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Questioning the need to expand Advanced Academic Programming for gifted and talented students, School Board members on Monday struggled to separate programming expansion from crowding solutions faced by many of the county’s elementary and middle schools.

“We’re either here to have an AAP discussion or we’re here to have an overcrowding discussion; and I feel like somehow the overcrowding has become a vehicle to having an AAP discussion,” said School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District) during Monday’s work session on the expansion. “Somehow we’ve piggybacked a need to address overcrowding with an AAP issue and I don’t know that this is the best solution.”

School administrators have sought School Board approval for adding new AAP centers in fall 2013 to Lemon Road, Westbriar and Navy elementary schools, which they said would relieve crowding at neighboring Haycock, Louise Archer and Hunters Woods elementary schools. Haycock, Archer and Hunters Woods currently have AAP students who travel to these schools from their base-school attendance areas.

Similarly, the School Board will also consider expanding AAP centers at Silverbrook Elementary and Cooper, Herndon, Thoreau, and South County middle schools.

Expansion to these proposed four elementary and four middle schools represents a scaling back on initial proposals to add AAP centers to 14 middle and six elementary schools. Expanding the program to more schools, administrators said, would help to curb crowding at schools with existing programs as well as balance equity of access issues countywide.

School Board members like Schultz voiced concerns that opening new centers in schools at or over capacity, or projected to be over capacity in terms of student enrollment would only pass the crowding problem from one school to the next.

“I don’t understand this approach of moving the problem from one school to another and why we’re inflicting, sort of, the very thing we’re trying to relieve… on the next school population,” Schultz said.

School Board members like Megan McLauglin (Braddock District) questioned how students are identified as gifted and talented. McLaughlin and other board members had previously expressed concerns about the growing number of students qualifying for AAP services. That number has grown three-fold in just over a decade, from 4,290 students during the 1998-99 academic year to 13,339 this year.

“We have to get a handle on an AAP program that has grown by 300 percent in the last decade,” McLaughlin said, adding that at Haycock Elementary and others, the AAP center has created both crowding at a school and divisions between the gifted and regular-tracked students.

Advanced Academic Programs are offered to advanced learners with the goal of challenging those students who learn at a faster rate, think at a higher level and/or study sophisticated and complete content, according to FCPS. These students are identified through an examination process. While some of the programs are pull-out or small-group interaction within the classroom, the Level IV program is a full-time program for students in grades three through eight.

“We live in a highly educated county and as a result we have highly talented, bright, capable kids,” McLaughlin said. “And this growth of identifying Level IV [AAP kids] has reached the point where, honestly, I think it’s really hard for parents to tell who’s truly gifted anymore…”

Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services Sloan J. Presidio said school staff is looking at the increased percentage of students qualifying for AAP services.

“The last board [work] session, we looked at some of the patterns and trends in AAP enrollment,” he said. “And there’s a number of questions about the eligibility process, the norms on the exams. And we’ve been working with the text publishers to tighten that down a little bit, to get predictability into our numbers.”

The School Board could vote on AAP center expansion as early as its next business meeting on Jan. 24 at Jackson Middle School.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com