Enrollment Spike Has School Leaders Grappling with Options

Loudoun’s school leaders have a history of creativity when making room for the thousands of new students who move into the county each year. They’ve turned building wings into annexes and bussed students in from nearby crowded schools and, in one instance, they operated a middle school as an intermediate school for eight years until Woodgrove High School opened.

Now, they’re debating how best to accommodate a surge of growth in the southern end of the county while they wait for a new high school to be built.

The problem is the middle and high schools in the Aldie and South Riding areas are crowded. Willard Middle School will provide some relief when it opens along Braddock Road next fall, but the high schools won’t get any relief until Lightridge High School opens nearby in 2020.

When School Board members drew attendance boundary lines for the area earlier this year, they decided to operate Willard as an intermediate school, housing grades eight and nine while John Champe High School houses grades 10 through 12, until Lightridge High School opens in 2020.

But now senior staff members say they have a better option.

Secondary school principals worked with Middle School Director Neil Slevin and High School Director Nereida Gonzalez-Sales to draft an alternate plan that has raised concerns among some teachers and board members. The alternate plan, which the board will vote on tomorrow, would use excess capacity at Willard to open an annex for John Champe freshmen, who alternate daily between attending classes at the Willard and at John Champe.

Slevin acknowledged that each plan has its pluses and minuses. But he said the benefit of the alternate plan, of having freshmen split their time between Willard and John Champe, is it would help the freshmen feel more connected to their high school.

“This would help make sure ninth-graders are getting a more traditional high school experience, and help connect them to John Champe because they would spend every other day in that building,” Slevin said, adding that it would especially help students who want to take part in sports and other extra-curricular activities.

He and Gonzalez-Sales said they’ve seen similar situations work well: for the past two years, Mercer Middle School eighth-graders have attended an annex at John Champe High School every other day, and last year, Stone Hill Middle School eighth-graders attended Rock Ridge High School every other day.

“We evaluated the success of those annexes to draft this plan,” Slevin said.

But the alternate plan has teachers at John Champe on edge. David Palanzi, president of the Loudoun Education Association, met with a group of teachers from the high school who are concerned that the alternate plan will mean high enrollment at John Champe for two more years.

Under the alternate plan, the high school would serve a total of 2,418 students next year, but only 2,118 at any given time because 300 of the freshman would be attending part-time at Willard. The following year, it would serve a total of 2,736 students, but only house 2,064 at any given time. The building is designed to hold 2,204 students.

Jeff Reed, who’s taught social sciences at John Champe since it opened in 2012, said that, as is, many teachers are asked to move classrooms several times a day as the school works to free up classroom space for a Mercer Middle School annex.

“I am in three rooms, and I know several teachers who are in four different places every two days,” Reed said. “There’s no place to meet with students, to administer tests or makeups. It’s like Rt. 50 in the hallways. It’s just a mess.”

School Board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), whose district includes students who attend John Champe, favors the original option of using Willard as an intermediate school for two years.

She said the back-and-forth between schools is too complicated for students and teachers. “It’s a lot of movement,” she said, adding that she’s heard from several teachers who are not happy with the option. Two of her children attended Harmony as freshmen when it served as an intermediate school from 2002 to 2010. “We’ve seen the intermediate model work with Harmony and Blue Ridge for many, many more years than we’ll have for the Dulles South area and had no issues with it. … I just think it’s best to keep it simple and don’t complicate it.”


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