The Arlington County School Board is being asked to consider a proposal that would give schools with conventional, self-contained classrooms an edge in the battle over closings, an issue the board is expected to begin addressing this fall.
The proposal, presented to the board last week, was one of five that board member Simone J. (Sim) Pace asked the board to consider in establishing criteria on the volatile school-closing issue. The Pace proposal specifically addresses the grade school consolidation issue.
In his motion, which came as a surprise to the other four board members, Pace asked Superintendent Charles Nunley to prepare a specific grade school consolidation plan to deal with the possibility of the board's "expressing preference for schools with self-contained classrooms." The definition of "self-contained" may have to be fine-tuned, Pace said, adding, "What I'm getting at is the traditional, closed-classroom school."
After the board meeting, Pace elaborated on his idea: "In some cases, depending on geography and demographics, you may have one or two schools that can service a particular area. If that situation exists, I would like to see the board express a preference for keeping open the school with closed classrooms" if the other school has a more "open" format.
But, he cautioned, closed classrooms should not be the only criterion for determining closings. The building's age and other factors should be considered, he said. A special panel studying the school consolidation issue has listed other factors that could be considered, such as the availability of a separate gym, air-conditioning and special rooms for music, art and science.
Pace has been a staunch supporter of the "back-to-basics" program at Page Traditional School. Page is one of three "alternative" grade school programs in Arlington, and in his motion Pace recommended that the "concept" of such schools be continued.
Pace's five-point proposal was met with some reservations by the other four board members, and its timing was criticized by Torill B. Floyd, the board's sole Democrat, whose term expires June 30.
Floyd argued that parts of Pace's five-point motion "assume the school board is in favor of certain concepts" and that the issues were too important to be voted on without further study.
In his motion, Pace also suggested the board consider increasing the current minimum standard of 1.5 classes per grade level to two classes per grade level. Once enrollment slips below the level where a school can no longer offer at least 1.5 classes per grade level, Pace noted, "That has been the unofficial signaling point that we should start looking at the school for possible consolidation."
Pace said he suggested increasing the minimum number after several discussions with parents who were concerned about the quality of academic programs at schools with declining enrollments.
"The problem with the 1.5 (minimum) is that you wind up with combined classes and, to me, that's not a good educational alternative," Pace said. "And if you have only one class per grade level, there's little opportunity and flexibility for parents to express a choice on which teachers or teaching style they want."
Pace said he did not know how many schools might be candidates for consolidation if the class minimum is increased. But, he said, using loosely rounded numbers, if the ideal grade school enrollment hovers around 350 for kindergarten through sixth grade, perhaps eight of the county's 18 regular grade schools might come up for consolidation review.
"But I suspect only a couple of those (eight) schools would be closed, since the populations would be shifted to other schools. . . ." he said.
The two other points in Pace's motion called for coordinating the consolidation of grade and secondary schools at the same time, and assuring that the decisions would supply long-range solutions to the declining-enrollment problem.
The board deferred action on the Pace proposals and asked the school staff to make recommendations on them at the board's June 16 meeting.
The board also took no action on special reports dealing with potential consolidations of elementary and secondary schools, asking that Superintendent Nunley bring to the June 16 meeting a suggested time frame for public hearings and action on the consolidation proposals.
The board also asked Nunley and the staff to recommend, for public discussion purposes, a range of options on secondary school closings that were not covered in the official report of the group studying consolidation.