The assignment was easy enough. The 10 or so parents in the classroom had taken their seats and were scribbling down their answers, waiting for their names to be called.
There were two questions that needed to be answered after listening to the half-hour presentation last Thursday explaining the rationale behind the proposal to create a new gifted and talented (GT) center at Oak Hill Elementary School.
The parents heard Gary Chevalier, Fairfax County Public Schools Office of Planning director, explain there are six new centers planned to ease overcrowding at the 17 existing centers. They heard Carol Horn, the school system's gifted and talented coordinator, explain that the proposed boundary area for the Oak Hill center would include Floris, Fox Mill, Lees Corner, Oak Hill and McNair elementary schools. She said that under the proposal, current third-graders from those schools now attending the Hunters Woods, Forest Edge and Greenbriar West centers would attend Oak Hill next year.
The parents were told the Oak Hill center would open with about 57 rising fourth-graders, reducing the Hunters Woods center by 44 students and the Greenbriar West center by 13, and an as-yet-unknown number of third-graders. The proposal does not move current grades fourth through sixth.
Now they were being asked "What are the advantages of the proposal?" and "What are the disadvantages of the proposal?"
For the Oak Hill parents in the room, there were no disadvantages, but for the Hunters Woods parents, the proposal is far from ideal.
"We have parents that moved their kids [into the GT center]. Now they're being hit with a third boundary change," said Karen Purdy, a parent whose daughter's base school is Floris, but who attends the Hunters Woods GT center. "What we really want is a choice."
Many of the Hunters Woods GT center parents said moving the current third-graders means a third school in three years for their children — second grade at their base school, third grade at Hunters Woods and now fourth grade at Oak Hill. They also said their children would be losing the "specials" offered at Hunters Woods, which is also a magnet school specializing in arts and science. The Hunters Woods GT center parents said they wanted the rising 44 fourth-graders to remain at Hunters Woods.
"WE HAD A HUGE INCREASE in enrollment this year … a majority of which was at the third-grade level," said Chevalier.
Last year, the school system identified 1,913 children for the GT center program — an increase of 519 over last year — in part because of the introduction of the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test and the switch to administering the Cognitive Ability Test in second grade instead of first grade.
The Hunters Woods GT center was one of the hardest hit by the increase. The school, which was already undergoing an extensive renovation project, had to create a GT center annex at Dogwood Elementary for five 3rd grades. The students leave their base schools in the morning and from 8:30 a.m.-1:45 p.m. receive instruction in trailers at Dogwood. The students then return to Hunters Woods for so-called "specials," such as music, physical education and science classes.
It is the loss of these specials, including an enhanced science program, the parents cite as one of the reasons they do not want their children to move to Oak Hill. Four 3rd-grade students currently enrolled in the Hunters Woods GT program asked the school-system officials and parents attending the town meeting not to move them, before the parents were broken up into smaller discussion groups.
Katie Turk, Purdy's daughter, said attending the GT center in trailers at Dogwood was hard at first, but now she does not want to leave because all her friends are there. She said she attends five classes: physical education, movement, science, music and art, at Hunters Woods with the rest of the student population. These are classes many of the parents said their children would no longer be able to take if they were moved to Oak Hill.
"The county has a lack of parity throughout the county school system. They have special resources that go to the magnet schools," said Barbara Clougherty, an Oak Hill parent. "I thought a magnet school wasn't supposed to be a GT center also. Oak Hill is not a magnet school and would benefit from becoming a magnet school. … I wouldn't want to give it up either."
STEPHEN HOCKETT, principal at Hunters Woods, said he doesn't think the parents' concern stems so much from Hunters Woods’ being a magnet school, but that is a reflection of the staff instead.
"It's a partnership … and because of our programs, our teachers are committed to integrating the arts," Hockett said. "Because we teach a little differently, parents may think that's because of the magnet school. I think it's because we teach a little differently."
Hockett said Hunters Woods is a community school, which serves the immediate boundary area. There is also a lottery, on a space-availability basis, for the parents who want to place their children at Hunters Woods for the magnet program. While the focus of the school is the arts and science, he said the school offers the same basic program as any other elementary school. All students at Hunters Woods — whether they are in the general education program, are there for the magnet program or are there as GT center students — have access to all the programs offered at the school.
As for all elementary schools’ being the same, "You'll find variations at any school," said Paul Regnier, the school-system's Office of Community Relations coordinator. "There is essentially no difference at Hunters Woods than what is at other schools."