Fairfax Magnet School Could Lose Bus Service

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009

Children come from near and far to Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences. Some walk from apartments down the street, holding hands and skipping ahead of their parents. Others arrive by bus from higher-rent neighborhoods in Springfield, Lorton or McLean. In all, more than a quarter of students at the campus inside the Capital Beltway travel from neighborhoods elsewhere in Fairfax County.

The bus fleet reflects a plan crafted in the early 1990s to draw more middle-class and native English-speaking students to a school that had come to serve almost exclusively poor, immigrant families. The plan has paid off: Today the 950-student school touts a national reputation and a long waiting list of families who vie to be part of the Spanish immersion program or arts and science enrichment.

But to save money in a tight budget year, the School Board might eliminate busing for students outside the school's attendance boundaries next fall and scale back teacher training in the arts. Bailey's Elementary parents, past and present, say the proposal would destroy a hard-won balance in student enrollment.

"Cutting the busing . . . would roll back the clock and create the same problems that we had 18 years ago," said Richard Kurin, a former PTA president and a leader in the battle to bring more English speakers into the school. The portion of students learning English was 87 percent in 1991, before the magnet was approved; it was 45 percent last school year.

Since the 1970s, school officials nationwide have created magnet programs to turn schools with dwindling enrollment or high poverty into destinations. Adding an extra dimension to the curriculum, through laboratories or resource teachers, often attracts families who might otherwise stay away.

In Maryland, Montgomery Blair High School's math and science magnet program in Silver Spring was created in 1985 to turn around a low-achieving school. In Fairfax, the School Board approved a second arts and science magnet, at Hunter's Woods Elementary, in the mid- 1990s, when enrollment had dwindled to nearly half the school's capacity. The Reston school is the only other arts and sciences magnet in the county; its bus service could be reduced, too. Hunter's Woods also has a gifted center, another kind of magnet often used to attract students.

In a recession, extra funds for special programs are harder to come by. To bridge the largest budget shortfall in a generation, Fairfax officials expect to freeze salaries and increase class size by at least half a student in the next school year. County supervisors this week froze funding for the school system despite projections of rising enrollment. The School Board will decide on a final budget in May.

"It pains me terribly to look at these proposed cuts," said board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville), who was on the board that approved the Bailey's magnet in 1991. "When the money starts running out, you have to make tough choices."

Bailey's Elementary was one of the first Fairfax schools to absorb waves of immigrants from war-torn parts of Cambodia, Vietnam, Nicaragua and El Salvador. New arrivals were drawn to the low-rent Culmore apartments, a series of weather-worn buildings a block from the school. Over time, the demographic shift accelerated until some classrooms had only one native English speaker -- the teacher.

The School Board sought to bring balance to the school by drawing more students from the Lake Barcroft neighborhood, which has multimillion-dollar homes about a quarter-mile away. But residents there fought the boundary proposal, and the board backed down.

After parents at Bailey's threatened a lawsuit and delivered heartfelt speeches in Cambodian, Spanish and Japanese, the board approved the magnet plan. That decision, also made during an economic downturn, came with funding to supply science and computer labs, an arts studio and extra teachers. A portion of seats was set aside for students outside the boundaries.

Parents rave about the school's programs, nontraditional teaching methods and international community. The Spanish immersion program makes the native Spanish speakers models for others, and the arts emphasis helps students with varying English abilities express themselves and learn in different ways.

The Clinton administration spotlighted the school in 1997 for "making diversity an asset." Standardized scores met targets last school year, but parents praise teaching that goes well beyond state tests. About three-quarters of the Bailey's teachers have taken classes through a partnership with the Kennedy Center to infuse arts into the curriculum.

One morning this month, a fifth-grade class prepared for upcoming state reading tests by breaking into groups and creating small dramatic scenes to show comprehension of a story. A first-grade class read aloud a poem about spring while expressing its meaning through moves students choreographed. Their teacher accompanied them on a series of instruments.

The proposed elimination of funding for the Kennedy Center partnership would affect about 10 schools countywide and save about $250,000. A Kennedy Center spokeswoman said an effort is under way to save the program and lower the cost.

Removing buses for the arts and science magnet schools would save about $100,000 a year. A survey of Bailey's magnet parents found that nearly three-quarters would not be able to send their children to the school next fall without the bus service.

One of those parents is Del. David L. Bulova (D-Fairfax). He and his wife live south of Fairfax City but decided to bus their children to Bailey's so they could explore their interest in drama through structured, creative activities.

"It's not just the once-a-year school play," he said. "It works very well. It's a great community. I think it's been a win-win situation."

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