May 2, 2014

New elementary schools, fine arts/dual-language academies part of Arlington school bond package

If the bond package passes, all of the district’s 52 elementary schools would see changes.

New academies, science labs, fine arts space and security enhancements are in store for Arlington elementary students if the $663.1 million school bond proposal passes Saturday, but the bottom line is still what drove the 2009 bond package: elementary school overcrowding.

Two 900-student elementary schools would be built, in north and east Arlington, joining one that is under construction and another that opened last year.

The two new schools, tentatively planned to open in the 2016-17 school year, would cost $24 million each to build and $1,056,932 each to staff with 25 new positions each.

Total enrollment figures from late April show 64,273 students districtwide, including 37,819 preschool through sixth-graders. While some schools are seriously overcrowded, others are at capacity now, and many are expected to be over capacity within five years if no action is taken.

The 2014 bond package, the largest ever placed before voters in Tarrant County, has been five years in the making, administrators say.

A 2009 bus tour of east Arlington opened administrators’ and trustees’ eyes to the severity of the problem and brought steps to ease that overcrowding in the 2009 bond package.

A full plan to address the problem was developed in 2012 after a second bus tour of the district’s most thinly stretched facilities, 20 elementaries in east Arlington.

“That was the time when the development of a strategy to address east Arlington overcrowding began to really accelerate,” said Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos. “That’s where our strategies are still focused, in making sure that students receive instruction in an appropriate setting.”

If the bond package passes, all of the district’s 52 elementary schools would see changes.

Two would be repurposed into districtwide fine arts/dual-language academies, and every elementary campus would get two science labs and one orchestra/strings classroom.

The bond also includes elementary school initiatives aimed at expanding STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Security measures and building upgrades are also included.

Some schools would undergo boundary changes to reduce their own overpopulation, to add new elementaries into the mix or to absorb the student populations of the schools destined to be academies.

The proposed new elementary school in north Arlington would be built on district-owned Baird Farm property and would help with projected growth at Ellis, Larson, and Sherrod elementaries.

The new elementary to be built on the Workman Junior High School site is meant to help relieve the projected growth of Amos, Burgin, Foster, Goodman and Morton elementaries. Amos and Burgin are already slightly above their capacities.

A yet-to-be-named elementary school is under construction on land east of Texas 360 and is already paid for with surplus district funds. When it opens in 2015, it will relieve crowding at Crouch and Anderson elementaries.

Adams Elementary School at 2350 Sherry St. opened last fall as part of the 2009 bond program. It relieved crowding at Johns and Atherton elementaries.

Elementary academies

If the bond package passes, special-purpose, elementary-level academies to which admission must be applied for would become part of the Arlington school district.

Corey and Roquemore elementaries would be transformed from neighborhood schools to academies beginning in the 2015-16 school year. Their students would be absorbed by nearby schools whose attendance zones will be redrawn.

Corey would be gradually phased out and transitioned into an academy, and Roquemore would be rezoned with the opening of the Baird Farm elementary nearby.

The fine arts track would offer elementary students music, visual arts, drama and dance along with the instructional setting. The dual-language track would have students receiving 50 percent of their instruction in English and 50 percent in a foreign language.

Costs of repurposing the schools would be $7 million each.

“All of the fine arts decisions are very public-school-oriented,” said Fine Arts Director Jeremy Earnhart. “When we’re talking about Corey and Roquemore, these are academy models, which differ from magnet schools.”

Applicants would need to show an interest to participate but “would not have to already have skill sets,” Earnhart said.

In addition to the music and visual arts already offered in elementary schools, the academies would have dance and drama for kindergarten through fourth-grade students. Fifth-graders could choose a specialty such as strings, voice, piano, drama or visual arts.

The dual-language track is a template awaiting community input, said Steven Wurtz, an area superintendent for elementaries.

Students would be taught math, reading, science and the like in a new language as well as their native language, Wurtz said. The program would take time to implement at each grade level, with a new kindergarten class added every year until the curriculum goes through sixth grade.

Half the students would be native English speakers, the other half native Spanish speakers.

“When they leave sixth grade, they would all be fluent speakers, readers and writers in at least two languages,” Wurtz said.

Cavazos said the bond package, which some critics say should have been broken up into categories instead of being offered to voters as one comprehensive proposition, is more than just a district wish list.

“The projects are interdependent,” he said. “Two science labs are appropriate for every elementary school to enhance STEM learning and hands-on instruction.”

Critical thinking, problem-solving and observation are the skills built in science labs, said Rebecca Sales, the district’s interim science coordinator.

“Interest in science careers starts in the elementary years,” she said. “Just to have greater access to a lab, with easier scheduling and frequency of use, can help get students in a serious frame of mind.”

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