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Boundary Study: Round 2

Public hearing spillover session brings more criticism of plan for Luther Jackson GT center.

Although the previous night's meeting had brought out a few Falls Church parents who spoke in support of the proposed plan to relocate many students in the region to a new Gifted and Talented (GT) center at Luther Jackson Middle School, not one of last week on Tuesday night's speakers came to support the plan as currently written.

Richard Tontodonato, who has three school-aged children including a sixth-grader at the Mosby Woods GT center, summed up most parents' recurring complaints when he told board members, "The staff proposal perpetuates long bus rides for kids in the far north and west parts of the county. It lengthens the bus ride for Vienna's kids ... It takes Vienna's kids out of their community and puts them in a school with kids they'll never see again after their two years at Jackson."

The meetings, held Jan. 8 and 9 at Luther Jackson, were each part of a School Board public hearing regarding three school boundary studies that are being submitted to the School Board by the school system's Facilities Planning Services. The plan to relocate many GT students from Kilmer and Frost middle schools — and a few from Glasgow Middle School — to the proposed Luther Jackson GT center may not have brought out as many speakers as the concurrent boundary study involving three secondary schools in the south of the county, but it has inspired a more unified opposition.

LONG BUS RIDES have been a major concern among parents, particularly because students who are already being bused from the Great Falls area to Kilmer would now be bused even further to Luther Jackson.

"Out-of-boundary transportation is a significant expense to the county and a source of aggravation to parents," William Brennan, a transportation economist, told the School Board. "Many of us have children whose bus rides to the middle school GT centers are over an hour long." Brennan noted that the proposal would have some students from northwest of Vienna bused 12 miles to Luther Jackson, although the GT center at Hughes Middle School is only about five miles from their homes.

Laurie Baker, Kilmer's Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) president, noted that the school's first three bus routes already hit their first stops at 5:56, 6 and 6:02 a.m. "That's one and one-half hours before school starts in the morning," she said, adding that such a commute is a "tremendous load" to put on students. As a solution, she and other parents cited an alternate proposal drawn up by the Louise Archer Elementary PTA, which suggested opening a GT center at Cooper Middle School in McLean.

"The wave of GT students heading toward Kilmer and Frost has been obvious since 2003, when they entered the GT center program as third-graders," said Tontadonato, noting that the school system had had "ample time" to consider accommodating these students at existing GT centers or opening one at Cooper. "The alternative of a center at Cooper was proposed as far back as 1998," he said. "Instead, the school system built an addition at Jackson, where it was least needed."

PARENTS WERE ALSO concerned about their children being thrust into a different school pyramid for two years. Peggy Pridemore, who has a fifth-grade daughter at Louise Archer, noted that many GT students already had to make the transition to a new set of classmates in the third grade and said she does not want to see them have to go through such a change again in seventh grade. She said she lives close enough to Thoreau Middle School for her child to walk there, "but we would gladly take Kilmer to keep our daughter with her friends."

"We need to adopt the Louise Archer proposal for the express purpose of keeping children in their community," said Vienna parent Carey Sienicki.

"After four years in a start-up, out-of-our-pyramid GT elementary school in Fairfax [Mosby Woods Elementary], our son may be assigned to a start-up, out-of-our-pyramid middle school in Falls Church when he starts seventh grade," said Kathy Underhill, noting that her son would eventually be a virtual stranger at James Madison High School, in his own community. She joined other parents in worrying that a first-year GT center "does not have the systems and resources in place from year one."

Underhill said she thought the GT students from Mosby Woods may already lag behind other GT students and added that she thought the schools should compare their test scores to find out if this were true. Regardless, she said, she thought the students who had already been relocated to Mosby Woods "should have the option of being exempted from any new changes."

Brennan seconded her concern about a start-up GT center's effectiveness. "There will always be some growing pains as a new team comes together," he said, adding, "It is unfair to ask the rising seventh-graders from the Mosby Woods GT center ... to act as trail-blazers again."

"Based on the difficulties endured by the kids who have served the past three and a half years as charter members of the Mosby Woods GT center, I seriously doubt that you can establish a stellar GT center at Jackson in the short time remaining before the start of the 2007 school year," said Tontodonato.

SIENICKI POINTED OUT that housing developments planned for Merrifield might bring enough students to the area to enable Luther Jackson to support a GT center on its own in the future. "Vienna students shouldn't be a temporary fix for what will eventually be an overcrowded school," she said.

Vivian Lukas, whose daughter is in the fourth grade in the Sunrise Valley Elementary GT center, had totalled up the projected enrollment numbers distributed at an earlier meeting regarding the boundary study. She noted that the total capacity for the five existing middle school GT centers in the area — Frost, Kilmer, Glasgow, Hughes and Longfellow — was about 300 students greater than the total number of students anticipated for both the coming school year and the 2011-12 school year. "Therefore, we have a constant population within the current total capacity of these five schools," she said, adding that the idea of adding a center at Luther Jackson seemed premature and might better wait until it could be evaluated as part of a larger boundary study.

"At the public meetings, staff suggested whatever under-capacity exists at Hughes or at Lake Braddock [Secondary School] is being reserved for future boundary studies," said Brennan, emphasizing that he would like to see all of the changes studied and implemented at one time. "It feels like we're playing a game of Whack-a-Mole," he said.

Underhill reiterated some parents' suspicion that the GT center at Luther Jackson is intended to compensate for the school's lower test scores. New GT centers "should not be put into schools that are already struggling with test-score and safety problems," she said. "This is unfair to the GT kids, but even more unfair to the other kids at those schools, who deserve to have those problems dealt with and not masked over by importing a bunch of GT kids."

Brennan, on the other hand, suggested that a GT center ought to be opened at every school capable of supporting such a center.

The School Board will discuss the pending boundary studies at a work session Jan. 22, beginning at 1:30 p.m. in the Gatehouse Administrative Center, 8115 Gatehouse Circle, Room 1600. The board is scheduled to vote on the proposals at a meeting on Feb. 22.