Elizabeth Charles' child spends an hour and 20 minutes on a school bus traveling from Dranesville Elementary School in Herndon to the gifted and talented (GT) center at Forest Edge Elementary School in Reston each day. Forest Edge is less than seven miles from Dranesville, however, it is so overcrowded, she said buses have to arrive and depart in two shifts, leaving children on the second-shift buses to wait in the cafeteria. Since the commute took so long, Charles and other parents began carpooling their children to the center instead.
Under a proposal to create a new GT center at Clearview Elementary School in Herndon, children attending the Forest Edge GT center from Dranesville, Clearview, Hutchison and Herndon elementary schools would attend Clearview. For Charles, that means a nearly seven-mile commute is cut to just over a mile.
In all, seven new elementary-level centers are planned — Clearview, Mosby Woods in Fairfax, Oak Hill in Herndon, Providence in Fairfax, Riverside in Mount Vernon, and at two elementary schools currently under construction, the Andrew Chapel site in Vienna and the Lorton Station site in Lorton.
"Our goal was to come up with a plan for the next five years," said Nancy Sprague, assistant superintendent for Instructional Services, at a boundary meeting Tuesday, Oct. 29. "We wanted to minimize travel time and ease overcrowding at existing centers."
THE PROPOSAL CURRENTLY has Clearview's center opening with 30 children in grades three and four. Each new center is slated to open with at least 25 students per grade level, with only next year's third and fourth graders making the move. The proposal would reduce the number of students going to Forest Edge by 30, based on current enrollment figures, with a majority of the students coming from Dranesville and Herndon elementary schools. The figures could rise, however, since next year's third-grade GT-center students have yet to be identified.
In fact, Sprague said she expects the new center to fill two classes per grade "very quickly" since some parents have opted not to send their child to a center because of the long commute. Under the school system's policy, once a child is identified for a GT center, that child's parents can opted to enroll the child at the center at anytime. And just like general education classes, the cap on class size is 25 students for the third grade and 35 for the higher grades.
"We liked Clearview because there are eight classrooms we can use before we need trailers," Sprague said.
All of the schools expected to feed into the Clearview center are Cluster I schools in the Herndon pyramid and the students would continue to feed into the Hughes Middle GT center. Sprague said the long-term impact on Hughes will result in the school expanding its GT program. As for Forest Edge, the new center is expected to cut its current GT-center enrollment by half. However, the school already has several trailers; is slated for renovations, which will create the need for more trailers; and its GT program is anticipated to continue to grow, Sprague said.
"How will it impact the trailers at Forest Edge if we only took the current third grade? It would keep us from adding trailers immediately. Forest Edge is cramped with trailers," Sprague said. "There would be 39 students left in the third grade [at the Forest Edge GT center]."
AFTER THE OVERALL presentation, the parents were assigned to small-discussion groups and, in a round-robin style, asked what the advantages and disadvantages of the plan were. In room 102, Charles, along with Clearview parent Elizabeth Gibson and Dranesville parent Jayne Garratt, whose children also attend the Forest Edge GT center, voiced their opinions while facilitator Lawrence Bussey, a specialist in the Instructional Services Department, wrote down every word. After an hour of the round-robin, the notes from every room were posted in a "Gallery Walk" for everyone to see. Between the five smaller groups, several of the advantages and disadvantages were the same. All of the comments and suggestions are posted on the school system's Web site and will be used to refine to proposal, which will be subjected to another meeting Dec. 2.
"The kids remain in the same community, same neighborhood, same kids," said Garratt, as one of the advantages.
Charles said the proposal keeps non-GT siblings closer to the GT students and the plan reduces the overcrowding at Forest Edge.
"It will be easier for parents to volunteer within the school because it isn't as far to go and is more convenient," said Gibson.
Some other advantages the small-group discussions produced included the availability of all-day kindergarten at Clearview. The closeness to the student's base school, which makes it easier for the student to participate in after-school activities. The earlier bell schedule at Clearview. The fact that children are adaptable and will adjust to any changes.
But the plan did raise same concerns as well. Among some of the disadvantages were the disruption to the existing programs. The need to move some of Forest Edge's teachers to Clearview. The overall impact the shift will have on Forest Edge and the shrinking of its volunteer parents. The change will separate children from the friends they’ve made. The current third graders at Clearview just moved and the proposal would have some move again. And some parents thought all of the GT center students should be moved, not just the third and fourth grades.
"There is the potential of having classes with 30 plus kids," said Charles.
Gibson said she was disappointed two of the Herndon pyramid schools, Aldrin and Armstrong, are not included in the proposal.