They've Only Just Begun

They've Only Just Begun

Concerned parents from three schools pack South County Secondary to discuss boundary study.

Gary Chevalier may have been joking, but he certainly got the mood right.

Early on in Tuesday night’s first town hall meeting regarding the South County, Lake Braddock and Hayfield Secondary Schools boundary study, Chevalier joked that the crowded auditorium gave new meaning to the phrase Stallion Stampede.

Parents from all three schools filled the auditorium at South County Secondary Tuesday night, Oct. 10, for the first of two meetings to discuss possible outcomes to the boundary study that could impact all three schools starting next September.

Beginning with a slide entitled “How We Got Here,” Chevalier, the chair of the Office of Facilities Planning with Fairfax County Public Schools, had no choice but to try to make a joke of the situation.

“How we got here,” he said. Before he could utter another word, pockets of laughter broke out in the auditorium. “Well, I guess that’s no surprise to anyone.”

WHEN SOUTH COUNTY Secondary opened in September 2005, parents warned School Board members the 2,500 student capacity school would soon be over capacity. One year and five modular classrooms later, the school has a current enrollment of just over 3,000 students.

To address South County’s overcrowding, three proposals were introduced during Tuesday’s meeting, all suggesting to take advantage of extra capacity at both Lake Braddock and Hayfield.

The first proposal, Chevalier explained, would remove all middle school students from South County and leave it a high school as was originally proposed. Students currently enrolled in Newington Forest, along with those at Silverbrook and Halley Elementaries who live closest to Hooes Road would be moved to Lake Braddock, while those students in Lorton Station and parts of Laurel Hill would move to Hayfield.

When Chevalier added the hope of building Laurel Hill Elementary a few years ahead of its current 2009 opening date, he received shouts from parents who were more interested in the creation of a South County Middle School, which many parents believe would resolve the capacity problems without changing the boundary of any school.

Any changes that the School Board approves would begin next fall, with rising seventh grade students, Chevalier said.

OPTION TWO would leave South County as a secondary school, but would require students from both high school and middle school levels to be moved out to Hayfield or Lake Braddock.

Students at Newington Forest would be bused to Lake Braddock, while students from part of Lorton Station north of Lorton Road, along with those who live on Pohick Road, in Williamsburg Square and Mason Neck would be returned to Hayfield.

Option Two-B, as it was called, would send students from South Run Oaks, Barrington and Timber Ridge to Lake Braddock, while students from Lorton Station and parts of Gunston to Hayfield.

Chevalier admitted that part of the Crosspointe community would also be included in the group moved to Lake Braddock, which earned him another round of jeers.

Initial reaction from parents was less than supportive, many shouting out questions or angry statements while Chevalier outlined the possible changes.

One parent pointed out that one of the biggest reasons used in supporting the construction of South County was the desire to keep children on school buses for as short a time possible. If any of these boundaries were approved, the parent continued, their children would once again spend several hours each week on buses.

“Look at your neighbors. The children at Lake Braddock are bused. Students at Hayfield are bused,” Chevalier said. “Yes, children would be traveling farther to Lake Braddock or Hayfield than to South County, but no further than any of your neighbors.”

One suggestion that gathered a lot of attention was initially voiced at the meeting by Newington Forest resident Neal McBride, who suggested the School Board vote to make no changes to the boundary this year but rather wait until the full impact of BRAC and changes to the central Springfield area are known.

“Why not wait,” McBride asked. “We’ll have to wait a few years to know the impact of all these things. It makes more sense to wait until we do.”

Before the meeting began, pockets of orange and purple T-shirts started to form in different parts of the auditorium.

A group of Hayfield parents, in orange garb, sat together, looking over a list of talking points.

“We want Hayfield to stay under capacity now and in the future,” said Marie Sudik, a Hayfield parent. “We prefer the idea of a six year secondary school.”

In the past year, since about 30 percent of Hayfield’s population left to attend South County, things have been “wonderful,” Sudik said. “Everybody’s happy, it’s not crowded at all.”

Within the secondary school system, students arrive together in seventh grade and stay together through graduation, she said, allowing them to form stronger bonds with their classmates.

“Hayfield was designed to have a separate middle school and high school section,” said Hayfield mother Christine Page. “All the shared rooms, like the gym and the cafeteria, are in the central area, but the students are separated at all times.”

Ed Joseph said he was glad Hayfield parents were given the chance to discuss their concerns.

“Initially, not much thought was given to Hayfield and how the change would affect our school. It was all about let’s design South County,” Joseph said. “No one gave much thought to what was left behind.”

A FEW ROWS OVER, a group of Lake Braddock representatives, wearing their purple shirts, told a similar story.

“Our biggest concern is that the county predicted our population would start to decline, but we added 112 students already this year over their projections,” said Susan Pehrsson, boundary committee chair for the Lake Braddock PTA. “I believe, because of BRAC, military families will talk to each other and move into Lake Braddock, Robinson (Secondary) and West Springfield (High). I don’t think there’ll be a drop in population at all.”

With a multi-million dollar renovation project just about a year from completion, Lake Braddock will soon be rid of the trailers that have been a fixture at the school for over 20 years, Pehrsson said.

“We’re ready for the trailers to move,” she said. “We don’t want our student population to be overcrowded. If they can bring in students without overcrowding us, we would welcome them.”

After the initial information session was over and parents spilled out into breakout groups to discuss the three options, School Board member Brad Center (Lee) said his main objective in the process is to ensure that none of the schools become overcrowded.

“Am I comfortable with the 90.2 percent capacity at Hayfield in Option One? Yes,” Center said. “But I’m not comfortable with the 100.2 percent capacity at South County in Option Two.”

The possibility of not making any changes to any of the current boundaries is still an option, he said.

Center said he expected parents to make suggestions while in the breakout groups that could change the boundary study options. The real challenge between now and February, when a decision is expected, is keeping emotions under control.

“If that had been a room full of high school students, there would have been disciplinary action taken,” Center said, referring to parents who yelled at Chevalier, interrupted his presentation and were involved in name calling.

“That is not something I’d accept at a public meeting. Some people let their emotions overrun them, but for the most part, I think it went rather well,” he said.