The best way to handle a difficult situation is with a good sense of humor.
For South County Secondary School principal Dale Rumberger, a few self-deprecating jokes, along with one or two light-hearted jabs at the community surrounding his school, are just the ticket to handing the daunting task of modifying the lives of his more than 2,500 students and their families.
"This has become one giant algebra problem that keeps getting brackets and parenthesis put in it," he said to a crowd of over 100 parents during a meeting regarding schedule modifications and the upcoming boundary study at the school on Wednesday, April 19.
Only one year into the building, South County is slated to be 500 students over capacity in September, when students in grades 7 through 12 arrive for the academic year.
Among the proposed changes to the campus ‹ five modular classrooms have been installed in the parking lot ‹ Rumberger outlined his plan for a modified class schedule that would allow for the "most efficient use" of the building.
Some parents have asked why the schedule didn't slide the high schoolers back to the later 9:20 a.m. start time, but Rumberger said logistically, it wouldn't be feasible.
"With the number of high school students that co-op, go to academies or take classes at other schools, we'd never be able to make that time up," he said. "A couple hundred kids would be automatically disenfranchised."
Middle school students would still be able to take advantage of the school's breakfast program, he said.
IN ORDER TO accommodate the surplus of students, an extra lunch session is going to be required for the upcoming year, Rumberger said, and the cafeteria will now be utilized from 10:50 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. to allow for five lunch shifts, three for high school students and two for middle schoolers.
Changes to the school's schedule will have an impact on the students and their families and Rumberger told the parents that he hoped for their cooperation.
"I've already gotten calls from you, 'Dale, we don't want to do this,'" he said. "Well, I'm not thrilled myself. But the goal here is to save the union."
Pointing to School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon), he smiled and said, "He looks like Abe Lincoln, I'm talking like him."
In addition to Storck, School Board members Cathy Belter (Springfield) and Janet Oleszek (At-large) attended the meeting, answering questions from parents about the upcoming boundary study scheduled for this fall to address the overcrowding at the school.
Storck, who had originally been opposed to having a boundary study so quickly after the one that established the school, said the problem "had to be responded to" before the situation gets worse.
Storck said he believed the board would set the parameters of the study at a May 8 work session. It would address which schools will be involved and whether the boundary of the school will be changed, or if other alterations will be made.
All three board members agreed that a middle school will eventually be required in the southern part of Fairfax County.
"We will need your help in accomplishing this," said Oleszek . "We know great things are coming out of South County, and we expect we'll be able to march forward together for that goal."
Belter agreed. "The need for a middle school is an important piece in all of this," she said. "All of you have put so much time and energy into this school already."
One parent asked the Board members if they were sure a boundary study was what parents at South County really wanted.
"I didn't want the boundary study at first, but I realize we need it," Storck said. "The longer we wait, the longer it'll take to have an impact on the school. There's no good time for a boundary study, it's the most difficult thing any of us can go through."
ONE POSSIBLE WAY to avoid a study, or to eliminate the need for a middle school, could be to add capacity to South County by building additional classrooms and turning it into a permanent secondary school. Storck said he didn't support that option, saying the school is "big enough" already.
The ideal solution is still the construction of a middle school, he said, but that will take a lot of work on behalf of the parents at the school and the board members to convince the school staff the school is needed.
"Your research has given us more information than, well, we originally had," Oleszek told the parents when discussing the future of the school and its population.
But looking back on their mistakes can only do so much. "You can tell us we told you so, but we have to learn from this" and do their best to not have the same mistakes in the new study, she said.
Despite the enrollment problems, students are still eager to attend South County.
"We couldn't be happier so many people thing this is such a great school that they want to come here," Storck said.
At the end of the meeting, Rumberger thanked the parents for their continuing support of their new school.
"I thought I was proud of you when you schlepped furniture in here last summer. I thought I was proud when we were the first school to respond to [Hurricane] Katrina on the second day of school," he said. "I'm so proud of you tonight. But we need to knock the creative meter up to about a seven or an eight if we're going to get through this together."