Stakeholders consider solutions to school overcrowding issues

WOODSTOCK – Parents, teachers and administrators involved with Shenandoah County Public Schools considered multiple solution options to remedy the overcrowding issues in the northern and central regions of the county at a Tuesday night facility stakeholders’ meeting.

The meeting served as a preparatory prelude to the larger upcoming meeting in Central High School’s cafeteria at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

“… I’m hopeful that we have a lot of citizens, a lot of community members, a lot of parents and students who join us for that discussion,” Superintendent Jeremy Raley said as part of his introduction. “It’s really the last opportunity to weigh in and be a part of the discussion before the School Board hears the final presentation on October the eighth.”

Tracy Richter, a hired consultant from the DeJong Richter firm, started off by giving a rundown of how next week’s meeting will go, noting that instead of allowing hours of time for personal comments, the consultants will instead collect written data from groups facilitated by committee members. That data will consist of ratings and comparisons of proposed solutions along with comments and suggestions for additions and combining solutions.

As Richter emphasized, the meeting will not have a vote to decide which solution to proceed with, but the feedback received will play a role in the proposal along with data collected and alignment with the schools’ educational mission.

“There are three major components to this … and they all weigh equally,” he said.

Richter and fellow consultants Michael Ross, from the HBA Architecture firm, and Matt Sachs, with DeJong Richter, presented six options, none of which would be without some sort of cost. Each option was followed by discussion that weighed the benefits and drawbacks, and stakeholders suggested some combinations.

The first solution presented was twofold. First was the option of changing grade configurations at schools so that elementary schools would hold pre-K through fourth grade classes, middle schools would hold fifth through seventh grade classes and high schools would hold eighth through 12th grade classes. The second option involved changing the middle schools to operate on a junior high model with fifth through eighth grades, which would affect utilization rates.

The second option of reducing pre-K and kindergarten public school opportunities was largely unpopular. Assistant Superintendent Evelyn Linaburg said pre-K and kindergarten programs are vital for ensuring that all students are brought onto a level playing field to begin school.

Options of increasing elementary class sizes and purchasing four temporary modular classrooms for use at W.W. Robinson and Sandy Hook elementary schools were especially unpopular with the teaching and administration staff present. Another concern raised for the temporary classrooms was that they would not remain temporary.

Although stakeholders soon realized the fifth option of changing the elementary and middle schools to multi-track year-round schools was in effect a long-term solution, Richter was pleased to see that it provoked further consideration and discussion among parents and administrators. For better understanding, the consultants provided an example of such a system at Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina.

The sixth option of changing campus boundaries took large amounts of data on where students live into account. Sachs showed certain suggestions for boundary changes and how they would affect students and school capacities.

All of the presented options are only meant for a short-term implementation until a long-term solution can be adapted a few years down the road. Richter reminded the committee to consider the ability to cycle out of each proposed solution once a long-term solution comes into play. Many expressed concern that certain proposals like the year-round school model and rezoning would have lasting effects on Shenandoah County schools, and that some options couldn’t realistically be implemented until 2017.

Throughout the course of the three-hour meeting, many people expressed frustration with the fact that the scope of the study is only for the short-term. Sandy Hook Elementary principal Robin Shrum said she continuously had to remind herself that they were not discussing long-term solutions at the meeting, and School Board member Kathryn Holsinger said jokingly that at the September meeting, she’d want the choice of option seven: none of the above.

When School Board member Katheryn Freakley asked Richter if the team is in a good position to consider options for long-term solutions as well give their study and collection of data, he replied that the short answer is yes. As mentioned at the School Board meeting earlier this month, the board has the option of exercising the long-term portion of their contract with the firms within six years. For now, the consultants are only tasked with a report of short-term solutions to be heard at the Oct. 8 School Board meeting.

While some solutions were not received well by the committee at large, Richter said that different schools have seen successes with every option. By the end of the meeting, stakeholders decided to keep all options on the table for consideration next week, despite comments and discussion at varying levels of favorability.