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Is This Really Necessary?

Parents question need for school boundary study.

At the end of the day, the education will be the same. But for parents who currently send their children to West Springfield High School, or those who hope their children can go there, the question right now is how a planned border study may change the course of their child's education.

"This began with a boundary study for the new South County Secondary School, and one of the decisions made during that study was to move students from South Hunt Valley into the West Springfield boundary," said Phillip Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence), chairman of the Fairfax County School Board.

Initially, parents at West Springfield were told they would not be included in that study, said Karen Koenig, the parent of one West Springfield graduate and another student who should begin high school there in a few years.

"We weren't given due process," she said of the School Board's decision to include West Springfield into the initial boundary study. "We were first told we wouldn't be affected, but now they're telling us that some students may be moved into our school and others moved out."

The underlying issue is whether West Springfield is becoming overcrowded, said Gary Chevalier, director of Fairfax County Public Schools’ Facilities Planning Services. "The school is at or near capacity. When we were doing the South County study last year, some parents felt West Springfield would be a better school for their children to attend, but parents at West Springfield were concerned about overcrowding."

In the proposed study, the enrollment for three high schools that serve the area, West Springfield, Lee and Lake Braddock, will be studied and evaluated for the potential of overcrowding, Chevalier said. In order to prevent overcrowding, some changes may be made that would allow for some students to be transferred into another school in order to keep enrollment levels steady.

Another issue addressed by the study is "split feeder" schools that feed into Lee and West Springfield. Split feeder schools are ones in which students do not all continue onto the same high school or middle school as one class.

"Currently, half of the students from Rolling Valley [Elementary School] and West Springfield Middle School go to Lee and the other half go to West Springfield," said Niedzielski-Eichner. "Depending on what the study finds, the students may go elsewhere. The number of students potentially at risk of being reassigned is limited to those schools that are split feeder schools," he said.

The other split feeders, Sangster and Keene Mill elementary schools, will also be studied, said Jan Brecht-Clark, PTA president at West Springfield High School.

"They're telling us now that no students would be moved into Lee, but that West Springfield won't be overcrowded," she said. "With limits set for the number of students that can be moved into West Springfield or Lee, the only fix would be that all students in the effected areas would be moved into West Springfield instead of Lee, and some of the students currently going to West Springfield would go to Lake Braddock or Lee instead."

LAKE BRADDOCK SECONDARY is currently in the second year of a major renovation project, said Brecht-Clark, which would "increase the capacity of students" the school could take. "It wouldn't make any sense to take kids out of Lake Braddock and send them elsewhere," she said.

Some parents may feel more comfortable sending their children to Lake Braddock after the renovations are completed, Chevalier said, but in the end the decision lies with the School Board.

"The board may decide that things are fine the way they are," he said. "Their idea right now is to study the situation and see if there's a problem and where the problems are within the schools."

If the decision is made to move students into Lake Braddock, having the extra room "will be a plus," said School Board member Cathy Belter (Springfield). "But I don't think anyone would want to move students there" before the project is completed.

Final enrollment numbers have not been finalized for the 2005-06 school year, Chevalier said.

For some parents who have children enrolled at West Springfield or who moved into their homes to send their children to that school, the study seems unnecessary.

"If my son, who just started sixth grade at Sangster, is transferred to Lake Braddock, he'll be riding to school with high school students," said Koenig. "He'll be going to school and coming home at the same time as high schoolers. It's a concern for working parents because their children would be at home when the parents are at work."

Her son, Koenig added, has been expecting to attend and graduate from the same high school as his older sister. "When most of us bought our homes, we did research into which school would be the best one for our kids. Now it's likely [the School Board] will say they need to go to a different school, but there's no educational reason for it," she said.

The concept of a secondary school is something "nobody loves," said School Board member Brad Center (Lee). "It's sometimes the way we have to do things because of the resources available."

Center wanted to reassure parents that their children will not face any adverse education effects from changing schools, should the boundary study determine that as the appropriate response to overcrowding.

"Kids are resilient," he said. If students have to move from one school into another, "it's not a case of taking kids from a good school and putting them into a failing school. All our schools are doing well," he said.

The issue revolves around more than the question of which school is better, but the plea to maintain the community that builds around schools.

"We're not trying to stay out of a bad school," Koenig said. "It's a question of what's better for our children."

Belter said she understands the concerns of parents who want to keep sending their children to the same school, but "the parents need to realize there's no way the study will stop," she said. "If Mr. Chevalier presents this study in a way that says children can stay together [in the same schools], parents might be more receptive" and understand the study is going forward to create the best learning environment possible, she said.

Belter also credits Jan Brecht-Clark and the other members of the West Springfield PTSA for "doing a good job in trying to keep people somewhat calm" during this process. When asked her position on the study, Belter said she's promised to side with the residents of the Springfield District. "I told them there are other members of the board who don't feel the same way, but I told the community I'd agree to take their position," she said.

CHANGING THE boundary for the schools may have an impact on the diversity of the effected schools, something Brecht-Clark hopes the study will take into consideration.

"What I would like to see is what the impact of moving any of those schools would have on both Lee and West Springfield in terms of socio-economic and race diversity," she said. "I do not have the statistics, but what I've been lead to understand is there is a higher proportion of lower socio-economic homes or lower parental education levels and a more diverse population [at Lee] and I'm hoping the School Board will take that balance into consideration when making the decision. We want to ensure the mix remains about the same in all schools and across all levels," Brecht-Clark said.

Whatever the outcome may be, Brecht-Clark agreed with Koenig. "This is pitting neighbor against neighbor," she said. "These four schools are starting to organize unto themselves because of this study," she said, instead of working together to find solutions to any possible problems.

In order to hear parental concerns and discuss potential solutions, Chevalier said the facilities planning staff has scheduled two public meetings, on Wednesday, Oct. 19 and Thursday, Nov. 10, at 7:30 p.m. at West Springfield High School.

"This will be an open process," he said, and the comments made by parents will "have a great deal of weight" on the School Board's final decision.

If a decision is made to change the boundaries for some school districts, "I wouldn't rule out changes to be started for the 2006-2007 school year," Chevalier said.

After the two meetings, the facilities planning staff will make its recommendations to the School Board during its January meeting. "We expect to hear a final decision probably in February," he said.