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Parents Probe Uneven Enrollments

School Board, facilities staff meet with parents to discuss overcrowding solutions for elementary schools.

With a group of nearly 100 parents in front of him, a handful of School Board members to the left and two members of the Fairfax County Public School staff to his right, Gary Chevalier had his work cut out for him.

During a March 6 meeting at Halley Elementary School, Chevalier, chair of the Office of Facilities Planning for the school system, laid out the numbers the parents knew all too well: Lorton Station and Silverbrook Elementary Schools are overcrowded. Halley Elementary School has extra capacity. The Laurel Hill Elementary School, currently slated to open in 2010, may open in 2009, but that's still not soon enough.

"Our goal is to look at what we can do for this coming September," Chevalier said to the parents.

What that is going to be, exactly, isn't quite clear yet.

There are several options for dealing with the overcrowding of Lorton Station and Silverbrook, one that would involved diverting any new students that move into neighborhoods in their boundaries directly into Halley to fill the eight empty classrooms there. Another option that staff does not seem willing to support would move the Gifted and Talented program center, either partially or fully, from Lorton Station into Halley.

"We suggest we look at diverting any new houses into Halley," Chevalier said, meaning that any families that move into communities currently slated to go to Silverbrook or Lorton Station would instead go to Halley, using the extra capacity there.

With a School Board work session scheduled for Monday, March 13, board members "need to hear what your priorities are" before making a decision, said board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon). "We want to achieve schools with a full compliment of kids who can go to school with their neighbors."

BASED ON HOUSING developments that have been built and are currently unoccupied, or neighborhoods that are planned, Chevalier expects about 100 students to be affected by the plan to move new students in Halley.

When asked why parents should trust the numbers used in the estimations, Chevalier admitted that enrollment projections for the South County High School were incorrect, but the elementary school enrollment for this school year "were a little under" what was expected.

"We counted children, we counted houses the children came from," he said of the projections for future growth. "This plan is a little bit of a Band-Aid. We want to come back and do a boundary study and make changes when the new school opens."

New students would be included in the boundary change like current students, he said.

"There are three families that currently live in Laurel Hill that are moving to a new home in the community," said Christine Morin, a Fairfax Station resident and education committee chair for the South County Federation. "Would they continue to go to Silverbrook, or would they be moved to Halley?"

Chevalier said that some situations, such as that one, would be looked at "on an individual basis."

When he said a full boundary study could not be completed in time for the 2006-2007 school year because they typically take four or five months, Chevalier's explanation was drowned out with a chorus of "why?" from the parents.

"There are issues of impact on the sending school and the receiving school," he said. "It does not appear we'd be able to accomplish a full boundary study by September."

IN THE MEANTIME, family functions have been all but eliminated at Silverbrook because "there isn't enough room to have all the families together in one room," said Laura Haas-Connolly.

Parents in the Lorton area have "lost faith" in the ability of the staff to come up with adequate projection numbers, said Chris Bachman. "We need to put everything on the table in regards to these schools. We need to make sure whatever solution is achieved is fair and reasonable," she said, in order to make the changes worth implementing.

With the inaccurate projections at the South County Secondary School, Chevalier said, "I'm guilty, I confess," which earned him some applause and laughs from the parents. "If we could get the Laurel Hill school under construction today, we'd do that. We set attendance areas knowing there will be growth."

He later said he'd welcome "anyone who wants to" to come into his office and use the statistics involved in determining enrollment projections. "If you can come up with better numbers, we'd be happy to use them" instead of their own, Chevalier said.

Troy Barbour asked if the GT center was being kept at Lorton Station for political reasons.

"You said yourself the staff moves with the students. If you move the GT center to Halley, you'll move the staff too," he said. "I don't think it has to do with the difficulty of moving the center. I think it has more to do with the prestige of having the center at Lorton Station and the socio-economic statistics that come with it. Is pulling high scoring kids out of the school really going to have an impact?"

Moving the center would also have an impact on the PTA at Lorton Station, said Maria Lumb. "Most of the parents involved in the school are the GT parents. There are students that need good role models at the school. Kids who aren't in the GT program will be affected if the center is moved," she said.