For the better part of the past year, the Fairfax County School Board has been hearing the lamentations of parents of South County Secondary school students, concerned about their children attending a school 500 students over capacity.
What many Lorton-area residents might not know is, just down Silverbrook and Lorton Road, are two schools in equally close quarters.
Both Lorton Station and Silverbrook elementary schools are several hundred students over capacity. Enrollment at Lorton Station was projected to be 1,071 students in a school built to house 653 students and Silverbrook has an enrollment of 1,227 students but a capacity for only 960 students.
Unlike South County, some relief is in sight, as funding for the planning of a new school, currently called Laurel Hill Elementary, is provided in the current Capital Improvement Program (CIP) and is slated to open for the 2009-10 school year.
The school is expected to include 36 rooms with a capacity for 950 students and cost $25 million to build, according to the current CIP.
“We have to get through next two years and then we should have new elementary school open in 2009,” said Gary Chevalier, chair of the Office of Facilities Planning for Fairfax County Schools. “That’ll change everything.”
The older school, Silverbrook, was opened in 1988 for a community that was just starting to fill with families, Chevalier said. It continues to draw the greatest number of students from the Crosspointe and South Run Oaks areas, including parts of Barrington.
As the Laurel Hill neighborhood has been built and inhabited over the past few years, Lorton Station Elementary has taken on the new population, filling that school just a few years after it opened, in 2004.
Chevalier said that sort of population is to be expected in newer communities.
“There’s a tremendous amount of new homes that have come into area,” he said. “For most part, it’s the type of development that gives you children. You build some nice, single-family, detached homes, that’ll generate more kids.”
The influx of population tends to slow after a few years, meaning the overcrowded schools of today will eventually see their enrollment numbers stabilize and decrease, much like at nearby Cherry Run and Sangster elementary schools to the north, Chevalier said.
By including a full-day kindergarten program along with a gifted/talented center and a large number of special education students, Lorton Station has a smaller supply of classrooms to educate the students it currently has, Chevalier said.
“It’s overcrowded in the sense of finding teaching stations because you’re not putting 25 kids in each class, maybe only 20,” he said. The core facilities are designed to accommodate between 950 and 1,000 students in areas like the cafeteria, band rooms and library.
Silverbrook, on the other hand, doesn’t have a full-day kindergarten program or a center, so the strains there are in the classrooms and in the common areas.
“Silverbrook was built at 32 classroom school and we’ve added a modular,” he said. “We’re seeing places in the building where the core is beginning to be stressed.”
Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer for FCPS, agreed with Chevalier, calling Silverbrook “substantively overcrowded.”
“Silverbrook is just busting at the seams,” he said. “We put additional trailers and modulars there, we’ve done everything we can from facilities perspective as well as we can make it. We can’t do anything more.”
Lynn Swogger has seen the population grow at Silverbrook for years, as all three of her children went there.
"My youngest son is in a trailer behind the modular," she said. "Lunches start at 10:10 a.m. because there's so many kids."
As PTA president there, Swogger said her group can't offer as many programs as they'd like because any after-school activity has to be spread out over several days, driving up costs.
"We've tried to be quiet about it because we're still hoping for the middle school," she said. "We've put complaining about Silverbrook on the back burner for years because we we were focused on getting South County built and keeping our community together."
Still, Swogger said it's hard to believe the school has over 1,200 students when visiting her son during the school day.
"Everything is done so nicely," she said. "I wouldn't want my kids to go anywhere else."
Last spring, in an attempt to provide some immediate relief to both schools before Laurel Hill Elementary is built, Chevalier and the School Board agreed to redirect any newly built homes or new students moving into either Lorton Station or Silverbrook’s existing boundaries to Halley Elementary. That school has a capacity of 719 students but a current enrollment of only 700 students.
Chevalier and Tistadt both agree that the principals at Silverbrook and Lorton Station have worked minor miracles keeping their schools successful.
“A good principal makes all the difference in the world in a situation like this,” Tistadt said. “I have a great deal of respect for [Silverbrook principal] Bob Holderbaum.”
School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) said the key to making the best of a less-than-ideal situation is managing the use of the building to the students’ advantage.
“It’s like a symphony of sorts and both principals [including Susan Garrison at Lorton Station] have done well conducting the symphony they have.”
Storck said he’s not too concerned about student achievement at either school because both are staffed with “excellent teachers and both programs are very strong.”
Drawing a comparison with the on-going boundary study to alleviate overcrowding at South County, concerns about crowded schools are more often voiced by parents than students.
“The kids can adapt to their surroundings,” he said.
WHEN THE TIME comes to draw the boundary lines for Laurel Hill elementary, which has been moved up in the CIP a total of three times in the past few years, Chevalier said he expects Lorton Station, Halley and Silverbrook to be involved, but doesn’t limit the study to those schools.
“Gunston [Elementary, in Mason Neck] will be part of it, I expect,” he said, adding that Newington Forest, on the border between Springfield and Lorton, might be considered as well. “I think the new school will relieve the crowding at Silverbrook and Lorton Station, and it’s worth looking at Gunston. Between the new school capacity plus the extra space at Halley, we should be in good shape.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t provide any assistance for the 2007-08 school year.
“We’ve got the site and the planning money for school, assuming the School Board approves CIP,” he said. “I anticipate we’re looking for a bond referendum this fall, which will most likely and that will give us construction money for that school to open in 2009. The light is at the end of the tunnel and it’s getting brighter all the time.”