Almost exactly a year ago, Loudoun County school leaders redrew the attendance lines for 10 elementary schools in and around Leesburg. More than 1,100 students were reassigned schools, with the goal of relieving overcrowding.
Now, before a full academic year has passed, enrollment at four of those schools already has surged above their building capacities. John W. Tolbert has 780 students, 48 above its building capacity. Sycolin Creek Elementary has 22 students above capacity. Lucketts’s enrollment stands at 321; it’s building was designed to hold 297. Catoctin’s enrollment is 701, 38 above its building capacity.
There are several schools in the southern end of the county that appear worse off; Buffalo Trail Elementary near Aldie, for example, has 1,224 students this year, 200 more than its building was meant to hold. But Lucketts Principal Carolyn Clement, who has also served as an administer at the eight-year-old Kenneth Culbert Elementary near Hamilton, said the newer school designs have a little more wiggle room than the older buildings.
Two of the Leesburg schools facing the toughest space constraints are housed in two of the county’s oldest school buildings. Catoctin Elementary opened in 1966, with additions added in 1974, 1983 and again in 1999. Lucketts Elementary opened in 1972, and a classroom addition was built in 2001.
“This year we have 24 additional students. That seems so few until you see how we’ve had to use our space,” Clement said of Lucketts Elementary. “We’re using every inch of this building.”
The art and music classroom has been converted to a kindergarten classroom, so the art and music teachers transport their supplies—everything from xylophones to paint brushes—on carts from storage closets to classrooms for each class. That also means art and music takes place in the general education classrooms, so grade-level teachers are left to spend their lunch and planning periods elsewhere.
They won’t find a quiet place in the teacher’s lounge, either. That room is now used as a resource room, where three teachers work with as many as 11 students at once on various remedial lessons. As of this year, the teachers eat lunch on the stage in the gymnasium, while gym class is underway just beyond the stage curtain.
At Clement’s request, the school system built a wall in the office lobby to create a conference room. She also requested a wall in the cafeteria, which partitioned much-needed space for music equipment, and other classroom supplies.
Another wall was added in a hallway to create a small classroom for English Language Learner teachers and students. Twenty-two percent of Lucketts’ students, or about 70 students, receive ELL services, which means they are often pulled out of the regular classroom for additional help. “That’s a lot for a small school,” Clement said.
When standardized testing begins next month, the school’s library will close to be used as a testing center. Students used to test in a computer lab, but that lab is now used as a fifth-grade classroom.
“We have left no stone unturned when it comes to space,” Clement said. “We’re pretty creative.”
She acknowledges that parents at the school urged School Board members a year ago to not reassign even one of its students. And the board listened and followed their request. The board had at one point considered reassigning 12 Lucketts students to other schools. “But even without those 12 students, we would be facing these same issues,” Clement said.
Amy Tribié has experienced the school’s tight quarters both as a teacher and a parent. When she first started teaching music at Lucketts Elementary in 2002, she shared a classroom with an art teacher. Now, she says that it is the only school in the county that doesn’t have a dedicated music and arts room.
“It’s very different now. Storage closets are now resource rooms. In one, three teachers are working with 11 kids at once, all on different subjects,” she said. “I’ve seen students plugging their ears, saying they can’t concentrate.”
Just as full-day kindergarten offerings are expanding in other parts of the county, Lucketts and four other Leesburg elementary schools will lose their full-day kindergarten class next year because of a lack of classroom space, according to School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin).
“It is bad,” said DeKenipp, whose district includes Lucketts and Catoctin elementary schools. “We’re going to need a solution there.”
He said he’s visited Lucketts four times in recent months, each time bringing a fellow board member or a county supervisor to show them just how constrained it is.
He has asked school system senior staff members to come up with some solutions, whether it be adding trailer classrooms, building an expansion, redrawing attendance boundaries, or recommending construction of a new Leesburg area elementary school. They are expected to present those within the next month.
For Lucketts Elementary, DeKenipp says he’ll push for a building expansion. “It’s the most efficient solution. We’ve already got the land there, and we could relieve some of the capacity from central Leesburg schools.”
At Catoctin Elementary, the staff lounge, all special education and ELL rooms, and a reading resource room have been converted into general education classrooms in recent years as enrollment has ticked up above building capacity.
But Catoctin Principal Janet Platenberg said thinking outside of the box to accommodate students hasn’t been all bad. She’s seen some advantages, like more opportunities for teachers to co-teach and for students who would normally be pulled out for remedial lessons, getting that additional help in their general education classroom.
“An older school design is more challenging because they don’t have the smaller resource rooms,” said Platenberg, who has also served as principal at Steuart W. Weller Elementary in Ashburn and Potowmack Elementary in Cascades. “However, some of the best teaching models I have observed have been a result of being more creative with our learning spaces.”
The challenges of overcrowding will likely not end with Catoctin and Lucketts. Evergreen Mill Elementary and other schools on the southern end of the town will see a slew of new students as the Meadowbrook subdivision is built just off Evergreen Mill Road.
The long-term solution may come in the form of a new school building. However, none of the developers building homes in Leesburg have proffered land for another school site.
DeKenipp favors finding a solution without building another school, by instead adding onto existing buildings or redrawing attendance boundaries to use what capacity is available.
“At the end of the day we have to be more efficient with the resources we are in charge of,” he said, “and I’m not sure we’re doing that now.”