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Albemarle eyes moving Mountain View fifth-graders to Walton to ease capacity crunch

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Fifth-graders at Walton

Cyndi Wells, principal of Mountain View Elementary School, reads to fifth-graders taking classes at Walton Middle School. To accommodate social distancing requirements, some of Mountain View’s fifth-graders started going to Walton when the Albemarle school division opened up in-person learning this spring. Due to overcrowding, the division is looking at the possibility of sending all of Mountain View’s fifth-graders to Walton for the coming academic year.

Bringing students back full time to an overcrowded Mountain View Elementary could entail moving fifth-graders to Walton Middle School, parents recently learned.

Otherwise, Mountain View would need to use the art room, music room, library and an outdoor trailer that doesn’t have running water to accommodate all students from preschool to fifth grade, Principal Cyndi Wells said at a virtual community meeting last week.

“This is complex; this is not easy,” Wells told families. “This is challenging, but I have confidence that we can figure this out together. Every change we’ve had this year through each of the stages has seemed impossible, and we did it and we did it together.”

About 60 fifth-graders have in-person classes at Walton this year following the Albemarle County school division’s move to Stage Four in mid-March, though they still have access to all of the same classes and teachers as they would at Mountain View. Walton is about a 10-minute drive from the elementary school.

The decision is not final, but Wells wanted to tell parents now — instead of July — about the possibility. Division spokesman Phil Giaramita said officials will be looking carefully at the intent forms for next school year, which will be sent to families June 1 and due back June 11, as they weigh what to do about the fifth grade. Changing COVID-19 restrictions also could affect the decision.

There will be about 115 fifth-graders at Mountain View in the coming academic year.

“We want our children to have a safe, comfortable learning environment,” Wells said. “… The division has been monitoring our capacity issues and evaluating options to address it. … Our overcrowding really has everyone’s attention. It definitely has ours, but division leadership is looking at this. There’s been ongoing conversations.”

Mountain View is the division’s second-largest elementary school, with 662 students enrolled this year, a number that’s lower than usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Next year, officials are projecting 704 kindergarten to fifth-grade students to enroll at Mountain View; the school’s capacity is 624, which does not include pre-kindergarteners.

A $6.2 million expansion of the school is planned to ease the overcrowding; however, that won’t help with the coming school year. Typically, the division uses trailers to address immediate needs, but the Mountain View site has limited space for another trailer, Giaramita said.

Giaramita said the capacity challenge is not a new problem for the county.

“It’s never-ending,” he said. “... That’s one of the byproducts of being in a growing, ever-expanding school division, and particularly one that outstrips projections. The county continues to be a desired growth area.”

The county school division has not built a new school since 2002, opting to expand existing facilities. However, division officials have said that won’t be a viable strategy moving forward.

To accommodate the fifth-graders, Giaramita said Walton added age-appropriate books to the library. For next year, school administrators are looking into ways to expand access to county parks and recreation programs to make up for the lack of a playground at the middle school.

Walton’s enrollment is at 338, and the capacity is 499, according to division documents.

“We have the capacity, which is why we brought fifth grade over,” Walton Principal Josh Walton said at the community meeting.

“... It’s been wonderful to have them in the building. They really fit right in. They’re in a separate area from the sixth through eighth grade classes. They’ve just rolled with it. Other than that they don’t have a playground, they’ve done really, really well,” he said.

Walton added that the middle school students see the fifth-graders as part of the school.

“They are Wildcat-Colts,” he said, referring to the mascots for both schools.

Parents had the chance to ask questions about the plan at the community meeting, but that discussion was not recorded.

Giaramita said feedback from the current fifth-grade families was positive.

“Had the transition in March not gone quite as well, I think we’d have been less confident about it,” he said. “But it did go very well, and I think has given us a lot more confidence that we know how to do this.”

Moving fifth grade to Walton for next school year means that those families wouldn’t have access to after-school care. Additionally, those students’ day would follow the middle school schedule, which wraps up around 4 p.m.

Giaramita said other supports, such as counseling, also would be available to Mountain View students at Walton. The middle school has two full-time school counselors.

“The intent is not to give any of that up,” he said.

The school also has a Spanish language immersion program similar to that at Mountain View, though adapted for middle school students.

Walton said the fifth-graders would have the opportunity to participate in Walton and Mountain View activities, as well as middle school extracurriculars. He added that a lot of planning still needs to happen before the start of next school year.

““We would have them really as part of the Walton community,” Walton said of the fifth-graders. “… So it’s really the best of both worlds in many ways. It’s a nice introduction to middle school.”

The long term

To figure out a long-term solution for Mountain View, the division has hired an outside consulting firm to assess the situation and make recommendations. The firm is expecting to make those recommendations to the division by the end of June, according to a presentation at last week’s meeting.

Recommendations could include building a new school, an expansion, redistricting or some combination of those three, according to the presentation.

The study was called for in 2019 as part of the division’s Long Range Planning Advisory Committee report. At the time, division data projected that Mountain View’s enrollment would drop over five years. However, the school’s enrollment jumped from 637 to 721 in 2019-20, heightening the need for the expansion and long-term solution.

Student population density in the Mountain View attendance area has increased the most in and around Old Lynchburg Road since 2007, according to the presentation.

Last year, to address the overcrowding, division officials considered moving preschool classrooms to Walton Middle School, though the pandemic paused those plans.

“It’s a complex problem,” Wells said. “We’re in a growth area.”

Funding for the expansion, which will add six classrooms and expand shared spaces such as the cafeteria, is included in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget.

To help with space challenges at other schools for next year, Albemarle, Monticello and Western Albemarle High schools and Henley Middle School are each getting an eight-classroom trailer.

The possibility of moving the Mountain View fifth-graders to Walton was not discussed at either county School Board meeting this month when plans for the 2021-22 school year were on the agenda.


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