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Fairfax schools propose expansion of gifted programs

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Fairfax County school officials on Monday introduced a proposal to significantly expand programs for gifted students, a plan that already has met stiff opposition from parents and teachers.

The proposal, which could affect the school lives of more than 10,000 students, would create as many as 20 new Advanced Academic Program centers for the county’s brightest students. It would, in effect, amount to a significant redistricting for the county’s gifted programs.

School officials said the new programs will make the system more efficient and provide more opportunities to gifted elementary and middle school students in their own neighborhoods. But in a series of community forums last month, hundreds of concerned parents said they adamantly opposed the plans.

Linda Dempsey, the mother of two children enrolled in gifted programs, said she felt ambushed by this new plan to fix a system she thinks doesn’t have any apparent problems. Parents say the proposal, tentatively scheduled to be implemented next fall, is being rushed into action.

“Why the rush to change something especially when parents are not behind this?” Dempsey said. “Our input wasn’t sought until very late in the process.”

The proposal came to life last spring, when administrators formed a task force to address the county’s gifted population. As the county’s overall school enrollment has grown to 181,000, the number of students eligible for gifted programs also has risen dramatically.

The number of students in third through eighth grades enrolled in the top levels of gifted education in Fairfax has nearly tripled over the past decade, with about 13,180 students this year, according to the county schools.

As a result, some schools that house centers for gifted students — notably Haycock, Hunters Woods and Louise Archer elementary schools — have become severely overcrowded.

Carol Horn, the coordinator for Advanced Academic Programs, said the county’s services for gifted students ensure scholastic success, with about 95 percent of students enrolled in the top levels of gifted instruction achieving the highest county scores on Virginia Standards of Learning exams.

Expanding the Advanced Academic Program, Horn said, would provide more access to students closer to their home community.

Sloan Presidio, assistant superintendent for instructional services, said the expansion of the Advanced Academic Program would help alleviate crowding by moving eligible gifted students to schools with more capacity. He said it would also cut down on transportation costs and would open centers in areas that did not before have such services.

The plan also would allow groups of students who start gifted programs together in elementary school to move as a cohort through the Fairfax system as they grow older, which studies show improves the quality of students’ education, Presidio said.

“This expansion doesn’t get us all the way, but it starts to tighten this up for us and moves in the right direction,” Presidio said.

Presidio acknowledged that parts of the proposal might be “imperfect,” and that the administration is open to community feedback.

Presidio also said some parents appear to have misperceptions about the plan. For the most part, students currently enrolled in gifted programs at existing Advanced Academic centers would be allowed to stay at their school. The plan mostly affects students who would enroll in gifted programs for the first time next year.

“This is very similar to a boundary change,” Presidio said. “Parents have concerns about moving to a different school than what they have anticipated attending.”

At the school board work session Monday, Presidio and Horn presented multiple options for restructuring gifted education. The board is scheduled to vote on how to proceed with the expansion proposal in January.

Under one option, the school board would move forward with the plan to open about 20 new gifted centers in elementary and middle schools by next fall. A second option calls for opening new centers next fall to relieve severe overcrowding at three schools but delaying the opening of the others for the 2014-15 school year. Another option calls for delaying most parts of the plan.

Many parents and teachers say they were never asked to contribute to the proposal and felt left out of the decision-making process.

“The bigger issue is that a lot of people still don’t understand everything that is related to details in the plan,” said Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. “A lot of people don’t feel like they were given an opportunity to get questions answered.”

About 500 parents attended a forum at Kilmer Middle School in late November, the last in a series of meetings the administration held to introduce the proposal. Several school board members attending the forum engaged parents in heated discussions.

School board member Sandy Evans (Mason) said she sympathized with parents’ ire and said that she and other board members likely would vote to delay the phased implementation of the plan.

“For many of us of the board, it’s not about when — it’s whether,” Evans said.

Pam Konde, a parent with three children enrolled at Louise Archer, said many parents think the proposal is unrealistic. Konde said the new plan would result in unnecessarily shuffling thousands of students to new schools.

“Parents are apoplectic about this,” Konde said. Fairfax County schools officials “keep saying ‘trust us,’ but it’s FCPS who got us into this problem to begin with.”

Mel Davidson, the mother of a gifted student at Armstrong Elementary, said she represented “the silent voices” who approve of opening the program to more students around the county. She said that parents who oppose the plan think that opening up new centers would dilute the quality of the gifted-student education.

“It’s a select group of parents that don’t like the prospect of change and don’t want to share,” Davidson said. “Why don’t they want to share the love?”

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