Paul Schlichtman: Addressing Arlington’s Booming Student Enrollment

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When I rejoined the Arlington School Committee in 2012, we were finalizing plans to adjust elementary distributions with the opening of our new Thompson School. We created buffer zones, and drew new lines to move students toward empty seats in East Arlington.

In six short years, we moved from worrying about filling seats to constructing a dozen new elementary classrooms in East Arlington. It’s not hard to see we are in the midst of a dramatic change, but we need to step back and look at the numbers to truly see the magnitude of the growth in our midst.

Massachusetts takes a statewide count of students each year on October 1; Arlington had 4,903 students in our classrooms in 2012. Last October, we had 5,939 students, a 21.1% increase in just six years. We added 1,036 students, the equivalent of populating two large elementary schools.

How does that compare to the rest of the state? I thought that was an interesting question, so I downloaded the state’s enrollment data from 2012 and 2018 and put them on a map of the Commonwealth. I color coded the map, red for decline, green for growth, and the brightest, greenest spot on the map is Arlington. We are the center of a high growth area, but Arlington also has the highest enrollment growth on the map (excluding four very tiny towns with less than 100 students).

I posted the map online at Arlington is the center of a cluster of high-growth communities. Enrollment growth in Belmont (+13.9%), Cambridge (+13.4%), Lexington (+11.6%) and Waltham (+10.5%) are above 10%, but none come close to our 21.1% increase. Head further north and west, the greens turn orange and red, with significant enrollment losses in Wilmington (-10.2%), Tewksbury (-10.6%), Billerica (-13.6%), and Dunstable (-14.7%).

Zooming out, the pattern shows enrollment gains in many gateway cities, communities close to Boston, and municipalities along a corridor between Worcester and Boston. However, no matter where you look, the darkest green, the highest growth, continues to be here in Arlington.

This rate of growth is likely to continue for the next five years, as year after year the larger cohorts move up through the grades. We have an average of 524 students in each elementary grade (K-5) compared to an average of 431 in 2012. This surge is now halfway through the middle grades. We have just one year before this surge of larger classes begins to move into the high school, and another five years before the wave reaches the twelfth grade. Just by tracking the students currently in our schools, the current population trend will move between 300 and 400 additional students into the high school by September, 2023. Don’t believe me? Arlington has 344 high school seniors and 587 students in kindergarten. Do the math.

Compared to 2012, the Thompson School enrollment increased by 181 students (55.5%), while the high school enrollment only increased by 147 students (11.9%). Half of Arlington’s elementary enrollment increase occurred in the two East Arlington schools, and those students are progressing toward our high school.

When we zoom in to East Arlington, or zoom out to see the entire region, we see the demographic trends that are influencing our school enrollment. Twenty and thirty years ago, many young couples and new parents would look to the west as they started to build families.

Our new neighbors have different priorities. They don’t want the big house, the lawn, the suburban lifestyle. They are not heading north or west with their children, and the declining enrollments in more distant towns reflect the values of the current generation of parents of young children. They are filling smaller homes with families and their dreams for the future in places like Arlington.

Our new neighbors have looked at our community, our amenities, and have fallen in love with Arlington. They love walking around the corner to catch a bus, to enjoy a good restaurant. They love the schools, the friendly neighbors, the sense of community. They are trading the big house and lawn for a small home, little or no lawn, and everything else Arlington has to offer.

For those of us who have found the magic of this place, the question of why we have the largest enrollment growth of any sizable town in the Commonwealth is no mystery. We’re a wonderful community, with wonderful neighbors, and we welcome our new friends. That’s why we need to vote Yes twice on June 11. Vote Yes for the debt exclusion to build the high school and provide the space and facilities we need. Vote Yes for the override to meet the staffing needs of the growing number of students in our system. Please join me in voting YES-YES for Arlington!

Paul Schlichtman is a member of the Arlington School Committee.