At Bailey’s elementary, Fairfax County students head to class in office building


Tuesday was the first day of school in Virginia as students arrive at their new campus at Bailey's Upper Elementary in Fairfax County. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)

At Fairfax County’s newest school, the first buses rolled into the parking lot Tuesday at 8:23 a.m. The giggling, jittery students poured out and looked up.

The new Bailey’s Upper Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences is a five-story brick structure that nine months ago housed an office complex. Now, it’s Fairfax County’s tallest school.

County leaders call it a “vertical school,” and administrators say the school district is likely to see more of them.

“As we continue to be a fast-growing school system and property becomes harder to come by, we will have to think differently” about school design, said Superintendent Karen Garza. “Vertical buildings will be part of our plan throughout the county.”

School districts throughout the region are hungry for space to build new schools. In Northern Virginia, many schools opened their doors this year to swelling enrollments.


Tuesday was the first day of school in Virginia as students arrive at their new campus at Bailey's Upper Elementary in Fairfax County. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)

Arlington officials said they were 350 students over their spring projections by the first day. As they anticipate adding nearly 6,000 more students by 2023, the school board is looking for land to build a new elementary and middle school. It’s also considering taller designs.

“We have looked at everything,” said schools spokesman Frank Bellavia, including community centers and parkland. “There just aren’t that many possible sites.”

Loudoun County started the school year with three newly built schools — as well as its first charter school — keeping pace with demand that has made it one of the nation’s fastest-growing school districts. Prince William County opened two new schools.

Fairfax school officials projected 186,785 students will enroll this year as the county’s population grows. That’s up nearly 2 percent from last year’s enrollment of 183,200.

The new Bailey’s facility, located in the Seven Corners area, is about 11 / 2 miles from the original school. The building will hold grades three, four and five. It will serve as a second campus for Bailey’s, which had become one of the county’s most crowded schools, with more than 1,300 students. The original building will house kindergarten through second grade.

Fairfax School Board member Sandy Evans, whose Mason district includes the new Bailey’s building, said that the county’s construction team pulled off a miracle to ensure the new facility was ready for Tuesday’s crush of students. Workers pulled double shifts putting the finishing touches on the new school, which will have 600 students this year.

As many as 19 trailers with temporary classrooms dotted the Bailey’s Elementary campus in recent years. Most of the students at Bailey’s are from poor immigrant families; more than 65 percent qualify for additional English language lessons, and 70 percent receive free or reduced-price meals.


Teacher Phoebe Markle speaks with an 8 year-old student on the first day of school at Bailey's Upper Elementary School in Falls Church. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)

On the outside of the new Bailey’s, the structure is all business, standing like a monolithic ode to corporate culture. On the inside, it feels like a school, with shimmering linoleum floors, lime-
colored chairs and canary-yellow accents.

Principal Marie Lemmon spent the morning hustling up and down the stairs to visit teachers spread out over the five floors.

“As an elementary principal, you never know what the day will bring,” said Lemmon, who will mark her second full year as principal at Bailey’s this fall. A former collegiate basketball athlete, Lemmon zipped around the new building, boasting of the school’s modern features.

Walls in many of the classrooms have a special coating that allows teachers to use them like oversized dry-erase boards. The science lab on the fifth floor has panoramic views of the District, and children can watch planes take off from nearby Reagan National Airport.

Three wood-floored rooms with padded walls provide indoor space for physical-education class. A state-of-the-art television studio gives budding journalists the chance to produce their own school news show.

“We tore this building apart,” said Assistant Superintendent Jeff Platenberg, who oversaw the renovation. “The only thing left was the columns. Everything was gutted.”

One school hallmark is still missing: a playground. Garza said that a second construction phase could begin this year to add a playspace in what is now an asphalt parking lot.

For the time being, students will be able to use a pair of hopscotch sets and four-square courts painted on the concrete beneath a parking overhang.

Bailey’s parent Sani Moser said the new school is beautiful and much nicer than her child’s previous school.

“It’s artistic,” said Moser, the mother of a third-grader. “But they need a playground for the children.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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