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School board directs funds to future early childhood education center on Route 1

The Fairfax County School Board owns land in Woodlawn that it’s considering using for an early childhood education center (via Google Maps)

Undeveloped land in Mount Vernon near Richmond Highway that had been eyed for an elementary school is now being considered for an early childhood education center instead.

As part of its approval of the latest Capital Improvements Program (CIP) on Feb. 9, the Fairfax County School Board voted unanimously to reallocate $500,000 in bond funding to the proposed center, which will take the place of a planned Route 1/Pinewood Lakes elementary school.

The money will help Fairfax County Public Schools start planning and designing the facility earlier than previously anticipated in the spending plan, according to School Board Vice Chair Tamara Derenak Kaufax, who represents the Franconia District and proposed the amendment.

“Based on the current budget, this project would have available approximately 15,000 to 20,000 square feet for dedicated classroom use,” Derenak Kaufax said during the board meeting (at the 5:17:33 mark). “The space would allow for up to 400 pre-K, Early Head Start or preschool special education students to gain that critical, strong educational start.”

The center will be located in the Woodlawn neighborhood on 10 acres of land owned by the school board next to Buckman Road near Lakepark Drive. The board also has a smaller, adjacent site at 4300 Keswick Road, but only the larger parcel will be used, Derenak Kaufax told FFXnow.

FCPS first proposed building an elementary school to serve the northern Route 1 corridor in 2013. Voters approved a school bond referendum that November that included nearly $21.2 million for the project — funds still listed in the newly approved CIP for fiscal years 2024-2028 as “projected future project spending.”

However, after the referendum passed, the Department of Defense moved over 11,000 jobs in the area to Fort Belvoir, and FCPS got federal grant funds to build an elementary school on the military base, “alleviating the immediate capacity need” for the Route 1 school, Derenak Kaufax told the school board.

FCPS administrators wrote a report last spring recommending the site be used for a standalone pre-kindergarten center, and Superintendent Michelle Reid brought the proposal to the school board on Sept. 12.

While Fairfax County has seen a general dip in child care options during the pandemic, the need for more early childhood education capacity, particularly in the Richmond Highway corridor, was “significant” even before Covid, Mount Vernon District School Board Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said.

Despite efforts to increase local, state and federal funding and add program slots, FCPS and the county are only serving one in six kids from infancy to 4 years old, according to Derenak Kaufax.

As of 2020, the Head Start program — which serves kids up to age 5 in low-income families — had 2,561 kids enrolled, including over 1,700 in FCPS programs. Enrollment decreased over the first two years of the pandemic, according to the county’s current budget.

In its proposed budget for fiscal year 2024, which starts July 1, FCPS projects that it will have 1,861 students in its pre-K and Early Head Start programs. Presented in January, the budget includes $2 million to expand the pre-K program for kids aged 3-4 with 10 new classrooms.

According to the budget, the expansion would increase the program’s capacity by nearly 10%, supporting 180 additional students.

With about 23% of kindergarteners entering this school year with no early education, a standalone early childhood education center on Route 1 could help close that access gap and serve as a blueprint for other facilities in the county, school board members said.

Karl Frisch, who represents Providence District, suggested the Graham Road Community Building as an option.

“Even looking for classrooms as we move around the division, I think it’s critical that we really put a stake in the ground for an early childhood center, and in particular in a community where we might have high needs in terms of our young students coming to kindergarten less ready than we do in other parts of the county,” Reid said. “So, I really would support the plan and think it’s a key piece that will anchor our early childhood program.”

The school board also amended the CIP last week to acknowledge overcrowding at Kent Gardens Elementary School in McLean. The program covers 25 school renovations, a capacity enhancement at Justice High School and construction on two new buildings over the next five years, but high construction costs may slow down some projects.

Image via Google Maps