School Board Brainstorms Urban-Style School Designs

It’s not whether Loudoun will need to build schools near future Metro stations on less land, but how.

Top planners from the county and the school system told the Loudoun County School Board this week that it’s time to start thinking about what schools that serve families living near Metro will look like.

Even though Loudoun County has, on average in the past decade, built and opened two schools per year, it has never had a nut quite like this that it needed to crack. The nut: designing schools on small slivers of land to educate thousands of students projected to move into homes near the future Silver Line stations—Innovation Center Station (near Dulles Greenway and Rt. 28), Ashburn Station (at Rt. 772 and the Dulles Greenway) and Loudoun Gateway Station (at Rt. 606 and the Dulles Greenway).

“We have absolutely no experience with these large urban developments,” said Sam Adamo, who has for 20 years served as the school system’s executive director of planning. “So we started researching it.”

He told School Board members during a work session Tuesday that his team studied what schools look like in high-density neighborhoods in Portland, Seattle, New York City and Philadelphia.

[See his full presentation here.]

County leaders are planning for 22,419 homes—45 single family detached, 5,779 single-family attached, and 16,595 multi-family units—to be pop up around the Metro stations. Typically, that many homes in family-friendly Loudoun County produces 9,412 students.

“That is enough to cause anyone heart palpitations,” Adamo said. But he is predicting fewer families will move into the county’s future high-density neighborhoods, if communities near Metro stations in Arlington and other counties east are any indication.

“As we look at some of these urban and metropolitan neighborhoods, what we tend to see is a lot lower student yield,” he said.

With that in mind, he predicts the 22,419 homes will generate about 2,560 students. That would require 1.3 elementary schools, 0.4 middle schools and 0.4 high schools.

Ricky Barker, the county’s director of Planning and Zoning, said the county will provide general guidance to encourage school leaders to start planning for urban-style schools, but the details of the buildings will be up to the School Board.

“The land is very valuable and we want to make sure we make the most use of the property,” he said. “But from our perspective, it is the School Board’s prerogative to figure that out. We as a county are not going to get into designing schools.”

Kevin Lewis, who oversees the school system’s Construction Department as the assistant superintendent of Support Services, said there are several questions that the board needs to answer. Should the buildings be designed to hold just 400 or 500 students instead of the typical 1,000 students? Should students be expected to walk to the school instead of hop on a bus? How can the schools still adequately serve students with disabilities and have enough space for physical education?

“We know land costs are going to be high,” Lewis said, “and the schools are not going to be able to take up as much footprint as they do currently.”

Eric Hornberger (Ashburn), joined by a few other board members, suggested assigning only students to those schools who live close enough to walk to school to cut down on parking needs and the size of bus loops. He said the board would likely want to, at least at first, open a secondary school to serve both middle and high school, since enrollment projections call for half of a middle and half of a high school.

“Co-locating the middle school and high school—it would be a shame if we didn’t do it here,” Hornberger said. And, most important, he stressed, is assuring the buildings provide comfortable learning environments. “We want to make sure that kids feel they have a home there,” he said, “and that they’re not just a number.”

Supervisors are taking input now on the Silver Line Small Area Plan—the blueprint for what development will look like around the Metro stations—and are scheduled to adopt it this fall.

With Metro in Sight, Loudoun Rethinks School Construction

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