In an effort to ease overcrowding at existing gifted and talented centers and to keep students closer to their base schools, the Fairfax County Pubic Schools Instructional Services staff, along with the school system's Gifted and Talented (GT) Advisory Committee, is proposing the creation of seven new centers.
As a result, the boundary areas for several existing GT centers will be adjusted for the next school year. The proposed centers are Clearview Elementary in Herndon, Mosby Woods Elementary in Fairfax, Oak Hill Elementary in Fairfax, Providence Elementary in Fairfax, Riverside Elementary in Mount Vernon, and at two of the four elementary schools under construction now, the Andrew Chapel site in Vienna and the Lorton Station site in Lorton.
A minimum of two boundary meetings will be scheduled for each of the proposed centers. In the case of the two new schools, the center boundaries will be incorporated into the overall attendance boundary meetings.
The adjusted boundaries are scheduled to be approved by the Fairfax County School Board in January, with the changes initially affecting third and fourth graders only.
"We tried to look out five years," said Nancy Sprague, assistant superintendent of instructional services. "We will invite all the base schools involved and invite all the centers involved."
UNDER THE PROPOSAL, the new centers will not open with less than 24 students per grade level and will draw from at least three schools. Riverside, however, is not expected to meet the 24-student-per-grade-level minimum upon opening, but is expected to grow once it's established. It is also the only new center proposed that will draw from schools with large numbers of under-represented minorities and students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.
Sprague said the proposal to create new centers was sparked by the increase in students being identified for the centers and to eliminate the need for trailers to accommodate those students.
"The current third grade really caused overcrowding at some sites," Sprague said. "[By initially transitioning third and fourth grades] I think we can sort out the overcrowding more quickly."
Most notably, the increase in identified students caused such overcrowding at Hunter Woods Elementary that an annex at Dogwood Elementary was created. The proposed changes are expected to reduce the Hunter Woods' third grade from 113 students to 46. Forest Edge, which has also seen its GT center enrollment jump, is expected to see its 105-member third-grade class shrink to 39.
"I like the idea of smaller centers closer to where the kids are," said School Board chairman Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill), who also warned that shifting student populations around was going to affect the schools' overall test scores. "At Forest Edge, for example, there will be a reduction in test scores if you move out the most affluent kids in the school … those that are the top scoring."
He said he was concerned about not leaving the other students behind and with what effects the changes could have on individual schools' accreditation.
Sprague said that moving the students around could also have a positive effect on test scores, saying the centers "raise the bar" for everyone.
ABOUT THE ONLY SIGN of dissent came from School Board member Christian Braunlich (Lee) who questioned the wisdom of creating a center at Riverside.
"What is the rationale of Riverside as a center? It's not in my district, but several of my students will go there and the school is about to undergo renovations," Braunlich said.
He said the renovations are going to create the need for trailers for general education, let alone the center.
Sprague said a number of factors including the facilities, resources and matching programs went into the decision as to where to put the centers.
"All of the schools [Riverside will draw from] with the exception of Woodlawn are overcrowded. I have concerns because of the renovations, because of the space issue …. I'm looking to be persuaded that this is the best site," Braunlich said.
Other School Board members raised concerns over the parents' reactions to the creation of smaller centers.
"There is a perception among parents of regular education kids that their kid is in a class of 30 and down the hall there is a GT or language immersion class that is 20 kids. It's a hard sell." said Tessie Wilson (Braddock). "The perception is that it is easier for a GT child to function better in a class of 30."
Sprague said the number of students in a GT class fluctuates and often there are just as many students per class as general education.