Fairfax County School Board members voted Thursday to expand the school system's Advanced Academic Program Centers to three additional elementary schools this fall in an effort to relieve overcrowding at several existing centers.
But they stopped short of expanding the program across about a dozen and a half more elementary and middle schools in time for the next school year, as was proposed last fall, pending a broader discussion of what advanced academics truly means in Fairfax County, whether the system is in line with national best practices of gifted and general education and where board members envision the program going in the future.
The decision came at the end of a four-hour discussion Thursday that stretched into the wee hours of Friday morning as board members grappled with the short- and long-term future of the program.
The vote authorized new AAP centers this fall at Lemon Road, Westbriar, and Navy elementary schools, relieving enrollment at Haycock, Louise Archer and Hunters Woods.
Third graders will go to their newly-designated centers; rising fourth, fifth and sixth graders will be "grandfathered" into their current centers with the exception of those at the new AAP Center at Lemon Road Elementary School, which will pull all rising third, fourth and fifth grade AAP Center eligible students from Lemon Road, Westgate and Shrevewood Elementary Schools.
Sixth graders currently at Haycock will be allowed to stay.
The board voted against several motions to create centers at Cooper, Herndon and Thoreau middle schools, instead voting for a motion by Tamara Derenak-Kaufax (Lee) directing Superintendent Jack Dale and staff to create a scope of study of the FCPS Continuum of Advanced Academic Services by Feb. 28, and complete the study by June 30 for a broader discussion about how the system should move forward.
Haycock "In Crisis"
Before the Thursday vote, parents told the board failing to reduce the population at Haycock would make the school burst at the seams.
Some say it already has. The school was built for 590 students, Janie Strauss (Dranesville) said; this year's enrollment is more than 950.
The result is, at best, loosely organized chaos day after day for the students and teachers who use the buildings: children are late to class or miss lessons because there aren't enough bathrooms. The cafeteria is "grossly inadequate." The support areas for art and music are gone; there are almost many classrooms outside (23) as there are in (24).
Grandfathering students, instead of moving them to a newly opened center at Lemon Road, would make that situation even worse, Strauss said.
An 18-month renovation starting next fall will require five or six additional trailers, bringing total outdoor classrooms to 29. What little outdoor green play space students enjoy now would be gone, taken up by mobile classrooms.
Donna Bertsch, a teacher at Haycock, said Thursday “without real relief in the near future we will be asked to carry on in impossible conditions."
The board voted against a motion by Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) to move all Haycock fourth and fifth graders to a newly established Haycock Annex at Pimmit Center for two years, which would allow students to stay with the community but relieve some stress on Haycock's current building.
Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said moving students to a facility without adequate gym or cafeteria space, among other building issues, wasn't fair to those for whom Haycock is a "base school."
"They don't have a choice on where they can attend -- that's their neighborhood school,” McLaughlin said.
Parents at Thursday’s meeting also opposed Schultz’s motion.
The board did approve a center at South County Middle School, with rising 7th grade AAP Center eligible students residing in the South County MS attendance area. Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) said the newly-constructed school was intended to be a center, and opened that way, but hadn't officially received the designation.
McLaughlin noted the number of AAP students has grown 300 percent over the past decade; at Haycock, the number of AAP classes (5) outweighs the number of general education classes (2).
"When your AAP population overtakes the base population that's an issue," McLaughlin said.
How students are identified and placed in AAP centers could be part of what the board studies in the coming months.
"We need to know where our current centers stand," Derenak-Kaufax said. "We need comprehensive, data-driven analysis," she said, adding the system needs to be efficient and strategic when thinking about expanding.
Fairfax County Association for the Gifted’s Grace Chung Becker said acting without that information in light of huge expected growth in student enrollment, a projected budget shortfall and a new superintendent arriving this summer would “make no sense.”
The board will work with school staff to develop a broader scope of study of the AAP program as a whole at its Feb. 11 and 28 work sessions.
This article has been updated to reflect the creation of a center at South County Middle School.
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