0
Votes

Public Takes Its Turn

Middle school in South County unites parents, while boundary recommendations divide neighborhoods.

Every story, the saying goes, has two sides. In the case of the boundary study involving South County, Lake Braddock and Hayfield Secondary schools, the story has more like three sides, maybe even four.

There are the Mason Neck residents, grateful to remain in the South County attendance area instead of looking to a long commute to Hayfield.

The Silverbrook community, once threatened to be split apart and sent to Hayfield or Lake Braddock, is now safely resting in South County's sights.

And then there are the residents of Lorton Station and Lorton Valley, currently on the chopping block if the School Board adopts the changes recommended to them by the Facilities Planning staff last month.

Over two nights of public hearings, nearly 160 residents signed up to speak on either the South County boundary or one that proposes creating a new Gifted/Talented center at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church. Parents and students alike stepped up to the podium to plead their case, asking the School Board to consider their best interests before making their decision on Thursday, Feb. 22.

Only a handful of speakers from Lorton Station and Lorton Valley signed up to speak, ironic considering if the proposed recommendation is passed, their children will be the ones relocated from South County to Hayfield.

"This recommendation flies in the face of the School Board's goal of maintaining socio-economic demographics as much as possible in each school," said Kacie Greenwood-Ekman, a Lorton Station resident. "This recommendation would increase the number of children eligible for free and reduced lunch and the number of ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) students at Hayfield, making South County even more affluent."

MOVING LORTON STATION children, many of whom live on the eastern side of Interstate 95, would be "a stake in the heart of this new community," Greenwood-Ekman said. "Some of our more affluent families are already looking to move to the other side of 95 so their children will be allowed the privilege of attending South County."

Lorton Station resident Mary Cummings told the School Board the boundary study is "destroying friendships and relationships and is pitting neighborhood against neighborhood. It reminds me of the 1950s and '60s, when certain groups were denied access to things because of their race."

Cummings, like other Lorton Station residents, said Option 1 is the only choice, which would convert South County to a high school by sending all seventh and eighth grade students to Hayfield or Lake Braddock.

"South County was designed to be a high school, not a short term solution to the middle school problem," she said.

Greg Schuckman said he was alarmed and concerned when his daughter brought home a flier from the Lorton Station Elementary PTA announcing the public hearings Tuesday afternoon, when it was already too late to sign up to speak.

"A lot of parents just didn't know about the meeting until today," he said. "

Schuckman pointed out the irony of the Lorton situation, a place where a few decades ago inmates fought to get out.

"This is a 180-degree turn-around, now we're fighting to get in," he said. "All of us are trying to be paroled, we didn't do anything wrong."

As the mother of twin 9-year-olds, one of whom is autistic, Denise Bar said moving her children to Hayfield would drastically reduce the amount of time she'd have to volunteer at their school.

"Why are Lorton Station children the sacrificial lambs here," she asked the School Board. "We are still hurting from the last two years because we feel unwelcome and undesirable. Suggesting to send my children to school in Alexandria when we're only a mile from Lorton Station is ridiculous."

Both nights began with students approaching the podium first, facing an uncertain educational future.

"I'm a junior at South County, and I really don't think the overcrowding is that bad," said Laura York. "It helps us be more competitive. I feel like part of my community here at South County. The boundary study won't affect me, but it will affect my sister and the kids I baby-sit."

Gunston Elementary student Ellie Kyle said if she had to endure the 14-mile commute to Hayfield instead of the shorter trip to South County, she'd lose time she could spend "doing homework, practicing the flute or being with my family. Please don't move us out of our community school."

Hayfield student Angela Sudik had a different story, saying that adding hundreds of middle school students would choke hallways that are already packed during lunch time.

"If you add 100 more students, I hope we'll still be able to get through the lunch line and have time to eat," she said.

Several students said this was the second or third time they'd stood at the podium talking about South County.

"The first time I was here was seven years ago," said Madeline Bradsher. "I was here before the School Board thought we needed a high school. Please let me stay in the school we waited so long to attend."

Many parents told the School Board the only acceptable solution was to build a middle school now, instead of waiting until 2017, when it is currently listed to be built by the Capital Improvement Program (CIP).

"This is a problem that could and should have been avoided," said Elaine O'Hora. "We deserve a middle school now. South County was built as a temporary secondary school."

The influx of students at Hayfield would be just another spike in the population of a school that has been subjected to more boundary studies than most schools, said Hayfield parent Marie Sudik.

"It's not easy to provide stability to our students with a culture that changes every few years. Last time, they lost friends, teachers and after-school programs," she said. "Next year, we'll have to find new teachers and new classrooms. Maybe you think we're always the solution but we'd rather be stable that a short-term band-aid."

Other parents were grateful the recommendation, as it would provide a two-year opportunity not only to find funding for a middle school, but time to gain more information about the possible impact of BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) changes to Fort Belvoir, bringing with it 22,000 people to the area.

"South County is growing by leaps and bounds without BRAC numbers," said David Kormis. "For the past 20 years, residents here have worked as a whole for the benefit of our students ... you need to order, not ask, your staff to explore a public-private partnership to get the middle school built."

The only people who seemed fully happy with the recommendation were parents from Mason Neck and the Silverbrook Elementary School attendance area, whose children would remain at South County. But even then, some parents were hesitant to sing the School Board's praises too much.

"I can't stand up with good conscious and support Option 3," said Elizabeth Bradsher, a Silverbrook-area resident. "The scope of the study is restricted and ... leaves South County at 117 percent capacity."

"Building a middle school is the only real solution that best meets the needs of everyone and is the only solution that keeps our community together," said John Pionzio, a Mason Neck resident.

Another Mason Neck resident, Keith Salisbury, pointed out that while Lorton Station and Lorton Valley might be closer to South County, "everyone's closer to Hayfield than we are. This community deserves a middle school and the chance to go to their community high school."