Overcrowded Annandale High School makes adjustments on opening day

Hundreds of thousands of students return to classrooms across the D.C. area.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Annandale High School is Fairfax County's most crowded high school, with about 500 more students than it was designed to hold. On the first day of school Tuesday there were four packed lunch periods that started at 10:25 a.m., congested hallways, long bathroom lines, cramped athletic locker rooms and some teachers splitting time among as many as five classrooms.

By mid-October, the school hopes to open temporary classrooms behind the main building near several trailers already there -- where the seniors used to park. The principal has suspended student parking on campus for at least the first few weeks of school because even faculty members were having a hard time finding spots ahead of the 7:20 a.m. opening bell.

"I parked at the church and walked," said senior Matt Haines, 17. "Parking and the hallways are the worst. The school can't get much bigger."

During the last two academic years, Fairfax made small boundary changes that helped relieve some of the crowding. And this week officials are kicking off the process to redistrict the Annandale area and reduce the number of students at the school over the next few years.

"There are schools in this county that have empty seats," Annandale principal John Ponton said. But his school, Ponton said, has so many extra students it is "like having another entire grade level in the building."

Enrollment in Northern Virginia schools has increased steadily, even as budgets have tightened. In Fairfax, the state's largest school system, enrollment is up 2 percent over last year to more than 175,000 students. Enrollment in Prince William increased 2 percent to 78,300. And in Loudoun County, which has long been the region's fastest growing system, enrollment is up 5.4 percent to nearly 63,000 students. Arlington had a 4.7 percent increase and 21,000 students, while Alexandria public schools have 2.7 percent more students for a total of 12,000.

On opening day Tuesday, several Northern Virginia superintendents visited schools to give pep talks and highlight some of the fiscal issues their school systems face.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale visited six of the county's nearly 200 schools and answered questions about new fees for high school students. This school year, student athletes will have to pay $100 for each sport they play, and the county will no longer pick up the $75 fee for each Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test students take.

At Annandale High, administrators and teachers have found ways to deal with the influx of students, such as adding more than 200 lockers.

"We don't want them to share," said Chris Tippins, the school's safety and security specialist. "Kids who might be friends this month . . . "

"Might not be friends next month," finished Vincent Randazzo, an assistant principal.

Since there aren't enough classrooms for all the teachers, as many as 15 will be "traveling teachers" who haul their materials from room to room, Randazzo said. The set-up also can make it difficult for students to find teachers during their two free periods or after school, or for teachers to reserve a classroom for an event or meeting. Plus, traveling teachers have to carry four or five room keys instead of one.

Brian Dunnell, the social studies department chairman, calls it "living the cart life" -- giving history lectures in a room decorated for math classes, having other teachers sneak in during a lecture to grab a file, and trying to wheel a cart through a crushing sea of teenagers.

"I keep saying that I am going to get a flashing light and siren," Dunnell said with a laugh.

Deciding which teachers should share a classroom can be a delicate process of matching the right personalities, said Leslie Chekin, the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) department chairman: "It's important to have a roommate you can get along with."

Once the new "modular" behind the school opens around Columbus Day weekend, about a third of the school's 2,700-member student body will be housed outside of the main building -- but many teachers finally will have their own rooms.

"We will be in the best shape we've ever been in," Randazzo said. "It's really going to take a full team effort -- faculty, students, staff -- to make this work."

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