Fairfax High School is more than 300 students over capacity and could reach as high as 700 students over capacity by 2017 if nothing is done, according to Fairfax County Public School projections. School officials are scrambling to create a solution to the crowding situation at the high school and neighboring Lanier Middle School, which is seeing similar capacity issues.
“We’re feeling extreme pressure throughout the system because of enrollment increases,” Fairfax County Public Schools’ Chief Operating Officer Dean Tistadt said Monday, during a meeting with county School Board members on crowding.
Fairfax city-elected council and school board officials also attended the meeting, but did not speak during the County School Board’s discussion.
Fairfax County Public Schools’ enrollment topped 180,000 students this year for the first time, with the addition of 3,592 students this fall. The school system’s enrollment has increased about 2 percent each year for the last five years.
To complicate Fairfax High’s and Lanier Middle’s situation, both schools recently were renovated, funded by city residents. County school staff said adding on to buildings to increase capacity was not an option. They added that because county students make up 65 percent of both city schools’ enrollment, it would be unreasonable to ask city residents to fund further improvements.
Students living in the city will not be moved out of the high school, said Fairfax City Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan.
However, he added, “This is not at all about wanting to get county kids out. Our perspective is we want our schools at capacity… not over.”
Fairfax High School Principal David Goldfarb told county school officials that science labs cannot host the number of students registering for science classes. The school added six trailers this year, five of which are being used for physics classes, he said.
Similarly, the school’s auditorium seats about 1,100, while enrollment is at 2,700-plus students.
“We couldn’t fit half the school in there,” Goldfarb said.
Tistadt said making Fairfax High School bigger does not make sense.
“The only real solution is a boundary [change],” he said. “The good news is we do have some space in the schools near there.”
Tistadt proposed beginning a boundary study on the city schools this fall, starting with identifying the scope, which could include six other high schools and the magisterial districts of Springfield, Braddock, Providence and Sully. The School Board could then approve the scope of the study as early as January or February 2013, with a vote on the adjustments in spring of 2013.
Because of class registration, Tistadt suggested that it would be less disruptive to move students in fall 2014 than trying to move them in fall 2013.
Several County School Board members said they were concerned that the year-long time frame to study and decide on the boundary shift might cause problems down the line for other schools.
“I understand the impact of this issue, but I want to know how it’s going to impact other [crowding] issues,” School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon District) said. “The city obviously has great interest in moving this up, but the [county school] board might not have that same interest … and having all these other issues stack up.”
In his district, Storck said, he has several schools also anticipating the need for boundary adjustments because of crowding, specifically in the U.S. 1 corridor.
School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District) said at least two of the high schools in her district likely would fall into the scope of this study.
“I don’t want to throw in more than we need to,” she said. “I don’t want to move a piece of kids out … and then it turns out we’ve stripped Fairfax High School down more than we had to.”
City and county school officials also will seek to balance voices and input between the two governing bodies. Fairfax County has managed and operated the city’s schools since Fairfax was a town. During its transition to a city, the city and county agreed to have FCPS continue managing and operating city schools. Buildings are owned by the city, which has its own school board and administration.
“I see our role as one of partnership, specifically as a resource,” Noonan said. “I’m very pleased that the Fairfax County School Board has decided to move forward with a study on the issues at Fairfax High School and Lanier Middle School.”