Room To Grow

Room To Grow

Debates over school boundary, prison redevelopment top issues in Lorton.

As one of the fastest growing regions of Northern Virginia, Lorton is experiencing some growing pains, evidenced by a new school that’s already overcrowded. However, with the seemingly endless possibilities granted by the expected redevelopment of the prison site, courtesy of groups like the Lorton Arts Foundation, residents still believe they live in the jewel of Fairfax County.

South County Secondary School

When the school opened last September, with students in grades seven through 11, it was apparent that the school would be over its 2,500 student capacity for the 2006-07 school year. However, few expected the school to be 500 students over capacity, as is expected to be the case come September, or that five modular classrooms would take up a portion of the parking lot at the school by the end of the first school year.

Residents of Lorton and Fairfax Station, who send their children to South County, are bracing themselves for the second boundary study in as many years, set to begin this fall. By examining the boundary of the school, the Fairfax County School Board may decide to shrink the enrollment area, meaning some communities may be reassigned to Lake Braddock or Hayfield Secondary Schools, both of which have empty seats that would accommodate South County’s extra students. During the boundary process, it is expected that a series of town hall-style meetings will be scheduled, so parents can debate and discuss the options for changes to the boundary with School Board members.

To ease the immediate strain on the facility, principal Dale Rumberger has devised a modified bell schedule for the 2006-07 school year, to make the most of the building for his anticipated 3,000 students in grades seven through 12. Under the new schedule, high school students will attend class from 7:20 a.m. until 2:15 p.m. as usual, and those who do not have an after school activity will have to leave the school at 2:15 p.m. Middle school students will arrive and begin class at 9:10 a.m. and will be in class until 4:15 p.m., receiving any remedial or extra help from their teachers during the day instead of after school. Both middle and high school students are expected to retain their ability to participate in sports, music and theater activities, Rumberger said.

South County Middle School

With so many students expected at South County Secondary School, parents of students there are continuing to campaign for a middle school, telling the Fairfax County School Board that the population in Lorton and Fairfax Station will continue to grow and, as a result, so will the student population.

Early in 2006, Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent of facilities and transportation with Fairfax County Public Schools, told members of the School Board that a middle school will not be needed, as Lake Braddock and Hayfield Secondary Schools have enough extra capacity.

Lake Braddock, which is in the final stages of a renovation and expansion project, could potentially have several hundred extra seats, Tistadt has said, and Hayfield, where many students at South County originally went to school, had just finished a renovation before South County opened.

South County parents, however, contend that they were promised a middle school and are continuing to look for creative ways to finance a middle school in advance of its 2014 placement on the county’s Capital Improvement Plan, much in the same way it got South County Secondary School built in advance of its original open date. A site for the middle school, and a planned elementary school, has already been designated, just north of where South County Secondary School is located on Silverbrook Road.

Prison Site Redevelopment

When the Lorton Prison facility closed in 2001, part of the Memorandum of Agreement entered into by Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors, the Park Authority and the Federal Government mandated that a certain amount of the property be left open, while other portions could be adaptively reused. In October 2005, the Board of Supervisors voted to include the 532-acre site in the National Registry of Historic Places, a move that many residents said would make it difficult to attract developers who may revitalize what they believe is a constant reminder of their area’s past.

Earlier this spring, the Board of Supervisors released a Request for Proposals to the community, allowing residents to read and critique the form sent out to developers asking for their ideas to reuse some of the prison structures. Although listed among the National Registry, some of the structures can be torn down, while others can be entirely renovated on the inside while their outer facades remain similar to their original appearance. Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) had promised his constituents that he’d give them the opportunity to view the document before it went to developers, adding that if the response from the RFP was not as enthusiastic as anticipated, some guidelines may be modified to make it more attractive to developers. Responses from the RFP are expected by the end of 2006.

Lorton Arts Foundation

One group that is already taking advantage of the available space at the former Occoquan Workhouse at the Lorton Prison is the Lorton Arts Foundation, which is planning to build an arts center there, complete with theater, studio space and camps for students.

In May, the Lorton Arts Foundation formally received approval from the Board of Supervisors for their plans to renovate the workhouse, along with the first installment of bond approvals so they can begin construction and renovation at the former inmate gymnasium, which will house a performing arts center. Members of the Lorton Arts Foundation are optimistic that the first phase of work will be completed by next summer, so the performing arts camp they co-sponsored with the Little Theater of Alexandria, which is hosting the camp this summer, will be located in Lorton by 2007.

The Lorton Arts Foundation also signed a partnership agreement with the South County Secondary School in December, during a ceremony that featured student performances assembled under the guidance of teachers who were funded through the Foundation. The school’s two main performances, of “You Can’t Take It With You” in the fall and “Oliver!” in the spring, were directed by teachers and professionals involved with the Foundation.

Plans for the Occoquan Workhouse include some commercial storefronts, from mailing centers to allow artists to ship their crafts from their workshops, to restaurants and small retail outlets, in addition to loft-style housing for artists and studio space.