Drawing Community Lines in Lorton

Drawing Community Lines in Lorton

Boundary meeting attendees call for a 'community school' in Lorton.

Every school day, Teri Walker puts her son on the bus at 6:40 a.m., to make sure he gets to Key Middle School in Springfield on time.

Last year, when the commute was only two minutes from her new home in Lorton to nearby Lorton Elementary, Walker drove her son to school. Her son's current commute is one of many headaches Walker and others in her situation are hoping will disappear with the opening of the new high school in Lorton next fall.

Over 1,500 parents and concerned citizens filled the auditorium at Hayfield Secondary School on Tuesday, and many of them echoed Walker's desire to create a community school for the residents of what is being dubbed "the new Lorton" and its neighboring communities.

"I think a sense of community is the most important thing, and I think that’s what most of the parents are concerned about," said Jo Ritter, a Springfield resident who attended the public hearing.

The meeting was the first of three "town hall" forums hosted by Fairfax County Public Schools in advance of the decision to draw new boundaries in the south county. Two more meetings are scheduled in November, followed by a recommendation to the School Board on Dec. 16. Board members will make their decision on Jan. 27, 2005.

One thing was clear at Tuesday night's meeting: When it comes to the new school in Lorton, everybody wants in.

"We’d love to hear a football game from our house," said Walker. "They’re trying to revamp Lorton, give it a good reputation. There’s new homes, new development, new energy, and they [Fairfax County Public Schools] are really beating us down, saying, ‘You might not move to the new school, even though you’re so close to it.’ … We’re trying to make our own community," she said.

AT TUESDAY'S meeting, members of the four involved high-school pyramids — Hayfield, Lee, Edison and Lake Braddock — provided their input to Gary Chevalier, director of FCPS' office of facilities and planning services, in the form of a 20-minute question-and-answer session in the auditorium. The audience was then divided into 15-member small groups throughout the school to give more specific suggestions.

Among the handouts provided for those attending was a map of the eight elementary schools being considered for a feeder move into the new school. Hunt Valley and Sangster to the north; Saratoga, Newington Forest and Silverbrook in the center; and Halley, Lorton Station and Gunston to the south, are the only elementary schools that will be involved in the boundary process, according to Chevalier. Although the county furnished current and projected attendance figures for high schools, no attendance figures for elementary schools were provided, and some expressed a desire to expand the list of possible schools to include Hayfield, Mount Vernon, Island Creek and Lane Elementary schools, as well as West Springfield High School.

Chevalier said that sending students to the school closest to them is a priority, but making sure the school system uses all its capacity properly is top priority.

"Proximity will be considered, but there will be a lot of students for whom the new school is closer than their current school," said Chevalier. "Proximity will be one of many concerns we look at."

Another item that drew concern from many parents was the effect the rapid growth in the Lorton area will have on the new school. Chevalier said that when determining growth, his office uses a ratio of 16 high-school students for every 100 single-family homes.

Judging by the rate at which Hayfield Secondary students rapidly outgrew that school, many parents said it might be time to rethink that ratio.

"I would like to see this boundary plan for the long term, to look at the projected enrollment for the entire south county, to make sure that we’re not going to have an overcrowded school on Day 1, or even within a couple years," said Cathy Kost, a Fairfax Station resident, whose daughter attends Hayfield Secondary as a middle-schooler.

Walker and Jeff Noyes, who also lives in the Lorton area, took that request a step further.

"If this is such a hot-button item, with the potential of overcrowding again in two years, even with this new school, do some kind of mini-census," Walker said.

ACCORDING TO figures furnished by Chevalier, Hayfield Secondary is nearly 500 students over capacity at the high-school level. Both Lee and Edison are also several hundred students over capacity and are projected to remain that way through the end of the decade. Only Lake Braddock is under capacity at the high-school and middle-school levels, and based on projections, will be 400 students under capacity by the end of the decade.

Those figures will likely lead the county to do some shifting of existing students within the county once the new south county high school is filled.

"We may need to use the space created at Hayfield to relieve Lee or Edison," said Chevalier. The new south county school will open with a capacity of 1,700 students but will operate as a secondary school for at least 10 years. Chevalier said that although the county has the land for a new middle school, construction is still years away.

DURING THE small-group meetings, some expressed skepticism that their opinions were really being heard, but most were confident that this process will take advantage of an opportunity to alleviate the overcrowding in the south county high schools.

"I think this is a good forum. I think they are listening to our concerns, and I think they are going to take them into consideration," said Jo Ritter of Springfield. Her community of Innisfree was effectively cut off from the West Springfield pyramid in 1993 when the Fairfax County Parkway sliced it down the middle. Now, she and the rest of her community represent the 10 percent of Innisfree that attends Lee High School. Ritter said her main concern was regaining a sense of community.

"We’re not here to fight to get into the new school. We want to keep our community together," said Ritter, who added that she also believes the county may be underestimating the growth explosion in Lorton.

"They are building on every square inch of ground all around that high school right now," Ritter said. "If you drive by the high school, it’s scary how much construction is going on. I hope they’re taking that into consideration, because I think the worst case scenario would be to make new boundaries and this school be overcrowded in four or five years down the road."

The county will use the information gathered at Tuesday’s meeting to prepare several alternative boundary plans, which Chevalier will present to the public at the next meeting on Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m., at Hayfield Secondary. His office will also be posting feedback from the meeting on the FCPS Web site (www.FCPS.edu) within the week.