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Exploring Option One

What impact would removing middle schoolers from South County have on Lake Braddock, Hayfield Secondary schools?

Some parents reading through the possible boundary changes for South County, Lake Braddock and Hayfield Secondary Schools may not believe their eyes.

On the page that details Option One, demographics for each school are listed in terms of population and the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunches or English for Speakers of Other Language classes. In those two categories, South County shows a zero percentage for both ESOL and free and reduced lunch programs. It would appear, at first glance, that the numbers referred to the entire school.

“It’s obvious that can’t be right,” said Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent of facilities and transportation.

He gave a simple explanation for the numbers: the zeros are the right number because in Option One, no middle school students would be at South County, and the numbers on that particular page are only based on that part of the student enrollment, not the school as a whole.

“Logic would suggest that taking the middle schoolers out of South County would not change the demographics of the school because the students would be coming from the same areas as the current boundary,” Tistadt said.

However, adding students to Hayfield and Lake Braddock would slightly raise the ESOL and free and reduced lunch numbers at those schools. If Option One is approved, Hayfield would see a 0.6 percent rise in ESOL eligibility, from 33.2 percent to 33.8 percent, and a 1.3 percent increase in free and reduced lunches, from 22.9 percent to 24.6 percent. At Lake Braddock, the percentages are actually reduced in both categories, lowering from 26.8 percent to 23.4 percent for ESOL classes and dropping the number of free and reduced lunch-eligible students from 13.2 percent to 12.1 percent.

“Those numbers are still based on our five-year projection numbers,” Tistadt said.

Certain benefits come about by removing an estimated 1,150 students from South County to Lake Braddock and Hayfield, said Gary Chevalier, chair of the school system’s Office of Facilities Planning.

“This option doesn’t move anyone who has already started at South County,” Chevalier said. “We would be moving the rising seventh grade class to the other schools. This option keeps everyone together, they’ll all come back to go to high school at South County.”

IN THE BIGGER PICTURE, Chevalier said the students would go to their regular elementary schools, then go to Hayfield or Lake Braddock for middle school before returning to South County.

“If we do nothing, South County will be at about 3,200 students next year,” Chevalier said. “We can take a school that was built to accommodate 2,500 or 2,600 students and make it work with trailers and other options, but there’s no room for growth if we start with a school that’s already overcrowded.”

By removing students from South County and turning it into a high school, Chevalier said it would leave some room in case an unforeseen increase occurs in students attending the school.

Plus, taking middle schoolers out of South County is a change that would be fully in place after just two years, while the other two options would take three or more years to be phased in, he said.

However, Chevalier admitted that splitting up the middle school would create split feeders for Hayfield and Lake Braddock, a situation that does not exist at other secondary school in the county.

A total of 650 students from Newington Forest, part of the Silverbrook Elementary boundary west of Hooes Road and parts of Halley Elementary west of Hooes and Furnace Roads would be moved to Lake Braddock under Option One, Chevalier said. Close to 500 students would be added to Hayfield from anywhere east of Hooes Road, from the Laurel Hill area, Lorton Station and Mason Neck Elementary schools.

“You can expect a certain amount of error from the projections, but if each of these schools start out below capacity, there shouldn’t be any problems at any of the schools if populations increase a little,” Chevalier said.

School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) said he hasn’t formed an opinion yet over which option he’d favor for this study.

“On the pro side, it allows everyone in the existing boundary to continue to go to high school there,” said Storck, of Option One. “On the con side, you’ll be pulling students out of their local school and making them to go a secondary school for two years. The kids will have a group of friends from elementary school, another from middle school and then another from high school.”

If the recommendation from Chevalier and Tistadt’s office were presented now, Storck said he isn’t sure how he’d vote on the study.

“I have my responsibility to try to weigh the pros and cons of all options and try to figure out the best way to solve this problem,” Storck said. “I have to figure out, based on what option the staff gives us, if the other options are better, or is this the best time to even make a change? What are the consequences if we don’t do anything now."

Both Chevalier and Tistadt said they’ve been hearing feedback and suggestions from parents in the past two weeks since the first public meeting, many of which have urged them to find a way to build a middle school in South County. It is something Storck himself has been advocating since the overcrowding problem was uncovered last year.

“I truly believe we need a middle school sooner rather than later," he said. "I’ve told my fellow board members that. The consultant’s work clearly shows there’s a population for a middle school here."

Tistadt said he has a responsibility to the taxpayers of Fairfax County to spend their money wisely and not just look to one area of the county as opposed to another.

“I understand why the community feels the way the they do,” Tistadt said. “There’s a reason for their displeasure with the school system. But urging us to build a middle school now instead of looking at the options we’ve presented and trying to find what they can live with is just going to make this harder. Their preferences and input may be lost if they’re only thinking about a middle school.”

Chevalier agreed. “We appreciate all the feedback we get," he said, "but we have to go out and do this study without the option of building a middle school right now.”