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A Tale of Two Sides

Proposed GT Center Debated

For every issue, there are two sides. Such is the case with the proposed Riverside Gifted and Talented (GT) Center site. During the second of a series of meetings on proposed GT boundaries, parents, teachers and School Board members gathered at Carl Sandburg Middle School Monday evening to discuss the impact and concern of a new GT center in the Mount Vernon pyramid.

Proponents maintain that the inclusion of a GT center at Riverside Elementary School will positively impact the whole school. They cite the fact that it will relieve overcrowding at the existing center at Stratford Landing, and they applaud the fact that there will finally be a center in the Mount Vernon pyramid.

Opponents counter the change will not benefit Stratford Landing — that Stratford Landing is not overcrowded and there may not be enough students (two classes per grade) to fill a center at Riverside, thus not assuring its permanency.

Still, others feel that the center is being located at Riverside in an attempt to increase the SOL scores of the school and improve the school's reputation.

Dr. Nancy Sprague, assistant superintendent of Instructional Services, led the initial part of the meeting, explaining that the goals are to relieve overcrowding at existing GT centers and accommodate the increase in total GT membership over the next five years.

One of the projected images showed the proposed GT Center at Riverside Elementary School opening next year (2003-04), beginning with rising third-grade students and retaining the current middle-school feeder school system.

DURING THE question-and-answer session, one of the first questions raised was whether putting a GT center at Riverside was a “done deal.” Sprague did not refute that this was a definite proposal but did say that the proposal still needs to be voted on and that there will another public hearing on the changes in February after the proposed boundary-change recommendations have been made in January.

Isis Castro, School Board member, later commented, "This is not a done deal, that's why we're here tonight."

Elizabeth Plunk, PTA president at Stratford Landing, asked what the current enrollment was at Riverside and what benefits this change would have for Riverside.

The number of students currently enrolled at Riverside was given as 520. In addressing the second part of Plunk's question, Sprague cited the example of Hunters Woods Elementary, saying, "The addition of a GT center and the designation as a magnet school had a very positive impact on the school."

Kay Sargent's interest was piqued by the mention of a magnet school, and she inquired as to whether they are considering making Riverside a magnet school. She was disappointed when Sprague responded that there is no current proposal for that, and Sargent pointed out that there's a big difference between a GT center and a magnet school.

Sargent's oldest daughter went to Riverside. Her other children are currently in the immersion program at Fort Hunt, and she has a son who just started attending the GT center at Stratford Landing.

Since Riverside is their base school, this change would directly affect him if the proposal doesn't allow existing Stratford Landing students to stay there.

IN A LETTER TO Stratford Landing parents, copied to School Board members, Sargent cited some of her concerns about the proposed GT center.

"Riverside Elementary needs a program that will be inclusive, affect a significant percentage of the student population, bring in funds to the base school, and not be divisive. I do not believe the current proposal for the GT center addresses any of those needs.

"The proposal also does not address the pending implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at the elementary level that will affect every school in the Mount Vernon pyramid and could potentially reduce the draw of a GT center. Nor does it address the plan to send seventh-graders in the GT center back across pyramid boundaries to Carl Sandburg Middle School."

While she did not address this at the meeting, Sargent also mentioned in her letter some problems at Riverside, including high staff turnover, small pool of volunteers, and the fact that they are one of only two elementary schools in Fairfax County that did not receive full accreditation in the SOL ratings.

Lori Morton, principal of Riverside Elementary, is aware of the reputation that her school has and addressed what she said are misconceptions about the school.

"Riverside is a great school. The things you've heard are not going on. I invite anybody to come down and visit us to see what's going on."

Sprague followed up Morton's comments by saying that they had a significant turnover of staff two years ago, but she indicated that wasn't a bad thing. "Riverside is on its way to becoming a great school," said Sprague.

QUESTIONS WERE ALSO ASKED about the upcoming renovations at Riverside, with participants wondering what effect this would have on the new center and why they would want to add a center to a school that's undergoing such renovations.

Sprague said that because the renovation would be done with a modular unit, it would not be as disruptive as other renovations. Morton added that Mount Vernon High School has already offered them the use of their facilities for after-school and evening programs, should they need them during the construction.

During small group sessions, people were asked to address the questions, 'How would you make this scenario better?' and 'How would you transition the students into the Gifted and Talented Center and why?'

While at least one group cited that a way to make the scenario better would be to not open the center at Riverside at all, other groups mentioned not moving students who are currently in the existing Stratford Landing program; starting with rising third-grade students and transitioning in other grades the following years; having better communication; and finishing construction before opening the center.

Lists were compiled and posted in the hallway for all to see. Those same comments, as well as dates for upcoming meetings, can be viewed on the Web site, www.fcps.edu/DIS/gt/boundary.