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Discovering Arlington’s Overcrowding Problem

Photo by Alex Brandolino/SENTRY

Photo by Alex Brandolino/SENTRY

John Trainum, Sentry Staff Reporter

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Arlington is growing as a county, and with this growth comes more kids every year—many of whom enroll in Arlington’s public schools. Because of this, overcrowding of the school system has become a serious concern in recent years. Less space, teachers and resources for each student means a worse education system overall. Nottingham Elementary, for example, is 142% over capacity, and the majority of the others are not far behind. The School Board decided this problem needed to be addressed, which is what a new school, Discovery Elementary, aims to do.

The school’s name comes from the Space Shuttle Discovery and Senator John Glenn, a previous resident of the area, who, while still a sitting senator, became the oldest person to fly in space on a Discovery mission in 1998. The county began construction in March of last year, and aims to be completed by this summer, allowing for a September 2015 opening. With an estimated cost of $46.5 million, the project is also anticipated to be the east coast’s first net zero energy school, meaning the total energy used by the building should equal the amount of renewable energy created.

Enrollment for the school will be based on newly passed boundaries, with Discovery’s attendance drawing from its surrounding schools.

“By building this new school, and drawing a boundary around it, it changed some people’s houses from being part of the Jamestown, Nottingham, or Taylor district into the Discovery district. And everyone in that zone is expected to go to Discovery, except for fifth graders,” said School Board member Barbara Kanninen.

Fifth graders will be given the choice of either remaining at their current school or moving to Discovery for the 2015 school year, but over 500 students (out of the 630 capacity) are still expected to enter.

As with any school it’s anticipated that there will be some level of traffic during the mornings and afternoons, but the addition of Discovery should not cause any new problems for Williamsburg and vice versa.

“The two schools together shouldn’t be a problem because they have such different start times [by over an hour], and of course it is always better if people walk or bike or take the school bus to reduce that traffic,” said Kanninen.

Unfortunately though, Discovery alone cannot solve the problem of school overcrowding. The students in elementary school now will be moving on in the next few years, and middle and high schools will face a similar task.

“It’s going to help because it will be taking 555 students out of other schools, but Arlington growth is in an upward trend,” said Dr. Erin Russo, Discovery’s new principal.

So while the elementary school will help mend this in the short run, a series of additional projects in the future will be needed to accommodate for Arlington’s growth.

“We are definitely growing as a school system, and we have a lot of kids in elementary schools now who are obviously headed to middle school and high school in the next few years. Williamsburg and Swanson Middle Schools are already considered overcrowded, and we are setting up plans to build new middle and high school space over the next five and ten years,” said Kanninen.

The new elementary school will require a number of new teachers and staff for APS, but we can also expect some current teachers to move to Discovery.

“We will not know [the number of new teachers and staff] until hiring is complete. Teachers are the most important element in creating a great educational experience for students. However, opening a new school does require extra dedication. We are looking for expert teachers with the drive to be part of a new school and who believe in sustainability and are willing to model practices. Many APS teachers have expressed interest,” said Russo.

Discovery’s unique focus will be on sustainability, fitting the theme of the school’s energy efficient building.

“While the exemplary project will most likely not be shaped for a few years, there will be a natural focus on sustainability. Students will learn about sustainability not only through the building signage, creative spaces, and labs (bio-retention and solar), but through the way we model sustainable practices as adults as well as incorporate sustainable education within the curriculum,” said Russo. “Each of our schools have unique identities and I look forward to forming ours with the Discovery community.”

More information will be released in the coming months, and the community looks forward to the school’s opening next fall.

 

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Discovering Arlington’s Overcrowding Problem