic program, and perhaps to the future operation, of their school.
Key School, which has 482 pupils in kindergarten through sixth grade and nearly 100 more preschoolers, is one of eight county grade schools where minority children outnumber whites this year. At Key, minorities account for 60.8 percent of the enrollment and constitute a major portion of the highly transient, non-English-speaking student population.
In contrast, Woodmont and Taylor, which serve more stable neighborhoods of single-family "housing, have minority enrollments of 23.6 percent and 19.5 percent, respectively.
Key principal Paul Wireman said only three of the 15 classes for grades 1 through 6 have pupils who need no supplementary English-language instruction. Language deficiencies also are common at the kindergarten and preschool levels, Wireman said.
"There is now a large number of low-income families who are either non-English-speaking or for whom English is a second language," Key parent Patricia Berkenbaugh told the school board. "Naturally, many (Key) families are justifiably concerned about the strain this situation is placing on Key School's resources."
"We have an excellent staff and teachers at the school," she said later. "People ought to see what they have to cope with."
Because the teachers are "overburdened" by a large number of children who need help with English, Berkenbaugh and others argued, they have less time to devote to those pupils who don't. They also cited the transient nature of the Key enrollment, which they said forces teachers to spend too much time helping newcomers catch up.
Principal Wireman said that last year, for example, 252 new students entered Key at the beginning of the year, and 88 others came in during the year. "For every two who leave, we normally get two who replace them at a very low level of proficiency," he said.
"The second-language population has continued to increase here at a rate we hadn't planned for, hadn't expected," he said. Key students, Wireman said, represent 31 countries and speak 17 languages.
Key parent Marjorie Signer said the ever-changing population is the result of several factors that will continue to affect the school, which is just one block from the Courthouse Metro stop. She said numerous condominium conversions of apartments and the high cost of housing have forced out many young families with school-aged children, and the coming of the subway is changing the area, bringing more office buildings and high-priced condominiums. She added that "the political whims of foreign countries" have resulted in an influx of immigrants. The apartments in Key's district now house a large number of Hispanics and Asians with school-aged children.
"We simply do not have a large enough, solid, stable base for a healthy school population such as we would hope to derive from a bigger area of single-family homes," she told the board.
"Key needs not only to have more stable households not in danger of condominium conversions, rent rises or the wrecker's ball due to Metro," Signer said. "Key also needs more children, plain and simple, to keep up with the move to larger schools."
"We're sitting on a very valuable piece of property," said another Key parent, Patricia Berkenbaugh. "I'm a realist. Key School probably won't exist in five years. But, why are we worried about this now? Because the problems are now. Our children's education is a daily thing."