Parents of children who attend are used to showing up during the day and being welcomed for all sorts of school-related activities – parent-teacher conferences, school concerts, fundraisers and other PTO events, as well as volunteering.
But starting this school year, one event to which the school has swiftly disinvited parents is sharing a quick lunch meal with kids in the school cafeteria, a tradition of sorts in Ashburn.
As of the 2011-2012 school year, officials at Newton-Lee have initiated a new policy that bans parents from being able to visit their children during lunchtime.
Citing overcrowding and space issues, school leaders told parents in August that they would be allowed one single visit during the school year to see their child during a hot dog and fruit snack – the child’s birthday.
The new policy has saddened and deeply disappointed many of the student’s parents, and has created – according to several sources – an undercurrent of resentment between parents and school officials.
Jill Hobart, one of the concerned parents, said she misses the lunch visits.
"It was a great way to check in with my son and see how his day was going,” Hobart said.
Another parent with several children at the school agreed.
“For the past two years, I probably had lunch with one of my children every month,” said Christina Williamson. “They loved it when I came in and it made them feel special. I enjoyed watching them interact with their friends and I also liked going through the lunch line with them and helping them make a healthier lunch choice. It is kind of sad to go from that freedom to now only having lunch with them once a year.”
Some parents were unhappy about how the decision was made, and claim that another approach should have been taken to establish a “middle ground” position where alternative accommodations could be made to balance space issues with what has become a tradition for parents.
Carol Winters, Newton-Lee’s Principal, outlined the reasons for the change in policy.
“It was a very hard decision. We tried a multitude of other ways,” she said. “When you look at the tables we can only fit so many in the cafeteria, as many as 28 and as few as 24. We had to put additional chairs to accommodate students.”
In previous years, parents at Newton-Lee ate lunch with their children just outside the cafeteria in the hallway at special tables that were set up for that purpose.
“The eating area in the hallway worked, until we had issues with space and constraints with furniture,” Winters said, adding that some of the parents were unhappy with that space. “A few complained during the winter it was cold and draughty in the hallway and they didn’t like kids walking by them while they were eating”.
Ultimately, the decision came down to resources, Winters explained.
“Teachers and staff needed the tables and furniture for their work,” she said. “We are supposed to be managing academics and parents are welcome to come anytime and volunteer. We had parents coming in every Friday, and two or three times a week. We had as many as 90 parents a day coming for lunch, it was very difficult to manage the numbers. With over 900 students we found we had to plan it out so everyone has a place to sit. A lot of our parents work from home or they have just one parent working. We have an amazing community that wants to be part of their school, but there are limitations on this facility and we just couldn’t do it.”
Newton-Lee appears to be the only elementary school in Ashburn with this policy, despite the fact that several other elementary schools face similar overcrowding and space constraint issues.
Paul Vickers, principal at Mill Run Elementary, which has more than 1,000 students, said, “We encourage lunchtime visits openly. It is the one time parents can sit and talk with their children. Sometimes it is for a special day, but it is a great way to spend time together.”
Vickers said accommodations were made for the parental visits.
“We have added four seat extensions to the bench tables so there are now 28 students per table, giving the students more elbow room,” he said. “Space can be a challenge, but we make it work. It’s just a chance to talk for a few minutes and spend time together.”
At Sanders Corner Elementary, parents are allowed to come anytime, according to school officials, who stated they do not have overcrowding issues with an enrollment of about 629 students this year.
At Belmont Station, with about 850 students, Principal Patricia McGinly said parents are always welcome.
“We welcome parents to visit anytime,” she said. “We will make an accommodation for anyone. They are more than welcome to come.”
Such decisions are made by the principals at the schools and do not involve the central LCPS office, according to LCPS spokesman Wayde Byard.
Bob Ohneiser, school board member for the current Broad Run District, which includes Newton-Lee, said, “I am not aware of any policy that would not allow a parent to see their child at school.”