The Massaponax High School students had the same idea last month when their teacher asked them about potential stories for the school newspaper.
“The first thing they thought of was how crowded the school is,” recalled journalism teacher Megan Marshall.
As of Oct. 1, Massaponax High had 1,967 students, or 137 more than the 16-year-old school was built to hold. Students said some classrooms didn’t have enough desks at the beginning of the school year and that the hallways are noticeably more crowded.
“People get stuck, and it’s like a giant traffic jam” where the hallways intersect, said senior Kyle Purdy, 17. “It was a lot better, I’d say, when I was a freshman.”
Senior Ainsley Patrick, 17, said another issue is the lack of bathrooms. “There will be a line of 20 girls trying to use the bathroom” during a five-minute break between classes, she said.
After a large drop in enrollment during the Great Recession, the Spotsylvania County Public School system is anticipating growth. Massaponax High School would be at the forefront of that change.
Since 2013, the Board of Supervisors has approved a host of residential developments, many of which are in Massaponax High’s attendance zone. Those subdivisions could add hundreds of students to Massaponax, though it may take decades for all of the homes to be built.
In addition, the proposed 2,607-home Alexander’s Crossing development off Massaponax Church Road could send even more students to the high school off U.S. 1. The Planning Commission, which makes recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, voted to endorse the project last week.
In response to the expected growth, Spotsylvania schools this year commissioned a study to project enrollment over the next 10 years and identify ways to handle a larger population. Moseley Architects may recommend solutions such as redistricting, new construction and more efficient use of existing space.
Superintendent Scott Baker said nothing is set in stone.
“What usually happens is the fire is already flaming and then you’ve got to come in and say we’re going to redistrict,” Baker said in an interview. “We’re seeing some smoke, so before anything spreads, we’d really like to get out in front of it proactively.”
The school system may invite parents and other stakeholders to a series of three workshops, depending on what the study finds. The group would try to reach a consensus on options to present to the School Board.
The division’s current plans don’t call for any new schools until 2023, though Courtland High is in line for a $21 million renovation and expansion in 2017.
Division-wide, the recent enrollment increases of 70 students in 2013 and 49 the following year are miniscule compared to the influx during the housing boom. And to the surprise of school officials, division-wide enrollment as of Oct. 1 was 23,688, down about 200 students from last year.
But Massaponax High’s student population has increased by about 100 in recent years, and the number of students in its attendance zone would swell if the development plans come to fruition.
Principal Joe Pisani said the school continues to thrive, thanks in part to a leadership program. This year, more than 500 incoming ninth-graders were invited to a “Freshman Day,” where they met with student leaders to learn more about the school.
“When you have a school of 2,000 people, you need to learn how to get along,” Pisani said. He also noted that about 350 students are bussed to programs at other facilities throughout each school day.
School Board member Amanda Blalock, who has a son at Massaponax, said the school is accustomed to “running very smoothly” with between 1,900 and 2,000 students. The school—which has modular classrooms—has been at or above its capacity of 1,830 students since 2007.
Massaponax isn’t the only school that stands to gain students from recently approved developments. Courtland High, which last year was 85 students under capacity, would potentially get several hundred pupils just from developments that have been approved in the last three years.
Meanwhile, established subdivisions such as Fawn Lake and Lee’s Parke still have hundreds of empty housing lots.
Spotsylvania High School has capacity for an additional 400-plus students, but none of the large developments are in the rural school’s attendance zone.
But Baker noted that Spotsylvania High is a candidate for the International Baccalaureate program, which he said could potentially draw students from other high schools.
“We want to look at it from a number of perspectives, not just redistricting,” he said of addressing future growth.
Some Spotsylvania supervisors have stressed that it will take many years for all of the planned developments to be built. Supervisor Greg Cebula made that point in June before board members approved the 2,270-home Jackson Village, where an estimated 583 students will eventually live.
That development is in Massaponax High’s attendance zone.
“It is essential that any naysayers fully understand that mere approval of this project does not create an immediate burden or impact on traffic, schools or public safety,” Cebula said, adding that it is expected to take 15 to 20 years for every home to be built. “It does, however, quickly create immediate jobs for site preparation, construction and the marketing trades.”
Blalock said she wishes the School Board and the supervisors had more of a working relationship when it comes to the approval of developments. But she said she feels good about the division’s proactive approach to the issue.
“We saw right away that the development is going to go on with or without the schools’ blessing,” Blalock said. “We’re not here to question the county. We are here to make sure we have the infrastructure in place, and we’re ready to go—and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”