Early next week, parents at Chapel Square Elementary School in Annandale will vote whether to save their neighborhood school by merging with another Fairfax County school less than a mile away.
And they'll be doing it with virtually none of the acrimony that has marked other school mergers in the county.
"The big thing is to keep the community together -- and do that in one school," said Tina Bianchi, former president of the Chapel Square PTA and leader of the move to merge Chapel Square with nearby Wakefield Forest. "The children want to stay together and the parents want to restore some of the programs we've lost. And Wakefield is the only school that can do that."
Bianchi and her allies at the Wakefield Forest PTA say the merger, which would have to be approved by the school board, would offset the dwindling enrollment at both schools. Chapel Square, built 12 years ago, has about 270 students, while Wakefield Forest, a 26-year-old facility, has 340 students, county school officials said. Further enrollment declines are expected at both schools next year, according to a study by Chapel Square parents.
The parents also want to avoid the possibility of the two schools' being consolidated into a cluster with three other elementary schools in the area bounded by the Beltway, Braddock Road, Little River Turnpike and the city of Fairfax. If next week's merger vote fails, the school board may set the multi-school consolidation in motion as early as December, school administrators said.
"Everybody who had been through a consolidation kept telling us 'Avoid it at all costs,' " said Dale R. Weigel, the president of Chapel Square's PTA. "We would have very little to say under that procedure. With the merger, we can basically choose our own destiny."
Bianchi and her 20-member merger committee have spent the past year drafting complicated cost analyses, demographic projections, transportation plans and curriculum models for minority and learning-disabled students. Last week, Chapel Square students carried home copies of a detailed, six-page summary of the merger proposal prepared by the task force.
The plan being proposed by parents at both schools would move Chapel Square students to Wakefield Forest. Chapel Square parents see many benefits in a switch to Wakefield Forest. Wakefield Forest can hold 550 students; Chapel Square, about 400 students. Not only does the larger school have a high school-size gym (Chapel Square's is two regular classrooms converted for physical education) but the combined student population of 500 or more would guarantee extra programs such as music instruction that have been scaled down at Chapel Square.
The merger also might eliminate the need for combined classes, which Chapel Square PTA leaders concede have caused some parents in this affluent neighborhood to place youngsters in private schools. This year, Chapel Square has a combined second- and third-grade class and a combined third- and fourth-grade class.
"The resulting school will be a strong one," said Weigel, whose two children are at Chapel Square. "Wakefield would benefit also. They're in the same shape that Chapel Square is in."
Most Wakefield Forest parents with any opinion about the upcoming Chapel Square vote favor the merger, said Judy Mehal, who with her husband chairs the PTA at Wakefield Forest. "There may be some apathy among our parents, since we're not the ones that stand a chance of being closed."
Like Chapel Square parent leaders, Mehal believes a merger is inevitable.
"The merger is the only sensible thing to do," said Mehal, who has a daughter at Wakefield. "The extra students will be the big plus, and ensure our own existence."
Next Tuesday, Chapel Square parents are scheduled to vote on the proposed merger. Each of the 211 families at the school will have one vote. Wakefield Forest parents have scheduled their own meeting Oct. 5 to discuss the merger. If, as expected, Chapel Square approves the plan, Wakefield likely would vote on the measure late next month, Mehal said.
If the proposal is adopted by both groups, the two PTAs would then petition the school board to approve it by the start of the next school year. In the past two years, the panel approved all four voluntary merger proposals that came before it.
"Consolidations and closings are always extremely painful, but in this case -- if the plan has no adverse effect and if both communities want it -- then it's a beautiful way to go. We're willing to go for something like that," said school board member Laura McDowall, who represents the Annandale area.
McDowall, whose daughter attended Chapel Square and whose son is in the sixth grade there, said parents started the merger plan "when it became clear that the school board might very well close it down anyhow.
"Chapel Square has a part-time music teacher, a part-time P.E. teacher. They lost a library aide and some other staffing. Though the teaching was excellent, the children were missing out on the programs they may have had at a larger school."
With fewer teachers per grade level than allowed by the county, Chapel Square remains a prime candidate for closing, officials said. Dr. Roger W. Webb, the school board's director of facilities planning, said, "In many people's view, merging is quite a bit more desirable than consolidation."
"Rather than splintering a community further with a three-month consolidation study, the two sides unite with a merger," said Webb, who has been meeting with the two sets of parents off and on for the past year. "If a group comes forth with a merger plan, the need for consolidation kind of evaporates."
Weigel said the school board also would benefit from a merger. "We're helping the board do its work, and taking some of the political off them, too. It gives us more of a say than we might otherwise have."
Weigel and others concede that a merger could have some drawbacks. Some Wakeld Forest parents, for example, are worried that a merger would force the school board to redraw some boundary lines for intermediate and high schools. Wakefield now feeds into Frost Intermediate and Woodson High, while Chapel Square feeds into Poe Intermediate and Annandale High. Weigel said, however, that county officials have assured him that any boundary changes would not be based on the possible merger.
The merger also could jeopardize a small number of teaching jobs at the two schools. Officials said Chapel Square's new principal would be assured of a principal's post somewhere in the county, though not necessarily at Wakefield. In past Fairfax County mergers, most teachers have retained their jobs or transferred to similar positions at other schools.
Last year, the merger between Virginia Hills and Rose Hill elementary schools drew howls of protest from teachers who feared they would lose their jobs. In the end, however, no teacher was laid off, Bianchi noted.