Crowding puts end to lunchtime visits at Ashburn school

November 10, 2011

Of the numerous challenges faced by the newly elected Loudoun County School Board members, the county’s soaring student population is probably the most significant.

It’s not a new issue: School officials and Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III have warned of the rising number of students for years. But, as a group of Ashburn parents has learned, the familiar problem continues to resonate with students and their families.

Before the start of the school year, parents of students at Newton-Lee Elementary School in Ashburn were disheartened to learn of an unexpected procedural change: The long-standing tradition of visiting their children for a spontaneous lunch at school was to be discontinued.

The announcement came on the last page of the school’s August newsletter.

“Due to our increased enrollment and very limited space this year, we are unable to accommodate parents coming in to have lunch with their students on a regular basis,” the newsletter said. “We understand having lunch with your child is a special and cherished tradition for many of our families.”

Instead, the newsletter said, a new program would allow parents to visit a child once a year, for his or her birthday or rare special occasions.

Maria Dean, whose son is a fifth-grader at Newton-Lee, was particularly dismayed. After divorcing when her son was a third-grader, the lunchtime visits became a way for the two to stay connected in the weeks when her son lived with his father.

“It made it much easier for him that I went to have lunch with him twice during those weeks, on Tuesday and Friday,” Dean said. “He really looked forward to it, and it eased his transition to his dad’s house.”

When she told her son about the policy change, “he was so disappointed,” she said. “He immediately said, ‘It’s going to be so hard.’ ”

Parents were dismayed that there had been no discussion of the issue before the change was announced, Dean said.

“It just said in the newsletter that this is the new rule — period — no discussion,” she said. “It was a surprise for everybody. I think that’s why it caused such a stir.”

An Oct. 26 article about the change in the Ashburn Patch rallied parents, who were frustrated to learn that nearby schools, also dealing with crowding, had nonetheless maintained a policy of allowing lunchtime visits from parents.

But Newton-Lee Principal Carol Winters said the school arrived at the decision after facing the reality of rising admission numbers — Newton-Lee’s population has risen from 681 in 2005 to 969 this year, school officials said — paired with a sizeable number of parents who enjoyed visiting regularly. The school consulted members of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization for input, Winters said.

“Last year, we started having some difficulties, because we would have kids coming up from the lunchroom to the office, because they didn’t have a place to sit and eat lunch,” she said.

On a slow day, Winters said, about 20 to 30 parents would come to the school to eat with their children. Those numbers were questioned by Dean and other parents, who said they sometimes saw empty seats when they visited.

“I usually would see maybe six or seven parents having lunch with their kids,” Dean said.

But Winters maintains that the school was hosting 60 to 90 parents at least three times a week.

“We’ve got a very active community, and that’s wonderful,” she said. “But we knew we couldn’t have them all eat in the cafeteria.”

A birthday lunch program seemed easier to manage, Winters said, adding that the school also made room for families that asked to have lunch with a child in other special circumstances, such as before the deployment of a military parent or after the death of a pet.

“Unfortunately, in early October, it came to our attention that there were some parents that were upset,” Winters said. “They perceived the policy to be only birthdays, and I admit that in the first newsletter, that is what we said.”

One parent, who asked that her name not be used to maintain her children’s privacy, said she thought that the issue was less about crowding than a pattern of general inconsistency at the school. She said that even though other requests from parents were accommodated, hers was not. She was unable to visit her daughter on her birthday because she had made the request the day before, rather than two days, she said.

“They told me I could come Friday, the day after my daughter’s birthday, and we’d be in a conference room,” she said. “We just decided that we wouldn’t do lunch at school.”

The outcry from parents was ultimately enough to compel a compromise. At a regular coffee meeting with parents late last month, Winters discussed the issue with about 30 parents, several of whom were particularly upset over the change in lunchtime procedure.

The school’s November newsletter clarified that parents would be able to visit their students at lunch on a more frequent basis, not just for birthdays and special occasions. But because of the continued lack of space, parents were asked to plan ahead and give the school two days’ notice to ensure that a seat would be available at one of two tables in a hallway alcove outside the gymnasium.

“If our class size numbers were lower, there would be more room at each table for visitors to come in,” Winter said. “It’s sometimes hard for people to understand all of the logistics when a building increases. Decisions can’t be made immediately in some cases.”

Dean said she thought the school’s response was a fair compromise.

“The school is giving something, and the parents are compromising, too,” she said. “It was much easier to go spontaneously, and you can’t do that anymore, you have to plan ahead. But we have the opportunity to go now, and before we didn’t. That’s what’s important.”

Winters said the school was committed to working with parents to address their concerns, especially as the consequences of rising student enrollment show no sign of waning.

“Before, it was never a problem. When we went over 900 [students], that’s when it became more difficult,” she said. “Overcrowding, growing schools. It’s becoming a challenge for everyone.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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