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Students arrived at a School Board meeting Monday armed with signs protesting plans to expand the Advanced Academic Program Centers throughout the school system. County administrators have proposed increasing the number of AAP centers to include 14 additional middle schools and six additional elementary schools.

If implemented, all middle schools would have AAP Centers and programs would be available at the elementary school level in each of Fairfax County Public Schools’ eight pyramids. On Monday, FCPS staff presented the School Board with alternatives to the full implementation of this expansion, which was planned for fall 2013.

Implementation alternatives included opening centers only at locations that would alleviate immediate crowding concerns at Louise Archer (102 students over capacity), Haycock (180 over capacity) and Hunters Woods (196 over capacity) elementary schools. Another staff proposed alternative, based on parents’ concerns, was to delay implementation until fall 2014.

During the past three weeks, parents of academically gifted children in the county have mounted an aggressive email campaign to School Board members appealing the expansion efforts. More than 900 parents and community members attended a series of public hearings on the proposed expansion held in late November.

Parents’ concerns include improper or swift planning and unknown impacts to the rigor of AAP center curriculum. School Board member discussion Monday leaned toward delaying full implementation of the expansion plan, allowing more time for community input and implementation planning.

“We’re not anywhere near being able to adopt changes to our AAP program right now,” School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason District) said. “We haven’t seen how this is educationally sound for our most academically advanced learners… We haven’t seen for ourselves the research that supports doing that… Right now we’re talking a lot about logistics, but we haven’t talked about what really is the goal of AAP curriculum.”

Advanced Academic Programs are offered to advanced learners with the goal of challenging those students who learn at a faster rate, think at a higher level and/or study sophisticated and complete content, according to FCPS. These students are identified through an examination process. While some of the programs are pull-out or small-group interaction within the classroom, the Level IV program is a full-time program for students in grades three through eight.

Expansions to the AAP centers were proposed by a staff task force that convened last spring. The school system argues that the increase in services will provide equity of access to currently underserved children, while simultaneously reducing crowding in schools that enrolled AAP students, who would normally attend their neighborhood school. Staff said even with the cost of training and/or hiring new teachers for the expansion, the school system will save money when they are not transporting students to locations outside of their base school attendance areas.

“Are we watering down our AAP curriculum by doing this?” Evans asked. “I think we need to go back to the drawing board.”

School Board member Patty Reed (Providence District) agreed saying, “Just by throwing this out so quickly we are getting people very upset, making kids anxious [about school assignments].”

Reed and School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District) expressed concerns about the number of students who were qualifying to AAP services. During the last five years, enrollment in Level IV AAP Centers has nearly doubled from 9.7 percent to 16.6 percent of the third through eighth grade population. The number of centers at the elementary and middle school levels has increased from 23 to 24 and 10 to 11 respectively during the five years.

“In my mind we have to address the overcrowding, but we need to have a broader discussion on how we identify who is gifted, what is gifted and how we drew this line in the sand to get from 6 [percent] to 16,” McLaughlin said.

School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville District) said she was primarily concerned with addressing crowding at Haycock Elementary.

“Haycock is in a very difficult situation… I’ve never had a school that has this kind of challenge,” she said, adding that renovations are scheduled to begin at the school in early 2014. “Already the building is under huge stress… It is extremely difficult to deliver instruction.”

Strauss added that reports from educators at the school include complaints that students do not have enough play space, bathrooms or lunch areas. Opening an AAP Center at Lemon Road Elementary, she said, would relieve stress on the school now, as well as when it begins renovations.

Advanced Academic Program Centers first opened in FCPS in 1963. Virginia is one of about 30 states that mandate services for gifted students, according to FCPS. Locations for centers were based on availability of space within schools. About 20 percent of the students eligible to go on to a Level IV Center decline because it would mean relocating to another school, staff said Monday.

The task force which assembled the recommendation for expansion of the AAP Centers included teachers, principals, facilities, transportation, human resources, special services and instructional services personnel.

The School Board could vote to expand or delay expansion as early as Jan. 10, its first meeting of the new year.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com