Overcrowding solutions proposed

Community discusses plans for modular, boundary changes


Marina Qu and Haine Jung

McLean High School is no longer just a full house—it’s an overcrowded house. Along with McLean, several other high schools in Fairfax County including Mount Vernon, Oakton and Centreville face the problem of overcrowding. But without a definite solution in sight, McLean is in a more challenging situation.
“McLean is the only high school that is already overcrowded and projected to be more overcrowded over time with no prescribed solution,” said Janie Strauss, the Dranesville District school board member.

McLean is projected to become the most overcrowded high school in FCPS. Its population will increase from 114 percent to 126 percent of its capacity by the 2023-24 school year.

The McLean PTSA held a meeting at McLean on Feb. 19. Strauss spoke about the issue with Kevin Sneed, the special projects administrator for Capital Improvements and Planning. The speakers emphasized the need to take action to combat overcrowding.

“We need to press for change,” Strauss said. “We’ve been watching these numbers, but it is clear that the pipeline is showing us that our first priority is to make some changes at the high school level.”

The Capital Improvement Program (CIP) is a plan FCPS publishes annually to address future needs for the next five years, including funding information, current conditions, future outlooks on various issues and additional resources. Overcrowding is one of the issues addressed in the CIP.

However, this year’s CIP for fiscal years 2020-24 does not contain specific plans to solve McLean’s overcrowding issue, which provoked some complaints from parents who believe the problem was not tackled properly.

“I see no concrete proposals in the draft 2020-24 CIP,” said McLean parent Susan Garrahan during a school board hearing on Jan. 8 at Luther Jackson Middle School.
Due to McLean’s restricted land space, possible long-term solutions are also limited.

“It’s important for our students and parents to know that [McLean] is the smallest high school in the county,” Garrahan said. “It is also in the bottom four of high schools in terms of acreage… We don’t really have the room to significantly expand the school.”

During an interview with The Highlander, Strauss suggested that possible boundary changes could be implemented, but the process can be time-consuming.
“It usually takes 18 months to two years before you begin to implement [boundary changes]. Then there’s a grandfathering period, depending on the community’s willingness to change,” Strauss said. “If you have started high school, usually you want to finish [where you started]… So it takes longer, particularly for high school.”

While McLean is severely overcrowded, Langley High School is undercrowded, at 82 percent of full capacity. Strauss pointed out that altering school districts between McLean and Langley may be beneficial for both schools.

“If [Langley] continues to have declining enrollment, it’s hard to allocate enough teachers to staff all the courses and electives that [students] want to take,” Strauss said. “[Langley would be] running low enrollment courses, which is very inefficient.”

Principal Ellen Reilly expressed her ambivalence about the possible boundary change due to potential effects on students.

“I don’t want to move [any student] over to another school. This is your community,” Reilly said. “[But] it causes me grief when I think about safety and security…about how our teachers are going to be impacted if they have to move [classrooms] every period [due to overcrowding].”

Even though long-term solutions for overcrowding remain possible, mainly short-term solutions have been officially proposed by the school board.
This year’s CIP includes the addition of a modular classroom unit at McLean in the 2019-20 school year to accommodate the Class of 2023, the largest freshman class in the school’s history. Parents have conflicting views regarding this addition.

“A modular alone won’t solve the problem. However, it should provide a nicer quality of temporary classrooms than the moldy trailers we have now, and modulars have bathrooms,” Garrahan said.

Some parents think that the modular additions make a mockery of overcrowding improvements.

“Trailers and modular complexes should be for storage, not for students and learning,” McLean parent Vance Gore said.

Parents think that the board should hasten boundary changes and refrain from viewing it as more than a distant possibility.

“It’s seeming ever more clear that the short-term ‘solution’ requires both a modular and a boundary adjustment,” Garrahan said.

Although McLean’s problem is not fully addressed in the new CIP, it does include solutions for other regions of FCPS.

The CIP contains plans for a new high school to be built in the western area of Fairfax County, which may require a county-wide district change.

“Ultimately, when the new high school is built…it will open the boundaries of Langley, Herndon, Chantilly and Westfield,” Strauss said. “The whole northern piece of Langley will likely be reconfigured, because they’ll be very close to a new high school.”

McLean is likely to benefit from this change as students will go to other schools, reducing its population.

Along with the continual Tysons development, the future McLean Community Business Center will increase the local population, which may worsen overcrowding in schools.

An additional elementary school will also be built in the Tysons area.

Vance Gore co-organized a group called McLean High Students, Parents and Community Expect Sensible School Size (McSPACES) with his son Atticus Gore, a McLean freshman, and other McLean community members. The group’s main goals are to inform the public and make sure McLean’s overcrowing issue receives adequate attention.

“We think it is critically important that a learning environment include adequate, quality learning space,” Vance Gore said.

While parents take an active role in advocating for change, students have often stayed indifferent, although it affects them the most.

“Students absolutely need to be talking about these issues more,” Atticus Gore said. “The more students that show their frustration, the higher the chance of being heard.”

Increased awareness in the McLean community will help solve the problem more efficiently.

“The community needs to be engaged to be part of the solution,” McLean parent Jennifer Von Elm said. “There needs to be sustained pressure in order find a solution for McLean. Our voices need to be heard.”

The casual complaints among students in the intersection between the blue and red hallways indicate that McLean is overcrowded. But soon, without efficient solutions, it will become a problem severe enough to span beyond these complaints.

“This problem isn’t just about McLean High today,” Vance Gore said. “It is also about every child that will go there tomorrow.”