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Choosing Lesser Evils

School Board wrestles with GT boundary questions.

About halfway through the discussion at Monday's School Board work session, Hunter Mill District Representative Stu Gibson summed up what seemed to be the board's prevailing sentiment: "I guess I'm concerned because I don't see any good option," he told Gary Chevalier, director of the school system's Office of Facilities Planning Services.

The school staff proposal to open a center for Gifted and Talented (GT) students at Luther Jackson Middle School in order to alleviate overcrowding at Frost and, especially, Kilmer middle schools raised many questions but received little direct opposition or support from School Board members.

If no changes are made, Kilmer is projected to remain about 200 students over capacity next year, while Luther Jackson would be about 300 students under capacity. About 400 of Kilmer's approximately 1,060 students attend the school's GT center. Vienna parents have expressed a desire to keep their GT students in their community at Kilmer, rather than having them transferred to Luther Jackson, and have been distressed by the possibility of longer bus rides for students.

During the work session, Providence District Representative Phil Niedzielski-Eichner asked staff to address what have come to be called the "Archer Proposals." Members of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) at Louise Archer Elementary have created two alternatives to the staff's plan. Under the current plan, students currently attending the GT center at Louise Archer would be split between Kilmer and Luther Jackson if they continue with GT classes in middle school.

THE FIRST PROPOSAL from Louise Archer parents would alleviate crowding at Kilmer by having GT students currently bused to Kilmer from the Great Falls area shifted to Longfellow Middle School in McLean, said Chevalier. After two years, this would still leave Kilmer about 125 students over capacity, and the GT center at Luther Jackson would have only about 120 students, rather than the 240 or so students staff had planned to have there.

Meanwhile, at Longfellow, said Chevalier, "you wouldn't get by without trailers on top of this." He also noted that Longfellow is slated for renovation, and sending more students there would increase the cost of the project.

The other alternative suggested by Louise Archer parents would send students from Great Falls to Cooper Middle School, also in McLean. Chevalier noted that this plan, too, would leave Luther Jackson under capacity and would also overcrowd Cooper.

Member-at-Large Steve Hunt noted that such a move would only put Cooper about 50 students over capacity, far less crowded than Kilmer has been for some time. However, Chevalier pointed out that, unlike Kilmer, Cooper's current capacity of about 1,100 relies on trailers and modular classrooms.

Frustrated by fuzzy capacity numbers, Hunt responded, "Then stop giving a number that says it's 1,100."

Dean Tistadt, the school system's chief operating officer, noted that Cooper also already has serious traffic difficulties. "We just have huge problems getting people on and off that campus," he said.

Niedzielski-Eichner asked if schools like Cooper and Longfellow could even be considered in the scope of the current study. Chevalier said they could be considered at some point, but those schools' communities had not yet been a part of the dialogue.

"If we delay the implementation of the study until next year," asked Niedzielski-Eichner, "what would be the implications for Kilmer and for Luther Jackson?"

Luther Jackson, said Chevalier, would not suffer for being under capacity, while Kilmer might require additional temporary classroom facilities.

WITH RESPECT TO the scope of the study, Hunt said the board was free to consider any options. "In fact, a tentative hearing date was worked out in case we need to go back to the community," he said.

Gibson noted that many parents in Vienna's Thoreau Middle School attendance area have said they would prefer to have their GT-eligible students take honors classes at Thoreau than attend a GT center at Luther Jackson. "If parents in Vienna decide to send their kids on to Thoreau, which is their right, what's that going to mean to Thoreau?" he asked.

Chevalier said Thoreau, which is already about 30 students over capacity, currently has about 120 students from within its attendance area attending the GT center at Kilmer. If next year's GT students stay at Thoreau, he said, this would put the school about 70 students over capacity. The following year, if both GT classes stayed at the school, it would be overcrowded by about 135 students.

"That's a realistic possibility, isn't it?" asked Gibson.

"It is," said Chevalier, noting that the additional volume would have to be contained, at least initially, in temporary classrooms.

Staff is anticipating about 50 additional students at Thoreau next year, said Ann Monday, assistant superintendent for instructional studies. "They are prepared to do that," she said, noting that some extracurricular activities, including face-to-face geometry instruction, would need to be added. "The issue at Thoreau would be a facilities issue," said Monday.

Meanwhile, she said, if a GT center opened at Luther Jackson with only about 120 students, "it would not be the smallest program in the county." The students would be grouped into one "team," she said.

IF THE PLAN is implemented as written, Chevalier said, concerns about long commutes for students should prove unfounded. "It's safe to think that over half of those runs would be shorter," he said.

"Vienna kids wouldn't be riding any further," ventured Gibson.

"Correct," Chevalier responded.

"So they wouldn't have to get up any earlier."

"They would not."

Monday said Luther Jackson would hold a welcome session for prospective new GT students in the early spring and formal orientations, with some staff in place, in April.

Parents would be asked to decide in May whether they wanted to send their children to the Luther Jackson GT center, she said. Of course, for Luther Jackson parents, there would be no other option, and Thoreau parents could decide to send their children to Thoreau whenever they liked.

As far as staffing the new center, Monday said she wants a full-time GT coach "embedded" in the school. "We think that's the best investment we can make in a start-up program," she said. She added that she would like to be able to advertise for teachers early and that the school will need additional start-up funds to expand the GT program into the eighth grade in the 2008-09 school year.

The school would advertise for teachers as a GT center, said Monday, and the staffing process would look for "academic strength," as well as "some experience with advanced learners, if not GT center experience."

"How difficult would it be to stipulate that a certain number of teachers have GT experience?" asked Hunt.

Superintendent Jack Dale and some School Board members noted that such a move would be "highly unusual."

Monday said she did not want to rule out qualified honors teachers and added that the in-house GT coach "would have extensive GT experience."

"Even without a GT endorsement, you're going to assure that there is a highly qualified, highly experienced teacher in each classroom?" asked Niedzielski-Eichner.

"Absolutely," Monday replied.

The School Board will vote on the proposed boundary change and new GT center at a meeting on Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. in Luther Jackson Middle School.