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Seeking Relief for Fairfax and Lanier

Parents discuss school boundary changes.

A map of the school boundary study area under consideration.

A map of the school boundary study area under consideration. Photo by Bonnie Hobbs.

School boundary changes are never easy and, no matter how they end up, somebody’s always unhappy. But when schools are projected to be at 125 percent and 109 percent of their building capacities in just a few more years, something has to be done in advance to prevent it.

As a result, nearly 300 people filled Fairfax High’s cafeteria Monday night, Nov. 26, to hear what’s being considered and to voice their concerns and opinions. And whatever ultimately happens will affect students not only in Fairfax, but in Centreville and Chantilly, as well.

“Fairfax High School and Lanier Middle School are overcrowded,” said FCPS spokeswoman Barbara Burke. “They’re owned and operated by the City of Fairfax. But 65 percent of the students who attend Fairfax are county residents, so we’re looking to do something that’s workable for everybody.”

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Denise James, FCPS director of Facilities Planning Services, discusses the boundary-change timetable.

Meeting attendees also included Denise James, FCPS director of Facilities Planning Services; Dean Tistadt, FCPS chief operating officer; some FCPS and City of Fairfax school board members; City of Fairfax council members and Cluster VII Superintendent Linda Burke.

Parents received maps showing the schools with attendance areas contiguous to Fairfax High and Lanier. They also received charts listing the high schools and middle schools currently in the boundary study, plus information about their building capacities, current enrollments and 2017-18 projections.

THIS STUDY will impact only middle and high school students who live in Fairfax County. No elementary school boundary changes are involved. But middle and high school feeder schools may change for county students.

Currently, high schools in the boundary study are Centreville, Chantilly, Fairfax, Falls Church, Oakton, Woodson and Robinson Secondary. Middle schools in the mix are Franklin, Frost, Jackson, Lanier, Liberty, Robinson and Rocky Run. But Barbara Burke said Madison, Lake Braddock and South County might also be added in, and parents were asked to tell which schools they thought should be included in the study.

“The decision on the boundaries will be made in May to prepare for the next school year,” she said. And in response to a parent’s question, James said school officials initially want to alleviate the overcrowding by moving about 300 students currently attending Fairfax High to other schools.

But it’s not as simple as that because, at the same time, FCPS is holding community meetings to gather public input about the timing of expanding advanced academic services to all pyramids within the school system. The goal is to ensure that all students have access to advanced academic programs (AAP).

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Ajay Rawat, FCPS coordinator of Facilities Planning Services, addresses parents.

Ajay Rawat, FCPS coordinator of Facilities Planning Services, told parents that, “If the AAP changes are improved, they’ll be included in the boundary study – including Robinson, which has the IB [international baccalaureate] program.”

Typically, he said, when the changes are implemented, rising eighth-graders and rising seniors affected by them would be grandfathered and could attend their current schools, instead of having to move.

“No students who currently reside in the City of Fairfax will be impacted by the study,” said Rawat. “We’ll look at all the schools with contiguous boundaries, but we’re not limited to them, if other schools have the capacity to offer relief.”

According to the data presented, Fairfax High has a building capacity of 2,412 students and a current enrollment of 2,659—meaning a 110-percent building utilization. But if nothing changes, it’s projected to have 3,011 students by the 2017-18 school year and a 125-percent building utilization.

Lanier’s capacity is 1,307 students, and it presently has a 1,239 student population using 95 percent of its building. But if left as is, it’s projected to have an enrollment of 1,421 by 2017-18 for a 109-percent building utilization.

But things are crowded at Centreville and Chantilly high schools, too. So when a parent asked, “How come some Greenbriar East and Greenbriar West elementary students don’t go to Rocky Run, the middle school closest to them, rather than to Lanier?” Rawat had an answer ready. “Rocky Run has the capacity to accommodate them,” he said. “But Chantilly doesn’t.”

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Parents listen intently to school officials discussing possible boundary changes.

Besides receiving all the students from the four City of Fairfax elementary schools—Daniels Run, Eagle View, Fairfax Villa and Providence—Lanier Middle and Fairfax High also receive all of Willow Springs Elementary’s students. That translates into 157 students currently at Lanier and 364 students at Fairfax just from Willow Springs.

But that’s not all, because some of Greenbriar East, Greenbriar West, Colin Powell and Waples Mill elementary-school graduates also feed into Lanier and Fairfax. Consequently, the total number of these Fairfax County students currently attending Lanier and Fairfax High—just from these four schools alone—is 250 at Lanier and 512 at Fairfax.

So it’s no wonder then, that to ease overcrowding in City of Fairfax schools, the focus is on eliminating many of the students now coming there from the county.

However, many already-worried parents became outraged when Rawat told them that whatever boundary changes are made won’t necessarily be permanent. Trying to reassure them, he said, “If students are switched [to other schools] now, they won’t be moved again for three years.”

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Fair Oaks resident Teresa Cleveland (in foreground) and other parents hear details of the boundary study.

But Fair Oaks resident Teresa Cleveland wasn’t buying it. “My son was already moved from Eagle View to Willow Springs,” she said. “Now he could get moved again; and then in three years, he could again get switched to another school. They should be thinking of the effect of all these changes on the kids.”

Rawat said future relief could come someday in the form of a new high school, but it was too far in the distance to provide solace to the parents at Monday’s meeting. “We’ve identified a need for a west county high school, and it’ll be presented to the School Board on Dec. 20,” he said. “It would eventually relieve South Lakes, Chantilly and Centreville, which are also projected for overcrowding in 2017-18.”

But when a mom asked how soon that new high school could materialize, Rawat replied, “It could take seven to 10 years. We don’t even have a site for it now.”

Meanwhile, many parents told him that if students are shifted from Fairfax High to Robinson in 2013-14, it could pose huge problems for them academically. “Fairfax offers 38 AP classes; Robinson has seven,” said a mom. “So if they’re switched to Robinson, you need to make a change to the curriculum—or not move the students.”

ALSO WORRIED about her middle-school child being sent to the large Robinson campus, instead of to Lanier as she’d expected, was a mom named Wendy, whose comments were followed by loud applause.

“The middle-school experience is different than the secondary-school experience, and I’m concerned about sending my student to a humongous school,” she told Rawat. “And you say this is a temporary patch that could last three years. But then I’d have three children in three different schools. You need to look at the big picture and do something long-range.”

“You need to look at the five-mile radius around the schools,” added another parent. “That’s how you’ll solve this.”

James said the official boundary implementation would be in 2014 and that the school system is “monitoring the AP-student situation.” But another mom asked what the hurry was. “Why rush it?” she asked. “Why not take the next six months to decide?”