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Votes

Oh the Boundaries, They Are a Changin'

School Board approves proposed GT center boundary changes in McLean.

Prior to 2007, the words "GT boundary change" had never come up in the life of McLean resident Lisa Peters. But in late January, everything changed when Peters received a letter informing her that her 7-year-old daughter — a second grade student at Kent Gardens Elementary School — had been selected for the Gifted and Talented (GT) screening pool.

"The people who knew about the proposed boundary changes were people who already had kids in GT," said Peters. "For people who have younger kids, it didn't catch our attention — half of us didn't even know that it even involved Kent Gardens at all."

After finding out that her daughter would be in the GT screening pool, Peters began to research the GT center program and found herself in the midst of a heated, long-running debate between McLean parents and the Fairfax County Public School system.

For the better part of the last year, the county School Board has grappled with how to best alleviate overcrowding at Haycock Elementary School. Since Haycock's GT center is the primary source of its overcrowding problem, Fairfax County Public Schools staff drafted a proposed boundary change plan that called for GT students from Kent Gardens Elementary School and Franklin Sherman Elementary School to enroll at the GT center at Churchill Road Elementary School, rather than the GT center at Haycock.

Kent Gardens and Chesterbrook Elementary School are the two largest feeders into the Haycock GT center, but since Chesterbrook had submitted an application to have its own school-based GT curriculum program, it was not included in the boundary change proposal. FCPS staff said that the likely approval of a Chesterbrook school-based GT curriculum would presumably decrease the number of Chesterbrook students opting to enroll in the GT center at Haycock — and thereby alleviate some of Chesterbrook's impact on Haycock.

When Churchill Road parents were made aware of the GT boundary change proposal at a community meeting in the fall of 2006, many immediately expressed concern about the strain that such a potentially large influx of students would have on their school's resources and facilities. After voicing these concerns at public meetings and via private correspondence with Dranesville District School Board representative Jane Strauss, the Churchill Road parents were able to convince the Fairfax County Public Schools staff to modify their proposal.

IN JANUARY OF 2007, a new GT center boundary change proposal was submitted — one that satisfied Churchill Road parents, but did nothing to address the unhappiness expressed by a growing number of disgruntled Kent Gardens parents who had only recently learned of the proposed boundary changes. The revised proposal mandated that Kent Gardens students choosing to participate in the GT center program enroll in the GT center at Churchill Road. However, Franklin Sherman GT students would continue to feed into the GT center at Haycock.

The new proposal infuriated a number of parents at Kent Gardens for a variety of reasons. Many felt that the proposed boundaries were illogical from a geographical standpoint, since Franklin Sherman is closer to Churchill Road, whereas Kent Gardens is closer to Haycock.

"It is outrageous that Kent Gardens GT students could be subjected to a twice-daily, 45-70-minute bus ride, when Franklin Sherman Elementary School is just up the road from Churchill," said Sherry Gernhofer, the mother of a Kent Gardens GT student enrolled in the Haycock GT center.

Kent Gardens parent Mary Pat Rendstrom said she felt that the proposed boundary changes "didn't match the sniff test, and didn't seem to make sense."

"I question whether it makes sense for Kent Gardens students to be crossing through Franklin Sherman boundaries to get to Churchill Road," said Rendstrom. "It would have made much more sense to keep the children aligned with the schools."

Since late December, outraged Kent Gardens parents have fought the proposed GT boundary changes by speaking at scheduled public hearings and sending correspondence to their elected Strauss. However, many of these parents were frustrated by the small window of opportunity provided to them for expressing their concerns.

"From what I've heard, the Chesterbrook parents were made very aware by their school that there were going to be boundary changes, and I can only guess that the same thing happened at Franklin Sherman," said Peters. "Kent Gardens didn't hear about it until January ... so a lot of us really felt like we got caught without any notice."

ON THURSDAY FEB. 22 — to the dismay of numerous Kent Gardens parents — the School Board voted to approve the most recent version of the proposed Gifted and Talented center boundary changes in the McLean area. Strauss said that while she is well aware that many Kent Gardens parents are unhappy with the decision, she believes it was the best overall solution.

"The two largest feeders into Haycock — Chesterbrook and Kent Gardens — will gradually move out of Haycock, and then the School Board will re-evaluate the changes over the school year, and may still consider additional boundary changes," said Strauss. "If we consider additional boundary changes, we will continue to work down the list of possible feeders, so Franklin Sherman would be next because it's the third largest feeder into Haycock."

Strauss says that while it is impossible to know exact numbers, the School Board predicts that the new GT boundary changes will result in a reduction of approximately 160 students at the Haycock GT center.

"At least after the first year we will get some sense of the impact, and if we have to go in and re-direct schools, we will," said Strauss.

Kent Gardens was also designated as the new Churchill Road feeder over Franklin Sherman because the Kent Gardens French Immersion program precludes the school from ever applying for its own school-based GT curriculum program. With no possibility of ever having this option on the table, the FCPS staff and School Board felt that Kent Gardens needed to feed an uncrowded GT center such as the one at Churchill Road. In addition, Franklin Sherman Elementary has expressed interest in applying for its own school-based GT curriculum, which could also potentially lessen the number of GT students that it sends to Haycock.

In response to protests about the illogical geography of the new boundary lines, Strauss noted that the changes were based on a multitude of factors — not geographical location alone. One such factor was the size of each school's student body.

"Kent Gardens is twice the size of Franklin Sherman, which is why they tend to identify slightly more GT center children," said Strauss. "If you're going to order the feeder schools by the number of students they send to Haycock, and the number of students they will send there over time, then Kent Gardens is the bigger feeder."

However, parents from Kent Gardens say that such logic is flawed and cite the Fairfax County Public Schools Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) as evidence.

"The CIP projects Franklin Sherman growing and Kent Gardens declining, so if you are truly looking for a steady feeder, or even an increasing feeder, the numbers say that in 2012, Kent Gardens will be at a lower population than it is at now," said Peters. "Those are the numbers and that's their CIP."

Regardless of the arguments, the proposed boundary changes will go into effect this year, whether or not all parents approve of them. Strauss said that parents who are vehemently opposed to the new boundaries are by no means required to enroll their students in the GT center program.

"These are choice programs, and students and parents do not have to take advantage of them if they don't want to," said Strauss. "It is there if they feel like taking advantage of the program."

STRAUSS also says that complaints about needlessly long bus rides for students are somewhat exaggerated.

"The bus route between Kent Gardens and Churchill Road is about the same as the bus rides from Kent Gardens to Haycock," said Strauss.

Strauss conceded that this will obviously not be the case for all Kent Gardens families — namely those who live very close to Haycock — but that it will be generally true for the majority. According to Strauss, there will most likely be three bus routes — a 21-minute route, a 24-minute route and a 40-minute route.

"But GT programs collect children from a variety of schools, and while geography is important, the program generally will not be within walking distance," said Strauss. "That's just kind of the way it is."

Peters has begrudgingly accepted that last Thursday's approval is the School Board's final decree on the matter, but the experience has left her with an overwhelming feeling of disappointment.

"I was very disillusioned with the whole experience of trying to be heard by these elected representatives," said Peters. "It's like talking to a wall — it's like they're not even listening."

Despite her frustration, Peters is determined to stay positive and to now focus on channeling her energy into what is most important to her — her daughter's education.

"I'm excited about the opportunity for my daughter and I want to be positive about it for her sake," said Peters.