Fairfax School's Move Is Debated

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008

The smallest public school campus in Fairfax County sits on four acres between a strip mall and a laundromat at the busy corner of Graham Road and Route 50. Chain link rings the tiny playground, and traffic often obscures the front door.

But it's hard to overlook Graham Road Elementary School's performance. The school, which serves a high concentration of immigrants and families in poverty, has among the best test scores in the county. Fairfax officials cite it as a school that beats the odds, and they are eager for it to have a campus more worthy of its achievements.

"There is magic that goes on at that terrible site," School Board member Martina A. Hone (At Large) said this month.

Voters passed a $15 million bond measure in 2005 to renovate the crumbling 1950s-era campus in the Falls Church area, but nearly three years later, not one rusting window has been replaced. The makeover was put on hold as the school system considered whether to move the school to a site twice as large and nearly a mile to the north, in an area surrounded by single-family houses and tall trees. A School Board vote on the move is expected tonight.

The hitch: The school community is divided. Some parents favor the move. Many don't.

The debate centers on whether a school in an immigrant-rich inner suburb should relocate to a more spacious campus in an attractive suburban setting, or whether it should stay as close as possible to its base of mostly immigrant families, many without reliable cars or driver's licenses, to avoid damaging its chemistry.

Another key question is the best way to lure middle-income families that live within Graham Road Elementary's boundaries to enroll their children there. Many of those families have abandoned the school despite its recent success. Maintaining racial, ethnic and economic balance in schools is a perpetual struggle for the 165,700-student system, which is increasingly urban and diverse.

Near the school are 500 townhouses that have long been a port of entry for Fairfax County, providing low-cost housing to immigrants, said John Freeman, who in the mid-1980s bought and renovated most of the neighborhood now known in part as Kingsley Commons.

Freeman said he has sought to create a community responsive to the needs of immigrants and young families, investing in a computer center, a soccer league and a family resource center that offers classes for children and parents. The neighborhood, within walking distance of the school, supplies more than 70 percent of Graham Road Elementary's 356 students.

Ana Cristina Silva, who was born in Nicaragua, joined several mothers one afternoon last week on the five-minute stroll to pick up her three daughters from school, along with two girls she babysits. She prefers to drive, but her car is not always working, Silva said, and she worries about the proposed move.

At this hour, the neighborhood is buzzing with children dribbling soccer balls and riding bikes. After-school activities at the housing development and at school keep them busy.

Parents come and go easily from the school. Although many schools struggle to bring immigrant families through the doors, it's common for Graham Road Elementary parents to sit with their children while they have breakfast in the cafeteria, and to crowd into the office with questions.

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