Two of three elementary schools in Lorton are more than 200 students over capacity, while the third school has eight classrooms left empty because of a shortage of students.
Both Lorton Station and Silverbrook Elementary schools have trailers or modular classrooms to accommodate students. Halley Elementary, however, is several hundred students under capacity.
Parents and School Board members have begun to discuss possible solutions to fix the overcrowding problem, which is expected to last until the Laurel Hill Elementary School opens in 2011.
“The core problem is that Halley is a couple hundred students below capacity, and Lorton Station and Silverbrook are both overcrowded,” said School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon).
Lorton Station Elementary School opened in the 2003-04 school year and quickly filled to capacity. Three years later, the school already has 11 trailers, with more expected to be needed by this fall, Storck said. Silverbrook has five trailers. Both schools are expected to keep growing in capacity in the next few years, while the enrollment at Halley is not expected to grow at the same rate.
When this disparity in enrollment was brought to the attention to the School Board, two possible options to deal with the overcrowding arose. One solution would place half or all of the gifted and talented center, currently located at Lorton Station, to Halley. Another suggestion is to leave all current students where they are and instead place any new students, regardless of base school, into Halley.
“It doesn’t make sense to have eight empty classes at Halley when there are trailers at the two other schools,” said Storck.
The Laurel Hill Elementary School is currently slated to be built and opened in 2011, but if additional funding is allocated, could open as early as 2009, Storck said.
“I’d prefer to find another way to deal with the situation because boundary studies are contentious and we just did one last year,” Storck said.
DURING MONDAY, Feb. 13 School Board work session, a suggestion was raised to dedicate all new families and homes built in the Lorton Station area to Halley Elementary, which would not make any immediate changes. “That would create temporary islands in the existing communities until the Laurel Hill school is opened, at which time we’re going to do another boundary study,” Storck said.
With a decision expected by the end of March, School Board member Janet Olszek (At-large) said she’s not sure what the board will do.
“Nobody really wants to do much to change it from the parents' perspective," she said. "The GT parents would like to have their kids in the program but have the program in a different location, but not all parents agree with that.”
The southern part of the county is one of the fastest growing regions in Northern Virginia, which has led to complications in enrollment projections, she said.
“I don’t know how it got the way it is,” she said. “To be simplistic about the situation is unfair. It’s a rope that needs to be unraveled in a way that doesn’t disadvantage any group of students.”
Many parents involved with the GT program prefer the idea of moving the center to Halley to fill the empty classrooms.
“I just want someone to say they realize there’s a problem and they’re going to do something about it instead of waiting four or five years until the new school opens,” said Mark Levinstein, parent of a fourth grade GT student.
Many mornings, Levinstein's daughter will sit on her school bus for up to 45 minutes because the parking lot and unloading area in front of Lorton Station is too small for all students to be dropped off at the same time, he said. She eats lunch before noon and gets home at 4:15 p.m.
Still, Levinstein said he’s opposed to the idea of designating new communities to Halley.
“What, they’re going to have three buses in the same neighborhood? That’s just stupid,” he said. “No one’s talking about what’s best for the kids.”
A LIFE-LONG RESIDENT of Fairfax County and a graduate of the county’s school system, Kathie Stockman said that while she doesn’t have children in the overcrowded schools, as a taxpayer she’s got a stake in the situation.
“I’m horrified that kids are not getting to eat their lunch because they run out of food in the cafeteria or they don’t have time to eat the food they do get,” she said. Other parents have told her that overcrowding at Lorton Station has led to many children coming out of the lunch line while their class is lining up to leave the cafeteria.
She agrees with Levinstein that the idea of putting hypothetical new students at Halley is “stupid."
"There are exactly enough empty classes at Halley to accommodate the GT program," she said.
Debra Schroeder’s daughter is in third grade at the GT center in Lorton Station, which she transferred into after spending two years at Newington Forest.
“This has changed her attitude towards school entirely. She used to love school,” Schroeder said.
In fact, she’s considering taking her daughter out of the GT program. “She needs this program but not at the cost of turning her against going to school,” Schroeder said.
If the center were moved to Halley, Schroeder said she’d keep her daughter in the program. “The program is a wonderful idea, but Fairfax County needs to put it where in the best possible location to be successful,” she said.
Greg Schuckman has a daughter in the GT program who would have Lorton Station as her base school. Having the center in the school is a point of pride, he said, and it should stay.
“I agree that we should take advantage of the space available, but taking the center out of Lorton Station is a horrible idea,” he said. “There would be a negative impact on the socio-economic diversity of the school."
According to Schuckman, 60 percent of students at Silverbrook are white, while only 30 percent of students at Lorton Station, including those in the GT center, are white. The diversity is even more widespread when it comes to free and reduced lunches — while 31.5 percent of students at Lorton Station receive the special lunch plan, only 4.5 percent of students at Silverbrook require assistance.
The best solution, Schuckman said, is to place any new families that move into houses currently under construction into Halley and accelerate the opening of the Laurel Hill school.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to open the school earlier,” he said. “The other option that might be attractive is creating a language immersion program at Halley, which we currently do not have in this part of the county.”
The population at both Silverbrook and Lorton Station is "manageable," said Gary Chevalier, chairman of the office of facilities planning for the school system. He favors the administrative boundary adjustment, which would move any new students in Halley.
"Moving the GT center would require a boundary study, it doesn't happen over night," he said. "It's not something we'd recommend. The beauty of an administrative change is that it'll give help to both [Silverbrook and Lorton Station] schools."