Mercer Middle School, Loudoun County’s most crowded school, has gotten creative to accommodate 255 more students than the building was designed to hold.
To cut down on the number of times 1,605 students must forge the hallways, daily homerooms have been replaced with a weekly advisory period. And students are asked to follow strict traffic patterns: no left turns unless absolutely necessary.
“This traffic scheme is the only way kids can get to class. And they’re only going to have more students next year,” said School Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles), who represents the district in which Mercer sits.
It will be another couple of years before Mercer Middle School, and other packed schools in the southern end of the county, get much reprieve. That will come when a yet-to-be-named middle school (MS-7) opens along Braddock Road in August 2018.
Until then, the school system faces what its leaders have called an “enrollment hump.” Some members of the Loudoun County School Board saw the opening of Brambleton Middle School as a chance to move about 200 students from Mercer, and other schools south of Rt. 50, to schools north of it to get over that so-called hump.
But, as the board adopted school assignments for Brambleton Middle and HS-11, the high school next door, last week, the majority of members opted for a boundary map that moves the fewest students, holding off on any major changes to families to the south. Board members who favored the adopted map, called Plan 2 Amended, said it will mean fewer assignment changes for students in those very full schools. For example, they don’t want a middle school student to be moved north to Brambleton Middle School in 2017 only to be reassigned to MS-7 when it opens in the following year.
They prefer to redraw the attendance lines in the south this fall, when they have new enrollment projections and, hopefully, a site for HS-9, the high school slated to open in 2021. “I do think it’s the right move to wait and gather more information about enrollment projections,” said Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn).
But the adopted boundaries also leave Mercer Middle School with 688 students above its building capacity this fall and 1,050 students over by 2017. It also leaves Eagle Ridge Middle School 153 students over capacity in 2017.
Morse, who proposed the alternate plan that would have shifted about 200 students who live south of Rt. 50 to schools north of the highway, said it was unfair to Mercer’s team of administrators and teachers to put off moving kids. “I was there this week—they’re overwhelmed,” he said.
From the dais ahead of the May 10 boundary vote he told families in the audience, “Nobody wants to move, but something’s got to give.”
Mercer Principal Bob Phillips, described by one parent as a glass-half-full kind of guy, has encouraged the staff and students to make the best of the situation. This fall, about two-thirds of the school’s eighth grade will attend classes in a wing of John Champe High School, while the high school’s foreign language department will move into eight trailers on the campus.
Phillips describes the work to prepare for that shift as a chance to improve communication between John Champe and Mercer staff members, who want to do more than just make do during the enrollment surge. “These kids only have one shot at middle school, so we want to make it the best for them while we have them,” he said. “It’s a big task, but they’ll do whatever the students need to get the job done.”
Christin Lecker, a parent of two Mercer Middle School students, said she’d take a packed school over her kids having to get used to a new middle school. She lives in the Lenah Run community, which was slated in Morse’s boundary plan to attend the new Brambleton Middle School to the north. She and her neighbors made their opposition to that plan clear to board members ahead of last week’s vote, speaking at public hearings and organizing a petition with 378 signatures.
“The continuity for our kids and having that seamless transition needs to be a priority,” Lecker said.
And her kids certainly don’t feel like they are two of nearly 2,000 students, she added. The administration and teachers make it a point to know students by name, connect with families through written notes or late-night emails, and are open to meeting with parents before or after school. “They are wonderful,” Lecker said. “They make it a point to connect with every kid.”
Until more schools can be built, families in the Dulles District may see some non-traditional methods to house the growing number of students, even beyond classroom trailers. One option on the table is to open an intermediate school and house sixth- and seventh-graders at Mercer Middle School, eighth- and ninth-graders at Brambleton Middle School and 10th- through 12th-graders at John Champe High School.
“If enrollment projections are as they currently are, we’ll have to make some sort of changes ahead of MS-7 opening,” Morse said. “It’s all a matter of available seats.”
Living in one of the county’s—and one of the nation’s—fastest growing areas, Lecker knows her youngest son, a first-grader at Buffalo Trail Elementary, may not get to attend the same middle school as his older siblings. But she’s still keeping her fingers crossed.
“He already talks about going to Mercer,” she said. “There’s a connection for our family and a sense of ownership there. We just love that school.”
Editor’s note: The article has been updated to reflect that the entire eighth-grade class of Mercer Middle School will not be housed at John Champe High School. About two-thirds of those students will spend part of their week at the high school.