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Accommodating the Gifted and Talented

Proposal to open GT center at Luther Jackson creates heated discussion.

A community meeting about alleviating overcrowding at local middle schools gave rise to overcrowding in the cafeteria of Kilmer Middle School last Thursday evening. The assembled crowd, which filled all available seating and lined the walls two people deep, was of parents of GT students from all over northern Fairfax County, and most of them were not happy.

"The purpose of tonight's meeting is to examine a proposal to open a new GT center at Luther Jackson Middle School," coordinator of the Office of Facilities Planning for Fairfax County schools John Bertocchi told the crowd. The plan is being proposed in order to deal with overcrowding at Kilmer and Frost middle schools, which neighbor Luther Jackson, he said.

"We certainly realize there is a lot of emotion and concern on the part of parents and students" during school boundary studies, said Ann Monday, assistant superintendent for instructional studies, assuring parents, "We don't take these things lightly."

She reminded that she began teaching at Kilmer in 1973. The GT center at Kilmer, she said, opened to alleviate crowding at Longfellow Middle School, and parents were not entirely pleased with that change. "This center at Kilmer has grown to be a very positive center, and we understand that you'll be sad to leave it," said Monday.

However, she said, Kilmer is already about 200 students over capacity and "cannot handle any more growth." Crowding at Frost is less severe, she said, but the population there is expected to grow as well. Frost is projected to be about 150 students over capacity next year.

Meanwhile, Luther Jackson's enrollment is far less than its capacity, due in large part to an addition to the school that opened this year.

"Any study we propose tonight will begin with phasing," Bertocchi reminded parents. "So if your child is at a GT center now, they will be able to finish at that center."

He enumerated the elementary schools whose GT students would be affected by the change [see sidebar, "The Schools Affected"] and went over projected enrollment numbers.

WHEN THE FLOOR was opened for questions, dozens of hands went up.

Asked whether GT teachers from Kilmer would be transferred to Jackson, Monday said Kilmer would go into "de-staff mode" according to teacher seniority. Those teachers, she said, would likely be absorbed by Jackson's GT center.

"Why is there only one study to consider?" asked Melissa Hecht of Vienna, voicing a question that would be repeated many times that night. She pointed out that some GT students at Kilmer were already being bused in from McLean and Great Falls, and she asked why those students could not be relocated to a school closer to their homes.

Bertocchi said those students were in the minority, and the study aims to reduce overall transportation difficulties by mainly relocating students who are not far from Luther Jackson. He said officials looked at the two closest middle schools to Jackson and found that they could even out enrollment by adjusting boundaries for only those two.

Asked why the study focused only on GT students, Monday said the GT center at Kilmer is growing faster than the rest of the school.

Bertocchi later said enrollment at the center had grown from 185 students in 2000, when it first had students in both grades, to 407 students this year.

Also, said Monday, considering all students in all schools could result in a domino effect, with boundaries being redrawn all over the area.

One mother asked if any of the projected numbers examined what might happen if potential GT students opted to take honors courses at their home middle schools rather than attending the new center. She noted that most of those students would then go to Thoreau Middle School.

No, said Bertocchi, those numbers had not been projected.

AN INFORMAL POLL, primarily of Louise Archer parents, taken by local parents, showed that a slight majority of those who responded and had a child who would have a choice of attending either the new center at Luther Jackson or honors courses at Thoreau planned to send their children to Thoreau.

"What we have been charged with for this study is opening a GT center at Luther Jackson," said Bertocchi, suggesting that if parents wanted to see another option explored, they should contact their School Board representatives.

"We asked our board members," said Oakton parent Todd Wilkins. "The intermediate schools around Reston are under capacity, and those kids are being bused in here," said Wilkins, noting that this had been brought to the attention of the School Board. "Maybe the only solution is to vote in new board members," he said.

The remark was met with applause.

Several parents asked why the addition to Luther Jackson had been built in the first place. Director of Facilities Planning Services Gary Chevalier took the podium to field the question.

"School renovations don't get done overnight," he said. At the time that the addition to Jackson was being planned, he said, the county's school population was growing by 1,000 to 2,000 students per year. "That changed overnight," said Chevalier, noting that Jackson's population was higher then than it is today. He said the addition had been built not only to accommodate growth at Jackson but also to relieve crowding at other schools such as Kilmer.

Bertocchi later said planning for the addition began in 2000, and it was approved by voters in the 2003 bond referendum.

AFTER AN HOUR OR SO in the cafeteria, parents were broken into several small groups in various classrooms and were asked to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the study in question.

In Room B101, parents were having a hard time coming up with advantages. At least three had said there were none. Most agreed that it was advantageous to reduce overcrowding at Kilmer and Frost and make use of the space at Jackson, although they may not have been pleased with how this was being accomplished.

"Under advantages, I'd like to put that it highlights the county's huge problem of boundary issues countywide," Laura Walter of Falls Church told schools administrator Leanne Kannapoll, who was busily recording remarks on sheets of newsprint. Walter did note that she had had three children attend Luther Jackson and thought it was "a great school."

Asked to name the disadvantages of the study, parents had some difficulty taking turns.

"It destroys the sense of community, which is a big reason a lot of us live in Vienna," said Betsy Boswell. "They didn't look at all at the high school part of the pyramid," she added. Luther Jackson feeds primarily into Falls Church High School, while the Vienna students attending the GT center there would go to Madison, Oakton or Marshall high schools.

Many parents were concerned about the effects of repeatedly relocating students. "My kids would go to Jackson, then go back to Madison," said Nicole Park of Oakton. Her children currently attend Sunrise Valley Elementary School in Reston, while most of their neighbors attend Flint Hill, she said. "I know my son. He is not shy, but he is kind of reserved, and he's not happy about this," said Park.

"You're putting kids in a situation where they have to adapt every couple of years to a new set of kids," said Boswell. "You're ignoring the well-being of the kids," she said, noting that junior high school marks a critical time in a child's development.

Guillaume Hensel of Vienna said he has a friend whose son already catches a bus at 5:58 a.m. to be taken from the Colvin Run Elementary area to the Kilmer GT center each morning. "You're going to make the busing longer and more onerous," he said. "We're the lucky ones. We're close by."

Martin Cohen of Vienna pointed out that these buses would soon be traveling through traffic generated by the MetroWest development and that traffic around Luther Jackson is already heavy. "It just exacerbates the transportation problems," said Cohen. "Was any traffic analysis done?"

A major problem with the study, he said, was that only one option was being examined. "I can't imagine a board where they say, 'There's this problem we need to fix, and there's only one option — that or the atom bomb of having to redistrict every school in the county,'" he said.

Later, as parents milled about in the hallways, looking at remarks that had been submitted by each other's groups, Sita Boa of Fairfax voiced a suspicion that was on many parents' tongues: "They're using our kids as a Band-Aid to raise the performance at Luther Jackson," she said.

Luther Jackson generally has lower test scores than the schools from which the proposed GT center would pull, and the school did not meet its Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements last year. "If they have to travel for one hour to go to Luther Jackson, and it doesn't perform well, then it is worthless," said Boa. "Why not add a trailer at Frost?" she asked. "There's a lot of trailers there."

Reached later for comment, Bertocchi said the theory that the decision was based on test scores is false. "We are here to reduce overcrowding and make use of space we have at Luther Jackson," he said.

Asked why officials had chosen to relocate GT students, many of whom would be relocated from schools that are already outside their area, Bertocchi said that if they had instead chosen to relocate students from within the schools' boundaries, "you would be moving kids out of their base schools to make room for GT kids from out of the area. That's not real popular, either."

He said staff and the School Board will be reviewing the comments that were gathered at the meeting and may "tweak" the proposed plan before the next community meeting.

Comments recorded at the Oct. 12 meeting are being posted at www.fcps.edu. Further comments can be e-mailed to boundaries@fcps.edu or mailed to Office of Facilities Planning Services, City Square Building, Suite 300, 10640 Page Avenue, Fairfax, VA 22030.

The next community meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 9 at Luther Jackson. Officials will present the updated plan, and parents will have another chance to give feedback.