Fairfax approves limited expansion of gifted-education program

Bill O'Leary/The Post - Yasmin Hassen, right, is bathed in the glow from a projector as she answers a question during Rosalyne Cameron's 4th grade class for gifted students on Oct., 21, 2011 in Alexandria, VA. The Fairfax County school board approved a modest expansion to the gifted education program late Thursday.

The Fairfax County School Board has approved a modest expansion of the gifted-education program, creating more learning opportunities for the county’s brightest elementary and middle school students.

Four new “advanced academic centers” will be opened in the fall. Three will be located at elementary schools in Tysons, Falls Church and Chantilly, providing relief to direly overcrowded schools hosting gifted programs in the eastern part of Fairfax County. The fourth will be at South County Middle School, which officials called a new center in name only, because the school opened this year with an in-house gifted education program.

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The expansion, approved late Thursday, is a significantly scaled-down plan compared to what administrators had presented earlier to parents.

The original proposal came last spring after administrators organized a task force to look into the county’s growing gifted population. In the past decade, the number of students enrolled in gifted programs has nearly tripled. About 16 percent of the total population of students in grades 3 through 8, or more than 13,000 children, take part in gifted programs.

To address the growth, administrators proposed opening as many as 20 new advanced academic centers in elementary and middle schools across the county. In a series of community gatherings, parents and gifted-education advocates lambasted the far-reaching plan. School board members engaged in heated discussions with parents and received hundreds of e-mails from concerned families.

The plan approved Thursday will bring the number of advanced academic centers to 39. Three of the new centers will be located at Lemon Road, Westbriar and Navy elementary schools in order to address severe overcrowding problems at Haycock, Louise Archer and Hunters Woods elementary schools. The result is a limited boundary change for those schools that will send dozens of students to the new, more spacious centers.

“I’ve been on this board 20 years and I’ve never seen a situation like this before,” said member Jane Strauss (Dranesville), speaking about the cramped hallways at Haycock. “All of the sudden it’s just exploded.”

Most of the gifted students will be allowed to stay at their current centers except for those headed to Lemon Road from Haycock. The Lemon Road center will open with all rising third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students. The remaining rising sixth-graders will be allowed to finish at Haycock.

The decision to open new centers at middle schools was mixed. The original plan called for new centers at all middle schools in the county. Votes late Thursday to open new centers at Cooper, Herndon and Thoreau middle schools all failed.

The new center at South County Middle School was considered by the board members to be an exception. Superintendent Jack D. Dale said that creating a center at South County wasn’t going to change the way the school already operated. Dale said that “confusion and miscommunication” had led to the school being opened in September without a center.

Part of the initial hesitancy by the board to embrace a broader expansion of gifted education came from a lack of confidence in the advanced academic programs.

The board voted 11 to 1 to direct the superintendent to issue a report before his retirement in June analyzing the advanced academic program to ensure it is “aligned with the best practices in K-12 gifted education.”

 
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