The issue of whether the need to maintain balanced diversity should outweigh the need to reduce overcrowding at Annandale High School dominated a school board work session on proposed boundary changes July 18.
Board members engaged in a thoughtful, in-depth conversation about the larger issues raised by shifting the boundaries of more than 20 schools in the Annandale area. At one point, though, at-large board member Tina Hone demanded that Superintendent Jack Dale apologize for referring to a question she raised as “stupid.”
The school board is scheduled to adopt a new boundary plan July 28.
Both Hone and at-large board member James Raney said they plan to offer amendments to keep the students who live in the Wakefield Forest area at Annandale High School (AHS). The proposal in the Fairfax County Public School staff recommendation to move those students from Poe Middle School and AHS to Frost Middle School and Woodson High School drew the most attention at the school board hearing last week.
Hone suggested that the benefits of maintaining a socioeconomic balance at AHS by keeping those students there would outweigh the benefits of reducing overcrowding. About 140 Wakefield Forest students are affected.
“Nobody is wrong here,” Hone said. “The school is overcrowded. The socioeconomic balance is key to academic success of a school. Some think making a school a little less socioeconomically diverse isn’t going to hurt the school.”
But she suggested such a move would upset the school’s balance, noting that several parents who spoke at the hearing last week referred to AHS as a “magical school” because it has a high rate of academic success while maintaining a good socioeconomic mix.
According to Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer for facilities and transportation services, removing the Wakefield Forest students wouldn’t have a huge impact on the school’s diversity. The percentage of AHS students living in single-family homes would only decrease from 41.7 percent to 39.5 percent, he said.
But that statistic does not present a clear picture of how the socioeconomic balance at AHS would change, Hone said. For example, there are wide disparities in the sizes and values of single-family homes, and it makes a difference whether they are occupied by more than one family. She called for the staff to produce more data on foreclosures and unemployment rates.
Board member Sandy Evans of the Mason District said she has “deep concerns about both the numbers we’re looking at moving out of Annandale High School and the impact on the fabric of the school.”
|Portable classrooms at AHS.|
If AHS is at 102 percent capacity, “could we live with that? Are we addressing overcrowding enough? It’s hard to figure out what the tradeoffs are,” added Patty Reed of the Providence District.
For Tessie Wilson of the Braddock District, the overriding issue is capacity and enrollment. “I can’t see leaving more kids at that school.”
There are 16 trailers behind AHS housing 29 classrooms plus a modular unit with 14 classrooms. The trailers have either one, two, or four classrooms. Another trailer houses the Annandale Neighborhood Center, which is not part of the school. In all, there are 43 outdoor classrooms at AHS, more than at any other FCPS school.
Elizabeth Bradsher of the Springfield District said “it’s a disservice to underestimate the population at Annandale.” She objected to others’ statements that taking out a small group of students “will decimate that school.”
“That sets a wrong perception,” Bradsher said. “This school is severely overcrowded. Going down the hallway, you could be crushed against the lockers.”
The non-voting student representative on the board, Eugene Coleman, said his experience at Mt. Vernon High School, which is very diverse, “helped me grow as an individual. I would rather be at a more diverse school than have a few less students in class.”
Evans expressed concerns about the recommendation to move some 300 students in the Bren Mar Park Elementary School attendance area from AHS to Edison High School. That move involves way more students than Wakefield Forest, but it’s getting a lot less attention, she said, “and they’re feeling a little left out.”
Transferring those students to Edison requires crossing the beltway, and that raises safety concerns for teenage drivers, Evans said. She had considered proposing an amendment to keep the Bren Mar Park students at AHS but said, “after talking to the parents there, they feel it would be better for them to stay together as a community.”
Evans does plan to offer an amendment to allow students in the small Columbia Pines community to go to Glasgow Middle School and Stuart High School rather than Poe Middle School and Falls Church High School. Those students, now in the attendance area for Belvedere Elementary School, would be shifted to the new school on the Lacey site.
Reed said she will propose an amendment to keep at Pine Spring Elementary School a group of students who would be slated to transfer to Beech Tree Elementary School under the FCPS staff recommendation.
Tisdadt said the staff has subsequently decided that an autism program is needed at a school inside the beltway and that Beech Tree would be the best place for it. So, if that happens, it won’t be necessary to transfer the Pine Spring students to Beech Tree.
Dan Storck of Mount Vernon questioned whether the overcrowding issue could be resolved through a liberal pupil placement policy that would let individual students switch to Woodson if their community remains at AHS.
Pupil placements “are not a viable solution to address the capacity issue,” Tistadt said. Allowing a school to be 102 percent of capacity does not provide a big enough buffer when you consider the increasing numbers of students in the area entering kindergarten, he said.
Raney suggested having the Facilities Planning Advisory Council explore long-range capacity solutions, including converting Holmes Middle School to a secondary school. Reed echoed the call for a longer-term perspective, noting that over half of all county schools will be overcapacity in five years.
High birthrates in the poorer areas of the county are creating an imbalance, Hone said. “We’re at a crossroads. We will have schools with islands of poverty. Are we going to have a county with haves and have-nots? AHS is the leading edge of what’s going to be a very difficult question.”
“We’re already there,” Dale said, noting that some elementary schools have poverty rates of 85 to 95 percent and some have zero.
Raney said he is considering an amendment to delay the board vote from July 28 to October to give the staff more time to collect additional data.
Evans suggested that a delay might be a good idea because a lot of people in the communities she represents don’t have access to e-mail and are just now learning about the boundary changes.
Four other board members—Gibson, Wilson, Reed, and Brad Center (Lee District)—spoke against delaying the vote. All school board amendments must be submitted by Thursday, July 21, at 5 p.m.