Overcapacity in the Western District Schools

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Henley Middle School (Photo: Lisa Martin)

As new restaurants and merchants spring up throughout Crozet, highlighting the benefits of population growth in western Albemarle County, parents and officials are concerned about the impact of that growth on area schools.

Preliminary projections recently compiled by the county show Western Albemarle High School enrollment exceeding official capacity by the start of the new school year this fall. Over a ten-year horizon, the school expects a 20 percent increase in enrollment, from the current 1,080 to 1,300 students beginning in 2024. Henley Middle School, already the largest middle school in the division, foresees almost 17 percent growth, topping 1,000 students in ten years.

Crozet and Brownsville Elementary Schools are both operating at slightly above their maximums despite Brownsville’s 2009 addition. On the forefront of the growth spurt is Meriwether Lewis Elementary, which burst through the building’s capacity in 2007 and is 45 students over this year, a surplus that is expected to persist throughout the ten-year planning horizon.

Holly Stancil, mother of three children in Western district schools and former PTO president at Meriwether Lewis, expressed a fundamental concern shared by many parents. “Will there will be enough seats in the high school by the time my youngest gets there? You can’t just snap your fingers one year and have a new high school or expand one. What is our solution?”

Darah Bonham, WAHS Principal (Photo: Mike Marshall)

WAHS principal Darah Bonham, now in his second year, said, “right now it feels like a creeping, incremental growth,” while noting that Western has 25 more students this year than projected, drawing within three of building capacity. He said the first to feel a squeeze are the staff.

“Our teachers teach six out of eight [periods], and the majority are able to stay in their classrooms for planning each day. But as we get higher in numbers, part-time teachers float and begin to occupy those spaces.”

The school administrators strive to use the building’s layout efficiently. As the school’s science labs are remodeled and renovated in the coming year, Bonham will look for options, such as “whether you can change the functionality of the rooms, or use the spaces more collaboratively by different departments.”

When parents consider the impact of overcrowding, however, they first think not of staff or space, but of their children. “I think the thing that parents care most about is class size,” said Stancil. “I know teachers do their best to teach whomever they have, but it makes a huge difference in the experience.”

County policy requires staffing to be set by the number of students, so the ratio should remain consistent and new classes would be added when enrollment increases. The problem remains: where to hold additional classes when a school runs out of room? Meriwether Lewis currently uses four trailers for music, counseling, and ESOL activities.

Henley Middle School principal Beth Costa is sanguine. “I don’t feel that pinch yet,” she said.  “Right now, class sizes are manageable at 25 students per teacher and below.” When enrollment does surge, common areas such as the cafeteria and hallways become congested, and Costa is keeping an eye on the projections. “If they believe that Henley will be close to 1,000 students [in ten years], what will they do in four, five, six years to be ready for ten?”

As with most attempts at predicting the future, enrollment projections are a tricky business. The school division has historically used a method called Cohort Survival, also known as a Grade Progression Ratio. The ratio measures the change in the number of students who progress from one grade to the next (calculated by school), and uses that ratio to predict future changes in enrollment. This year the county asked the Weldon Cooper Center (WCC), a University of Virginia group specializing in demographics research, to take a look at their projection methods.

Hamilton Lombard, the WCC analyst working closely with county staff, is satisfied. “I’ve looked at their numbers, and the county is pretty well on top of this,” he said. Lombard is refining the measures by geocoding the Virginia Department of Health birth records so that they reflect the correct school district. The birth data is used to project kindergarten enrollment, the most difficult number to estimate in the process.

For some parents, the progression ratio method raises questions. Kelly Gobble, former Brownsville Elementary PTO president and parent of three children in the district, wondered about the kids missed by using birth data. “If families move into a brand-new neighborhood, at what point do the children get counted? Not until they show up at the school.” Gobble asked a perennial question: How is housing growth, a significant factor in the Western district, explicitly incorporated into enrollment projections?

Rosalyn Schmitt, Assistant Director of Facilities Planning for Albemarle County

The short answer: it’s not, according to Rosalyn Schmitt, Assistant Director of Facilities Planning for the county. “There is no direct way for us to factor in a particular new housing development,” she explained. “There are just too many unknown variables,” such as the builder’s timetable, the composition of new families, and the offsetting effect of slowing growth in older housing. “If we know there’s a lot of building going on, we are more likely to choose a historical model with a higher growth rate,” to calculate future enrollment.

The lack of more precise metrics frustrates parents like Gobble. “Crozet has been designated by the county as a growth area, so why not use housing data specific to that area to predict enrollment?” she asked. But Schmitt and Lombard believe their ratio model will adequately track the trends, because it already incorporates historical growth rates. “If [growth] has always happened, you will capture it,” said Schmitt.

Longer-term projections are inherently more risky. In 2011, Brownsville Elementary enrollment was forecast to grow by 55 percent over the succeeding ten years—a rate that set off alarm bells and spurred discussion of an expansion to the school—but by 2016 that projection had been slashed to 5 percent. When the recession hit, said Lombard, new developments were put on hold or abandoned, and the sharpest growth did not materialize. Lombard cautions against using ten-year predictions at all. “The longer the window, the bigger the potential error,” he explains. “Five-year projections should be adequate.”

So what happens next? The body at the School Division charged with planning for the schools’ future is the 19-member Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee (LRPAC), comprised of citizen representatives and division professionals. The Committee is required to look at alternatives when a school’s enrollment reaches 95 percent of its capacity, but the numbers are only part of the equation, said Schmitt. “I guarantee the West is going to be a topic this coming year. We know there’s a lot of building out there.”

The LRPAC sets priorities for the Capital Improvement Plan based on projected facilities needs each year. In 2016, the Board decided to fund a planning study encompassing all four high schools to make a holistic plan for the division. An outside consulting firm will be hired to conduct the study, and there will be plenty of opportunities for public comment before a recommendation is made this fall.

Before that work can commence, however, there is an intermediate step, as Pat McLaughlin, the Division’s Strategic Planning Officer who also served as Henley Middle School principal for eight years, explained. “We don’t know what the buildings can look like if we don’t know what our instructional model will look like. The state is talking about changing their requirements for graduation as part of their Portrait of a Graduate within the High School 2022 project, which may change how the buildings are used. We expect to present a draft program guide in February and that will be enough to get started on the planning study.”

At a Jan. 23 meeting of the LRPAC, members suggested that a solution for the high schools could take many forms, from building a new facility to expanding current buildings to redistricting students between schools. “We never take redistricting lightly,” said Schmitt. “There would have to be a very compelling and strong reason to do it.”

Indeed, after studying the problem of severe overcrowding at Albemarle High School, the LRPAC empaneled a Redistricting Committee in 2015, which advised the School Board to move more than 200 students to Monticello High School. The Board ultimately rejected that idea, deciding that redistricting did not solve the underlying long-term problem.

Awaiting a permanent solution, AHS now has eight classroom cottages installed outside the school as temporary classrooms to accommodate the student body. WAHS now faces the same enrollment trajectory as that of AHS five years ago, surging to 200 students over capacity by 2023. A comprehensive solution for the high schools’ overcrowding problem in this year’s planning study will give Western district families much-needed room to grow.

Western Albemarle High School Photo: Lisa Martin

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