A plan to move three schools in Arlington County would affect 2,400 students.
When Monica Day moved to Northern Virginia from Puerto Rico as a six-year-old, she could not speak English. She enrolled at Francis Scott Key School in Arlington County, a bilingual campus where students learn in English and Spanish.
Day said she encountered school workers who understood her family's cultural background. Teachers spoke to her in Spanish, her first language.
"I know, firsthand, the power of immersion and especially the importance of having immersion for the Hispanic community in Arlington," said Day, who now teaches third grade at Key. "It integrates communities."
But Day and others at the Lyon Village school fear those experiences could be in jeopardy for low-income, Spanish-speaking students from immigrant families. Arlington Public Schools is considering a move that would shift the school to the building that currently houses Arlington Traditional School.
The proposal is part of a broader plan that would relocate 2,400 students from three schools to other buildings. The school board is expected to vote on the plan Thursday night and, if passed, the plan would go into effect for the 2021-2022 school year.
School system officials acknowledge shifting students can be a difficult process for families. But they say the moves are necessary to contend with a rapidly growing school-age population and a school system that is forecast to balloon to more than 30,000 students next year.
About a half dozen Parent-Teacher Associations in Arlington wrote letters supporting the school system's efforts, citing the need to relieve overcrowding at some campuses. They also argued for the need to limit any changes to the fewest possible students.
"Part of this is balancing the needs across all families and students and really being responsive to every part of the community," said Lisa Stengle, the planning director for the Arlington school system.
The school system plans on opening a new elementary school in fall 2021, which will require the district to redraw school boundaries.
Before that process begins, school system officials say the district needs to relocate Key, Arlington Traditional and McKinley Elementary School to create space for more students in the rapidly growing Rosslyn and Ballston areas.
Other parents have sharply criticized the plan, asserting the proposal would put Key and Arlington Traditional, which emphasizes teacher-centered instruction, out of reach for some low-income and immigrant families who would not be able to access the schools as easily.
Unlike neighborhood schools, families must apply to Key and Arlington Traditional. Students are chosen through a lottery.
Isaak Gebremariam, a parent of two children at Arlington Traditional, said he feels families in the southern part of the county — many of them people of color — would not send their children to the school, if it is relocated.
Arlington Traditional is currently located in the middle of the county. Under the proposal, the school would move further west, where McKinley elementary currently sits. Gebremariam said he fears the move would result in longer bus trips for his children, who already spend 35 minutes commuting to school in the mornings.
"I don't understand why we have to move it more farther away," Gebremariam said. "For the south Arlington residents, it will basically discourage us from continuing to go out there."
The district transports students to and from school by bus. But some Key parents who rely on public transportation have said they are worried about reaching their children in an emergency or to attend school events. Families made a similar argument last school year, when Arlington schools considered — and eventually backed off — on another plan to move Key.
"The transportation — it's not possible for us," said Isabel Flores, the parent of a third-grade student at Key. "We walk to school."
As the area around Key has gentrified in the last two decades, school system officials say the school has had trouble enrolling young students from Spanish-speaking families. The school relies on an even split between native Spanish speakers and native English speakers.
More Spanish speakers are concentrated in south Arlington, according to data from the school system, and officials said moving Key would make the bilingual program more accessible to those families.
Key parents say the campus still draws many students from the nearby Woodbury Park apartments, where many Hispanic families live. Key's PTA conducted a survey with families about the proposal, which would move the school to the building that houses Arlington Tradition.
Sixty families with children from kindergarten through third grade and who mostly speak Spanish at home responded to the survey. Just 22 of those families said they would remain at Key if the school board approves the proposal.
Stengle said the school district has talked directly with many communities, including families who live in Woodbury Park apartments and many of those parents do not share the same opposition to the plan as members of Key's PTA.
"They get why we're doing this and that it's for the big picture," she said.
If the proposal passes, the building that currently houses Key would become a neighborhood school. Parent Dena Porter said another school is badly needed to reduce crowding at Arlington Science Focus, where her children attend school.
Science Focus was built to house 553 students but currently educates 717 students, according to the school system. Porter, who is PTA president at Science Focus, said overcrowding has strained the campus.
Some physical education classes are held in hallways, Porter said. The school's music room was converted to a kindergarten classroom. The space constraints have created challenges for educating some of the school's neediest children, including English learners and students enrolled in special education.
"We're bursting at the seams," Porter said. "The staff is being very creative with how we're using the space we have."
But not all parents are convinced the proposed moves will make their children's school less crowded. Parents at McKinley elementary said they thought the school system was going to open a new campus in 2021 called Reed Elementary School to help make McKinley less crowded.
Under the proposal, most of the McKinley students would move to Reed. Nathan McQueen, a parent of students at the school, said the community is worried the plan would just move an overcrowded school into a new building.
"It kind of feels like they're rolling the dice a little bit and hoping it works out," McQueen said.