Sandra Mosquera imagines a school in her Falls Church neighborhood where her three children could take music or art lessons in the evenings and her neighbors could go for job training. It would be open on weekends, and, on some days, it would double as a medical clinic.
Mosquera's vision for the future of Graham Road Elementary School, where her daughter is in the second grade, might sound like wishful thinking. But Fairfax County school officials say some -- or even all -- of her ideas eventually could become a reality.
School and county officials have selected Graham Road, an aging school where about 80 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, to become the county's first "community school." If the plan is approved, the school would be open long after classes end, and programs for children and adults and other county services could be offered.
"I think of community schools as what we used to call the old town square. It's where people would go to meet with each other and talk with each other," said Ellen Schoetzau, an assistant superintendent who is helping to coordinate the project.
County and school officials are seeking to expand community access to schools and school athletic fields on evenings and weekends. Fairfax is working to create a central scheduling system and fee schedule for use of school and county facilities, including gymnasiums. And officials are negotiating rules and policies for community use of schools.
County Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said it makes sense to use school buildings for multiple purposes, particularly since the county's recreation centers are crowded and the senior population is surging. He said community schools could serve meals to seniors or open up their libraries to the general public in areas where there is no other library nearby.
"We have to find a way to blend all these services," Kaufmann said. "This is a large county that has become, in my view, an urban county. We need to take a big-city approach to delivering services."
School officials decided to consider Graham Road for the county's first community school because the building is due for renovations and could be redesigned or rebuilt to accommodate multiple uses after school classes. In addition, the district is moving employees from a nearby administrative center, opening up the possibility of relocating the school to that larger site.
The project has just entered its first phases, and officials have begun a series of small community meetings that will be held throughout the summer to get input on what types of programs neighbors would like to see. Programs offered by county social services agencies or the Parks and Recreation department could be located at the new school.
A committee of school and county employees and community members is expected to present a proposal in February. Officials predict the "new" school would open in September 2008.
"The concept is that you not only deliver educational services but you also deliver services that are needed in the community," said School Board member Tessie Wilson (Braddock). "The community itself decides what services."
On Monday evening, about 180 parents and others gathered in the school's gymnasium to brainstorm about the programs they'd like to see at the school. Vietnamese and Spanish interpreters were on hand, and the county provided free child care for about 80 children during the meeting.
Participants suggested offering classes for English learners and sewing lessons. Several said the community was in need of more soccer fields. Others said they'd like to have a dentist come by once a month. Cooking classes, parenting classes and ballet also were mentioned.
Molly Bensinger-Lacy, principal at Graham Road, said she's also been reviewing police data and students' medical records to help come up with ideas for the school. She said she found that few Graham Road children take medication.
"One possible interpretation is that our kids don't get as much access as is typical to medical services," she said, noting that perhaps a medical clinic could be located at the school.
School officials also are planning to visit another community school, perhaps in New York, and officials are studying similar schools across the country.
Betty Henry, Graham Road's PTA president, has sent three children to the school but stayed on as a PTA member even after her youngest moved on last year. "It's hard to get parents involved because we have a lot of parents who work two jobs," she said.
Henry said she's hopeful that expanding services at Graham Road would help her neighbors get more involved in the school and attract middle-class families. She's heard parents talk about dance classes, a theater program and even a dental clinic.
"I think people are very excited," Henry said. "There are lots of ideas out there. People are shooting for the moon and the stars."