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Parents Unhappy With GT Proposal

Proposed middle school GT center boundary changes anger parents.

Change is rarely easy — but during those awkward, unsure pre-teen years that comprise the middle school experience, one might argue that change is not only difficult, but detrimental. Barbara Franklin thinks so, and she is not alone.

"Those years are so volatile and unpredictable, and studies show that the more kids have a community, the better they'll do," said Franklin, who is vice president of the Louise Archer Elementary School Parent Teacher Association (PTA).

Her belief in this philosophy is the driving force behind her disapproval of the Fairfax County Public School system's recent proposal for middle school Gifted and Talented (GT) center boundary changes. Members of the Louise Archer PTA first heard whispers of boundary changes at their August board meeting. At a public community meeting on Oct. 12, they were presented with an actual proposal — one that they felt left a lot to be desired.

The need for boundary changes arose from the current overcrowding problem at Kilmer Middle School's GT center and Robert Frost Middle School's GT center. According to county data, Kilmer currently has a capacity for 850 students. The school's projected 2007-2008 combined enrollment of general education students and GT students is 1,068. That number shoots up to 1,127 for the 2011-2012 school year. Frost Middle School has capacity for 925 students. Its combined general education and GT enrollment is projected to be 1,079 in the 2007-2008 school year, and 1,071 in the 2011-2012 school year.

"The GT center at Kilmer is one of the biggest that we have," said John Bertocchi, a coordinator in the Facilities Planning Services Department for Fairfax County Schools.

IN THE COUNTY'S boundary change proposal, a new GT center would be created at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church. Boundary lines would be re-drawn, and GT students would be more evenly dispersed among the various middle school GT centers at Longfellow, Kilmer, Glasgow, Frost, Luther Jackson and Hughes. Luther Jackson Middle School was chosen to be the site of a new center because of its central location.

"If you look, you can see that Jackson really is right in the middle of the Kilmer and Frost service areas," said Gary Chevalier, director of Facilities Planning Services for Fairfax County schools.

The Oct. 12 community meeting that first introduced the proposed GT center boundary changes to the public ignited the ire of the Louise Archer PTA, and numerous other parents. A follow-up community meeting was held at Luther Jackson Middle School last Thursday, Nov. 9. Those who attended were provided with a brief overview of the boundary change proposal, and then had the option to participate in small group comment sessions led by trained facilitators. In addition, question-and-answer sessions on the GT program and on Fairfax County School facilities were offered in the library and the cafeteria, and parents were invited to take a tour of the Luther Jackson building.

FOLLOWING the Oct. 12 meeting, a group of concerned Louise Archer parents formed a focus group and created their own GT center boundary change proposal, which was then submitted to the Fairfax County Office of Facilities and Planning Services.

According to the Louise Archer plan, students in the McLean and Langley High School pyramids would go to the GT center at Longfellow Middle School, and students in the Marshall and Madison High School pyramids would go to the GT center at Kilmer, and so on and so forth.

"With our plan, we would keep kids on the same path and in the same neighborhoods," said Tracey Zillian, a Louise Archer PTA Board member.

Barbara Franklin said that she and the other Louise Archer parents who attended the initial Oct. 12 meeting were shocked that the county had only put together one boundary change proposal in the first place.

"It seems clear that they have already made their mind up, since we weren't given more than one option," said Franklin. "They are trying to make a Bandaid fix ... maybe they should do a complete boundary study before they focus on this — they haven't done their homework, and they don't want to."

Regarding the opinion that a GT center boundary study should come after a total enrollment boundary study, Chevalier said that the projected GT center enrollment numbers are on target, and are subsequently unaffected by other factors.

"There is no question about these facilities being overcrowded," said Chevalier. "This is enrollment that's there today ... and if you look historically at the projected numbers for the GT program, and look at the totals across the county, their estimates have been correct."

AT THE NOV. 9 meeting, attendees were told that the Louise Archer proposal would not decrease enrollment at the Longfellow GT center, and would also give Forestville and Forest Edge Elementary School students a longer commute to attend middle school GT centers outside of their high school pyramids

"We invite alternatives — that's what this process is all about," said Chevalier. "But alternatives have to do more than just move somebody else. We have to do what is in the best interest of all Fairfax County Public School students ... and alternatives always tend to say move them, don't move me."

Members of the Louise Archer focus group admitted that they had failed the students of Forestville and Forest Edge Elementary schools, but also felt that it was a minor glitch that could potentially be solved.

"We asked the county for help in fixing this, and unfortunately it was pushed under the rug," said Vienna resident and Louise Archer parent Liz DiFrancisco. "But we eliminated many of the split factors and kept the kids together, so they don't disappear for two years to Falls Church, or Great Falls, or wherever."

SOME PARENTS were pleased with the county's proposed boundary changes. Falls Church resident Helen Zubaly has a 10-year-old son in the fourth grade at Mantua Elementary School. If the county proposal is approved by the Fairfax County School Board, Zubaly's son would use the new GT center at Luther Jackson Middle School and stay close to home.

"I think it would be great to have a GT center here," said Zubaly.

Denise Pensinger, president of the Luther Jackson PTA, lives in Annandale and currently has a daughter in the seventh grade at Luther Jackson.

"This would be great for Luther parents because right now, our kids aren't getting to go to middle school with their friends either," said Pensinger.

She added that she believes more GT centers must be created to accommodate growth.

"Look at all the condos going up around here," said Pensinger. "Where are they going to go?"

DURING the Nov. 9 meeting, Vienna resident Walter Blotkamp collected signatures for a petition requesting that Fairfax County consider GT center boundary change proposals other than the one currently on the table. Blotkamp said that his son was dismayed to learn that he might have to go to the Luther Jackson GT center.

"Basically, all the kids that he grew up with, all the kids he plays sports with ... he would start to lose touch with them for two years, and seventh and eighth grade is when friendships are formed," said Blotkamp.

Jane Piness has a daughter at Louise Archer, and was one of those who signed Blotkamp's petition.

"My daughter was very upset when I told her about this because she would only know a very small handful of kids at their middle school," said Piness. "It's a hard enough time for kids as it is, and this just adds a lot more stress."

Barbara Franklin said that Louise Archer parents have a reasonable, simple goal, which she thinks the county should take into consideration.

"We want to keep our Vienna kids in Vienna schools," said Franklin. "These are critical middle school years, and we want our kids to be with the kids they've been with in elementary school, and with whom they'll go to high school."