In Fairfax, Rocky End To Schools' Growth

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 26, 2005

The parents at Fairfax County's Glasgow Middle School have spent years lobbying to renovate the aging school, with its leaky roof and crowded halls. Years later, after countless parent meetings and a referendum approved by voters, a brand new Glasgow is all set to be built.

But now, only months from the groundbreaking, the school system wants to make the building smaller, with 10 fewer classrooms. Things are different now, school officials explained. The number of children set to attend the school is suddenly shrinking.

The proposed downsizing of Glasgow -- and the anger it has sparked among parents -- underscores a dramatic shift in the region's largest school district, where the rapid student growth of the past decade appears to have come to an abrupt end.

Just four years ago, school officials predicted that there would be more than 171,000 students this year and that the number would continue rising. Now they think the district, the 12th largest nationwide, will max out next school year with 164,725 students.

Keeping pace with the growth of the 1990s meant adding schools and putting trailers up alongside old buildings to add classrooms. But while the countywide growing pains may be ending, the transition to a stable student population isn't going to be easy, either.

The end of the growth spurt will mean shifting boundary lines to even out enrollment between schools with empty seats and others that remain crowded -- changes that won't come easy in neighborhoods with strong ties to local schools. Emotions run high any time families are forced to leave the schools with which they have become familiar.

In addition, at least two building projects may be scaled back, and officials are questioning whether some planned schools are needed.

"There's going to be hard decisions," said Fairfax County School Board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville). "It is virtually impossible to resolve every issue in every community. It's a balancing act."

With the graying of the baby boom generation and increasing housing prices, school districts in the Washington area are seeing student enrollment leveling, or even declining. Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Arlington counties are serving fewer students, and growth in Montgomery County's enrollment has slowed dramatically. Enrollment continues to climb in some outlying suburbs, such as Charles, Loudoun and Prince William counties, where construction is still booming.

In Fairfax, School Board member Brad Center (Lee) said tweaking school boundaries across the county would be the quickest solution in a district that has some pockets of growth but overall stable enrollment. But such a broad-brush approach is unlikely because of the intense and emotional debate over whether such shifts would fracture communities, make bus rides longer or make it harder for students to attend football practice or band rehearsal after school.

"There are enough seats in the system to accommodate all the kids without adding one more seat or one more classroom, but the seats are not where the kids are," Center said. "Theoretically, could we solve it by a countywide boundary change? Yes. Is that likely to happen? No. It would be a difficult vote for board members, and it would make a lot of people unhappy."

But some changes are coming. Some boundary moves are being considered now for West Springfield and Robert E. Lee high schools and Lake Braddock Secondary School. And in 2007, the board will consider redrawing boundaries at several schools, including Chantilly, Oakton, Herndon and Westfield.

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