Residents press School Board member on boundaries, overcrowding

Fairfax County School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville District) fields questions at a June 19 community meeting at Forestville Elementary School in Great Falls, which organizers said drew 325 residents. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

At some point during a feisty, heavily attended, 2 hour 15 minute  community meeting in Great Falls on June 19, School Board member Jane Strauss may have been glad to have only six months left on her term.

Residents peppered her with questions regarding overcrowding at McLean High School, the relative paucity of students at Langley High School, potential boundary adjustments and recent equity-oriented county policies that might affect local communities.

The School Board has no plans for boundary changes that would affect schools in Great Falls, as these would not be prudent from either a fiscal or instructional standpoint, said Strauss, who will step down in December after 26 years on the School Board.

Unless trends change, Langley High is on track to have 500 vacant seats within the next five years, she said. Some residents wondered why that was the case after a recently completed $80 million renovation at that school.

Strauss responded that Langley High’s square footage per student was too low when it was built in 1964 and needed to be brought up to modern specifications. The school’s current under-enrollment may lead to staffing problems for some of its elective courses, she added.

The Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA), which convened at Forestville Elementary School, warned attendees to get there in advance because seating was limited. An estimated 325 people took up nearly every seat in the school’s cafeteria and many attendees had to park their cars in lots at the nearby Nike Park athletic fields, necessitating a walk back through an unlighted, tree-covered lane following the meeting.

McLean High School’s overcrowding problem has been building for years and soon with leave the school with 18 classroom trailers and 300 students over its capacity, said McLean resident David Hardison.

“We are interested in a solution,” he said.

School officials follow a protocol when addressing overcrowding problems, Strauss said.

“When a school becomes overcrowded, we do not increase class size,” she said. “We hire more teachers and put students in trailers.”

School officials also inspect facilities and see if various rooms can be converted into learning spaces. If those measures and the addition of classroom trailers don’t solve the problem, officials adjust boundaries between the overcrowded schools and surrounding ones.

This process frequently is contentious and must be phased in over time so existing students are not separated from classmates.

If overcrowding persists, the school system as a last resort will consider constructing additions or even new schools – but only if there is a demonstrated need.

“Brick-and-mortar solutions are not done unless the children are present,” she said. “We open schools full.”

Predicting future enrollment is dicey, as school officials never really know exactly how many students to expect. All those new high-rise apartment and condominium buildings going up in Tysons will produce only an estimated 1,200 additional students by 2050, which will necessitate construction of an urban-style elementary school, Strauss said.

The school system is predicting enrollment growth in the near future in Annandale, Fort Belvoir and Merrifield and likely will reopen the Dunn Loring administrative building as an elementary or middle school, she said.

Officials trying to anticipate changes in the student body examine both historical and current membership trends, data regarding local births, existing and new student programs, and new residential construction either under construction or completed.

The School Board does not influence that last factor, but the Board of Supervisors does, and Strauss encouraged residents to monitor closely land-use cases being reviewed by county supervisors.

School officials recommend that supervisors do not cluster together low-income housing, which could lead to segregation in schools based on wealth, Strauss said. School officials seek to maintain high expectations for students in all schools, she said.

“We need to make sure all children have access to stimulating programs,” she said, adding that the system’s much-lauded Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology features a student body drawn from a wide range of family incomes.

Some residents at the meeting expressed concern their home values would decline if children in their neighborhoods had to attend Herndon High School instead of Langley. Others worried about the impact of illegal immigrants on local schools.

Strauss responded that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling required school districts to teach all students who attend their schools.

“The School Board cannot deport people,” she said.

 Local resident Margaret McCreary took issue with the county’s equity-focused “One Fairfax” policy and said the schools instead should focus on reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as ensuring student safety and addressing growing gang problems.

GFCA president William Canis said a series of infill residential developments in Great Falls could boost enrollment at schools in the Langley pyramid.

“From GFCA’s point of view, we’d hate to see the infill as a slow destruction of the semi-rural community that we all moved here for,” he said. “This is a beautiful community. We don’t want to see it turned into eastern Loudoun County.”

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