A new elementary school is taking form on a former soccer field at the confluence of three communities threaded together by Towlston Road: McLean, Great Falls and Vienna.
For now, its only name is the “Andrew Chapel Site,” the working title given by Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS).
But as 36 classrooms take shape like an Etch-a-Sketch drawing on a hillside in Shouse Village, the school population is beginning to take on an identity.
Children will come from three overcrowded elementary schools in McLean and Great Falls: Spring Hill, Forestville and Great Falls elementaries.
FCPS officials also look to Andrew Chapel to correct gerrymandering in two neighborhoods north of Route 7 in Great Falls, where about 50 children who attend elementary school at Westbriar Elementary in Vienna then feed into the Langley High School Pyramid.
A school-based center for gifted and talented children is proposed at Andrew Chapel by FCPS officials, and some parents have asked about the feasibility of a business partnership with Andrew Chapel’s neighbor down the street, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.
Two of the schools affected by the new elementary have active PTAs, and one has a PTO.
Spring Hill has a creative and performing arts “focus,” which includes a 217-member orchestra; Great Falls offers a Japanese-language immersion program, which begins in the first grade, and Forestville offers the “Core Knowledge Sequence” curriculum, which emphasizes a foundation of interdisciplinary learning in the elementary years.
All three schools serve communities of mostly college-educated parents who live in single-family homes with books and computers in the family room along with the television set.
Many have high expectations for their children’s educations. They buy houses in the Langley High School Pyramid because its average combined SAT score of 1,201 [in 2002] is the highest in Fairfax County, after the magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
“PEOPLE BUY HOUSES HERE for three reasons: one-acre lots, public water and sewer, and the Langley School District," said Linda Meyer, a new home consultant at Falls Park Estates, a new subdivision with 16 homes parallel to Route 7 between Great Falls and Reston. Seven of the homes sold in the first three months, before the street was paved, Meyer said.
All were purchased by families already living in Fairfax County who want to upgrade, she said. The neighborhood will feed into Forestville Elementary, Cooper Middle, and Langley High School.
List price for the homes is between $800,000 and $900,000, but with added options, the final price can easily exceed $1 million, Meyer said.
IN THE CONTENTIOUS public process that defined new boundaries when Aldrin Elementary School opened in Reston in 1994, Route 7 became the focus.
Langley High School was underenrolled at the time, and some residents who live north of Route 7 pushed school officials to reassign their neighborhoods from Herndon High School to Langley. Others wanted to remain at Herndon.
In the process, the Langley High boundary was shifted west from Springvale Road to the Fairfax County line.
To appease Herndon High parents in western Great Falls, FCPS provided dual busing for two years both to Langley and Herndon , and students with siblings at Herndon High School were allowed to graduate from there.
At the elementary-school level, three subdivisions with Vienna ZIP codes were moved from Great Falls Elementary to the Forestville attendance area: Carper’s Farm, Colvin Run and Colvin Forest.
BUT THIS YEAR, FCPS officials, PTA and PTO officers, and parents from the respective school communities have been cautious to focus on the needs of students and a shared public effort to draw the new school’s boundaries based on community consensus.
It will be the first time the new public process for adjusting boundaries has been applied in Great Falls. It will begin with a public meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 at Langley High School.
There will be three community meetings, spaced over three months, with professional facilitators assigned to tease possible attendance solutions from the communities that will send students to Andrew Chapel.
“There are a lot of different ways you could cut this pie,” said Gary Chevalier, director of Facilities Planning for FCPS. “What we want to do is relieve the crowding at Spring Hill, Forestville and Great Falls.
“We could just assign neighborhoods from each school into the new school based on the number of students [by which] they are overcrowded.
“Or we could pool neighborhoods, and assign those neighborhoods to the new school,” he said theoretically.
“What I want the community to do is think about that, and find the best solution. We are going to come back and build some boundary plans that provide relief, considering the guidelines they say are important to them.
“And then, we will bring those plans to them, and ask them to evaluate them so we can begin to come together with one plan that seems to make sense for the whole community.
“The important thing is [that] we don’t have any favorite way to do this.”
“IT’S A SHAME that any of our schools have to lose any students,” said Michelle Claude, PTA president at Forestville Elementary. “Every student is a valued member of the community.”
But on the other hand, she said, “it will be very exciting to welcome a sister school into the Great Falls community.
“A new school brings the best technology, new ideas, and new facilities. Every [other] school will have fewer students and smaller class sizes, so in the end, everyone wins,” said Claude. “I don’t think anyone going to this new school is going to lose,” she said.
Claude said the PTA and PTO presidents have worked together to build unity in forming the new school community.
“Lynn Kemmerer [president of the Great Falls PTA], Diane Miller [president of the Spring Hill PTO], and I have all been working together.”
In a show of unity, the three will take three minutes to address the initial meeting at Langley on Oct. 9, she said.
“My hope is [that] people are more comfortable now that this new school is going to be an excellent school,” said Lisa Walsh, former president of the PTA at Forestville.
“A lot of the building has been built. The location is really nice. A lot of enthusiasm has been generated that is really positive. I know that I am going in with a completely open mind,” Walsh said.
ALTHOUGH MOST PARENTS IN GREAT FALLS are uncertain how they’ll be affected, some Shouse Village parents know their neighborhood is certain to attend the new school. They have already formed an unofficial “new school committee.”
Nora Callahan, one of the committee coordinators, said each of the four affected elementaries has appointed a liaison to work with the committee.
“We are not trying to make any decisions that don’t have to be made,” said Callahan. “We are doing fact-finding and getting options so we can make some quick decisions once the boundaries are decided, and not start the homework then.”
They have addressed routine issues, such as color choices for bathroom tile and classroom walls, that could not wait until the boundary process is under way.
“The playground committee is trying to make sure the county has thoroughly thought through the placement of the fields and placement and size of the playground,” Callahan said. The group asked for increased blacktop area where kindergartners can play and is researching playground designs.
Where decisions will be made quickly after a principal is hired, said Callahan, the committee tries to do research in advance.
They are also discussing what kind of school Andrew Chapel will be.
“You need to have a vision, because that will drive what qualities you will find in a principal,” she said.
THOUGH PARENTS IN SOME of the other school communities are edgy that Shouse Village parents could dominate decisions about the new school, Jane Strauss of McLean, Dranesville District’s representative to the Fairfax County School Board, insists that no binding decisions will be made before a principal is hired.
School officials have said Andrew Chapel won’t be a “magnet” or “focus” school, but they will recommend that it house a GT center.
“Our thinking now is to propose a GT center at Andrew Chapel. The School Board is going to have a work session on Monday, Oct. 7, and we’ll be presenting recommendations at that meeting,” said Nancy Sprague, assistant superintendent for Instructional Services.
The parents of elementary-school students in McLean and Great Falls who now attend GT centers at Forest Edge and Haycock have been invited to attend the boundary meetings, because their children could be affected if a GT center is established at Andrew Chapel, Strauss said.
“WE WANT TO MAKE SURE that everybody who thinks they have something to say comes to the meeting. A consensus does begin to form as to what [is] a reasonable approach to forming boundaries.
“We make sure everybody’s voice is heard, and everybody can take a look at what everybody else has to say,” said Strauss.
“[Then] you tend not to have the end result influenced by a small group of very vocal people.”
But she emphasized that, other than a few basic precepts, nothing about the new elementary has been decided yet.
“We will not accept ‘islands,’ and there will be no change in middle- or high-school attendance areas,” she said. “We have clearly published those attendance areas that will be considered in this redrawing of boundaries.”
Despite a few requests, she said, “We are not going to consider people in Marshall [Pyramid] that are trying to get into the Langley attendance area. That is not the purpose of these boundary discussions.”
About 50 children living in two neighborhoods along the north side of Route 7 who now attend Westbriar Elementary will probably be reassigned to Andrew Chapel, Strauss said, but not the Westbriar neighborhoods south of Route 7 that attend Kilmer Middle School and Marshall High School.
“We cannot take any more children in Cooper [Middle} and Langley,” she said. “Already, we are getting calls from other parents in Westbriar.”
Forestville Elementary, with a capacity of about 760 students, has an enrollment of fewer than 1,029 and is limited from further expansion because the school is served by a septic system.
Spring Hill Elementary also has an enrollment of 1,024, but it has a larger capacity — about 850 — and public sewer.
Great Falls Elementary, which also relies on septic tanks, has an enrollment of 813, said registrar Fay Miller.