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Weast plan would build new middle school in Bethesda-Chevy Chase area

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; 8:19 PM

Montgomery County would build a new middle school in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area and fully end the practice of educating sixth-graders in elementary schools under a plan proposed Friday by Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast to deal with overcrowding.

In a recommendation posted on the school system's Web site, Weast suggested building the middle school and moving sixth-grade students from Chevy Chase and North Chevy Chase elementary schools once it is completed. The two Chevy Chase schools are the only elementary schools in the county to have a sixth grade.

The project would also relieve overcrowding at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, which is projected to swell to more than 300 students over its 1,063-student capacity by 2014. Weast, who plans to retire at the end of the school year, attached no date to when the middle school would be built, leaving that for the school board to decide next year. But it is highly unlikely that the project would be completed before 2015, and it would probably take longer.

Until the new school is built, Weast said he would devote additional resources to the sixth grades at the two elementary schools. The sixth-graders at the two schools have shorter school days than their peers at middle schools, and they do not have access to the same classes. For example, students at Westland Middle take social studies every day; the sixth-graders at the elementary schools do not.

Several parents said Friday that they were satisfied with the proposal.

"I'm very pleased. Building a new middle school is the right thing to do," said Jennifer Mitchell, president of the PTA at Chevy Chase Elementary. But she said she wanted to make sure that the school's sixth grade received more resources than it does now.

"If you're going to keep our children at Chevy Chase, you have to give the same education as at Westland," she said.

Weast acknowledged parent concerns about the gap. But his proposal did not specify what kinds of resources and services the schools would receive for their sixth grades. He also said there is no space at Westland Middle for transfers.

The plans do not affect high schools.

Another parent said she was happy that her children would get to be in the sixth grade at an elementary school.

"I like the smaller school and the quieter atmosphere, and not the bigger kids," said Holly Gross, who is co-president of the Rosemary Hills Primary School PTA and also a parent at North Chevy Chase Elementary. "There's a big difference between sixth-graders and eighth-graders." But she added that she was concerned about Weast's promise to increase resources for the sixth grades, which she called "a little vague."

Other parents wondered how Weast would deliver on his promises.

"Everybody's sort of stuck in a hard place right now," said Joy Martini, mother of a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader at North Chevy Chase Elementary. "There's no budget to build a new school right now, and I don't even know what land they'd build it on."

Weast said that he planned to ask for money to expand Bethesda and North Chevy Chase elementary schools and Rosemary Hills Primary School. Bethesda Elementary is 127 students over capacity at 511 students. North Chevy Chase is 197 students over capacity, at 427. Rosemary Hills is 182 students over capacity, at 659.

At 144,000 students, Montgomery's is the largest school system in Maryland and the 16th largest in the country. Class rolls expanded by more than 2,000 this year, and the school system anticipates adding 10,000 more by 2015.

Final decisions about new schools rest in the hands of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

In a separate issue, Weast recommended that the school system keep open Monocacy Elementary in Dickerson, even though enrollment at the school has fallen in the past decade.

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