By Jay Mathews
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Dear Extra Credit readers:
Judging from my mail, the hottest issue in Fairfax County schools at the moment is the plan to start a gifted and talented (GT) center at Luther Jackson Middle School near Falls Church to take students who would have attended the GT center at Vienna's Kilmer Middle School, which is crowded. Jackson has not had a GT center before and has a much higher percentage of low-income children than Kilmer. Here are portions of a recent exchange on the issue between Oakton resident Kris Olsen and school facilities planning services Director Gary D. Chevalier, answering at the request of Fairfax school board member Philip A. Niedzielski-Eichner:
"I AM DEEPLY CONCERNED and disturbed by the one proposal for realignment of the middle school GT boundaries. Why haven't Longfellow and Hughes middle schools been included? Both of those schools have GT programs and have capacity for more children. Both of those schools are physically closer to the Forestville, Great Falls, Colvin Run, etc. . . . schools. Some of the children coming to the GT center at Kilmer have Longfellow or Hughes as their base/home school. Why wouldn't they just get on the bus with the non-GT children? . . .
"Here you have an opportunity to correct some of the commuting that is forced upon our children, by having them attend a GT school closer to their community. Instead, what is being proposed is a longer commute . . .
"Middle school years are a critically important developmental time for children. The proposal of taking children out of their community (Vienna's Kilmer Middle School) and busing to Falls Church to a school where they will see very few familiar faces is disturbing. Those two years of middle school are really the years children are testing their independence and are growing into young adults. They should be in a school where they are known by more people instead of less."
"THE HUGHES AND LONGFELLOW GT centers were not included in this study for several reasons. With regard to Hughes, you may be aware that it is the middle school feeder to South Lakes High School. The school board has directed staff to study the boundaries of several high schools in western Fairfax County to determine if surplus space at South Lakes and possibly Herndon High could be used to relieve overcrowding at several west county high schools. This could mean that several hundred additional students would be assigned to the South Lakes/Hughes pyramid; we feel it would be premature to assign additional GT center students to Hughes until this study has been completed.
"With regard to Longfellow, you may recall the current Kilmer GT center boundary was, for the most part, taken from what had been the Longfellow GT center attendance area. This was done to reduce overcrowding at Longfellow and to reduce and help balance the size of the GT center, which had grown to more than 370 students. Installation of a 10-classroom modular addition at Longfellow did provide some extra capacity, however it did not provide additional core space (other than bathrooms) for the cafeteria, media center, etc. In fact, we have added two trailer classrooms at the school to help provide space. The upcoming renovation of the Longfellow facility is also a concern. [It] . . . is scheduled to begin in the 2008-09 school year. During the renovation, sections of the building will be closed and classes from that area relocated to temporary trailer classrooms . . . .
"Students eligible for the GT program always have the option to remain at their base school assignment rather than attending the center. We realize that a number of Thoreau-based students may choose to attend Thoreau rather than a GT center at Jackson. It is possible this would cause some overcrowding at Thoreau, [but] the degree of overcrowding would be significantly less than what currently exists or is projected at Kilmer.
"It should be noted that the boundaries proposed in the Jackson GT center study do keep children at their base school if that school has a GT center. The proposal also keeps the students together in the same cluster; both Kilmer and Jackson are Cluster II schools."
"I AM GLAD TO KNOW of your sensitivity to making changes next year [while] recognizing you will need to change/revisit them again in the not too distant future. I do agree the Band-Aid approach really never works for anyone and I appreciate your taking that into consideration.
"In light of your reluctance to make changes that will only need to be revisited within a relatively short period of time, I think it would be wise to table this GT boundary change until the complete picture can be assessed. By excluding Longfellow and Hughes, on the basis that they may be involved in a boundary issue, doesn't make rational sense for long-term planning.
"Any study or proposal that is narrowly limited in scope will provide a limited and potentially unbeneficial long-term outcome. Long-term planning platforms should rarely, if ever, use a narrow or limited scope study for the basis of making planning decisions. Historically, boundary changes in Fairfax County have been long, expensive and tedious to bring about and therefore tend to remain in place for several years. I do not believe it is rational to proceed with the recommendation based on a limited study."
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