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Students at Bailey’s Elementary School, last year squeezed tight into a too-small school building, now have room to grow in Fairfax County’s first urban-design school.

The county school system converted a five-story office building on Leesburg Pike into a second campus for the severely overcrowded Falls Church school.

Last year, Bailey’s Elementary operated at 30 percent over capacity, with more than 1,300 students in a building designed to accommodate 1,024. The school grounds held 19 trailers to make room for the overflowing population, and half of the library was converted into classroom space.

“The overcrowding, the encroaching into the library - we had a problem we needed to fix,” said Jeff Platenberg, assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation services. “In relatively short order, we have created a solution and put together an amazing learning environment.”

The new campus will open its doors on the first day of school on Tuesday as Bailey’s Upper Elementary. The building will serve third through fifth grade, while the original campus a mile up the road will hold preschool through second grade.

While the building is designed to hold 795 students, it will start with approximately 700 students, Platenberg said.

When school officials first put forth the idea of an office-building elementary school, the reaction of parents and community members ranged from tentatively excited to skeptical, even suspicious, Platenberg said.

The FCPS administration drew criticism for what some saw as a unilateral and hasty decision to move forward with the plan.

But Bailey’s Elementary Principal Marie Lemmon, who will lead both campuses, sees the new building as a step up, and not just in terms of height.

“I think this design is better than so many of the traditional designs we have,” Lemmon said. “I know it’s unique and it’s new and it’s something that people have to get used to, but at the end of the day I think it’s better for our kids and our teachers.”

The school system purchased the office building in December and completed the design and conversion in a matter of months.

The L-shaped building features learning communities at the end of each wing. Each community includes classrooms on two floors of the building - floors two and three or floors four and five. The classrooms open onto a central space featuring a learning theater and one-flight staircase to connect the two levels.

The school also features an unusual physical education setup. With no room for a full gymnasium, the building instead features four exercise spaces, including two general fitness rooms, one dance room and one room featuring interactive elements such as golf simulator.

The total square footage of the four spaces is equivalent to a standard school gym, said Lauren Ford, an architect with Cooper Carry, the design firm contracted for the project.

The new campus also features classroom upgrades including ergonomic student seating and white board walls on two sides of each room.

While Bailey’s Upper Elementary has already earned Lemmon’s stamp of approval, the principal said the ultimate test will come next week, when students fill the building.

“The kids will come in and they’ll get to see the space and we’ll get the ultimate feedback from them,” Lemmon said.

Platenberg for his part sees the new school as a window into the future for the expanding Fairfax County school system, which is projected to crest 200,000 students by 2020.

“We keep growing at an alarming rate, and that growth has to be met,” Platenberg said. “And the only way to meet it in the future is to go vertical.”

kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com