Michelle Posner and her daughter, Emily Akerman, walk to Key Elementary School in Arlington, Va. Parents are fighting a possible move of the school, an anchor in the Hispanic community. (Cal Cary/For The Washington Post)

The students’ families hail from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and other Spanish-speaking countries, arriving at Key Elementary School in Northern Virginia by word of mouth. They follow a reputation that travels through informal networks of friends and co-workers and more-established channels such as embassies.

Inside the suburban Virginia school that is dwarfed by high-rise apartment and office buildings, secretaries greet parents in Spanish. Books in English and Spanish fill the Arlington County school’s library. Math, science and language arts are taught in both languages, and pupusas are as common as pizza at school potlucks.

Carla Toro moved her family from Annandale, Va., because of Key School, drawn to the Lyon Village campus because it would tether her daughters to their first language as they progressed through school.

“I don’t want them to lose the Spanish,” Toro said. “It doesn’t limit them. It opens up their future.”

But parents are battling for the school’s future after Arlington Public Schools surprised them with a plan to relocate Key, an announcement that animated larger questions about race, class and the purpose of bilingual education.

The school district has backed off those plans for now but has not ruled out moving the program in the future, which officials say could be necessary to manage ballooning enrollment, reduce transportation costs and bring the bilingual program to other Spanish-speaking families.

“Relocating the elementary immersion program could be necessary due to significant growth . . . and the desire to sustain and potentially grow the dual-language immersion model and broaden access to this program,” said Lisa Stengle, director of planning and evaluation for Arlington Public Schools.

But the uncertainty has fueled an urgent campaign by parents at Key who view the school as a bedrock for the nearby Hispanic community, which has clung to the school even as the neighborhood gentrified.

The tension has stirred mistrust and complaints of discrimination from some Key parents, who accuse the school system of treating them differently because they are not wealthy and do not speak fluent English.

They have aligned themselves with more-affluent parents at the school, launching a website to showcase their opposition. They also have denounced school system leaders in public meetings and planted signs on front lawns saying: “STOP THE SWAP.”

Rapid transformation

The neighborhood around Francis Scott Key Elementary School was changing.

It was the 1980s and families from Central America and Vietnam were settling in north Arlington, said Marjorie Myers, who retired last year after 23 years as Key’s principal.

Students from around the world spilled into Key as white families left, dramatically altering its demographics.

Between 1990 and 2000, Arlington County’s Hispanic population grew to 19 percent of residents, county data shows. That was a 52.7 percent increase.

For decades, most students at Key were white. But it rapidly transformed, becoming one of the “most diverse schools in Arlington,” Myers said.

A federal mandate requiring language instruction for English-language learners led administrators to visit a bilingual school in Connecticut, recalled Emma Violand-Sanchez, one of the school’s first bilingual teachers and a former school board member.

Key drew inspiration from that trip, accepting its first class of students for a partial dual-language program in 1986. At the time, Violand-Sanchez said 70 percent of the school’s population was constituted of Spanish speakers from low-income families.

The campus evolved into a full-fledged bilingual school in 1995, the year Myers became Key’s principal.

It was just one of a few Arlington schools that passed state standardized tests four years later, an achievement Myers celebrated in front of news cameras with school district officials. The feat, she recalled, awakened a desire for bilingual education in parents who may once have been averse to the concept.

“That was an eye-opener — that, in fact, kids learning two languages could be successful,” she said.

Enrollment climbed. A sign declaring “Escuela Key” Key School in Spanish was placed outside the building. Demand for Spanish immersion surged, spurring the creation of an identical program at an elementary school in south Arlington, Myers said.

Parents and school district officials say Key’s success confirms research showing that dual-language education bolsters students’ achievement.

And the school has grown to mean something more for immigrant parents such as Ruth Janeiro.

“I left my whole family behind in my country,” said Janeiro, who learned about the school from the Embassy of Spain. “Key School is my family. My children have their friends. I have my friends. And it’s a family because we can communicate in the same language.”

Even as Key remains a fulcrum in north Arlington’s Spanish-speaking community, higher housing costs have driven working-class Hispanic families to other neighborhoods, longtime residents say.

That is reflected at Key, where fewer students in the 2018-2019 kindergarten class are native Spanish speakers. The school, which relies on an even split between native Spanish speakers and English speakers, received 165 applications from non-Spanish-speaking students for the class, compared with 67 Spanish-speaking students, district figures show.

Stengle, the school system’s planning director, said several other neighborhoods in Arlington have larger Spanish-speaking populations that could benefit from an immersion program closer to their homes.

“We need to look at options for where immersion should go,” she said.

'Ethnic gerrymandering'

The Woodbury Park apartments, a collection of tidy, three- and four-story brick and beige buildings in the Court House neighborhood, remains a locus for the Hispanic community near Key.

The nearly 15-minute walk to the school is paved with wide sidewalks and hemmed by office buildings and shops. Parents without cars can reach the school by bus or Metro.

Those families, parents say, could not travel easily in an emergency or poor weather elsewhere in the county — including to Arlington Science Focus Elementary. That’s where officials had planned to relocate Key before they reconsidered.

A move would put the immersion program out of reach for many low-income Hispanic families who rely on the Spanish spoken in the school to participate in their children’s education, said Ruth Rivero, a leader in Padres Latinos Unidos, a parent group within Key’s PTA.

Instead, she said they would send their children to the nearest school.

“It’s going to close opportunities for those families and those children,” Rivero said.

Arlington Superintendent Patrick Murphy said in August that he planned to move the school by September 2021, arguing he has the authority to make such a change.

Courtney Sullivan, an attorney hired by a Key parent, sent a letter to Murphy in November threatening a court challenge. Moving the school without public comment or school board approval, she argued, violated state law.

“Closer examination of data might reveal a notable economic and demographic impact that, though not intended, results in ethnic gerrymandering — possibly creating classrooms even less diverse than the neighborhoods in which students live,” Sullivan wrote.

The school system decided in January to delay the swap as it continued to evaluate a location for the immersion program.

Schools officials say a change could be necessary to contend with ballooning enrollment — 1,000 more students are expected next year in the Arlington system and the district is planning to redraw more school boundaries, said Stengle. Faced with a tight budget, she said the school district is focusing on efficiency, and moving Key could result in transportation savings.

Key parents say they think the school system hasn’t considered their point of view or the damage relocating the dual-language program would cause.

“Hispanics are not being respected or treated like they deserve to be treated or respected,” Rivero said. “I feel like I’m discriminated against and, to them, Hispanics have no value.”

The school, Violand-Sanchez added, has doubled as a sanctuary for Hispanic families — a place where their culture is celebrated when so often they feel “attacked for who we are.”

“As Latinos, we feel persecuted. We feel that, from the top down,” she said. “Knowing that they can go to a school where they can continue to learn the language. . . . It is such a difference.”

The school system said it hasn’t heard from parents who feel shut out by the process and noted that it has given families information online and at a PTA meeting.

“The principal and staff have provided information to our community members in both English and Spanish,” Stengle said. “Neither the principal nor staff have heard from Hispanic parents that they feel ignored and discriminated against.”

Wealthier parents at the school, many who are white, native English speakers, have united with Hispanic parents, standing alongside them to translate during school board meetings, designing posters and a website as part of a campaign to keep Key where it is.

Michelle Posner, the parent of a third-grade student who has helped parents translate speeches in front of the school board, said, “It seems like it’s discrimination against these low-income Spanish-speaking families.”

Erin Freas-Smith said her children are zoned to attend a predominantly white school but chose Key, in part, for its socioeconomic diversity.

“I don’t want my child growing up just outside Washington, D.C., to not understand what it is to know people and to normalize people who are different from ourselves,” she said.