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Jigsaw Effect of School Boundaries Questioned

At the behest of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) officials, parents in communities along Route 7 are puzzling out ways to populate a new elementary school at Andrew Chapel that is scheduled to open next fall with an enrollment of 950 students.

One source of consternation plagues them all: what to do about the jagged, jigsaw-puzzle effect of the attendance lines along Route 7/Leesburg Pike.

Traffic will enter the school via Trap Road and exit via Towlston Road on the south side of Route 7.

The volume of traffic on Route 7, a major commuter thoroughfare, slows speeds to a sedate pace during morning drive time, although some parents raise concerns about its safety.

Less often do they mention the road’s role as a determiner of economic status. Route 7 divides low-density Great Falls from higher-density Reston and Herndon and draws the line between McLean and Vienna.

Of eight elementary schools that draw their populations from neighborhoods along Route 7, the four that are overcrowded all “feed” into the Langley High School pyramid. A pyramid is a high school and all its feeder schools at the elementary and middle school level.

The other four, Dranesville, Armstrong, Aldrin and Forest Edge, that feed into the Herndon or South Lakes high school pyramids are all enrolled below their capacities.

The new elementary school at Andrew Chapel is intended to absorb students from the four overcrowded schools: Spring Hill, Forestville, Great Falls and Westbriar Elementaries. Three of those, Spring Hill, Forestville, and Westbriar, now take students from south of Route 7.

Thus some parents see the road as a possible boundary for the new school.

ALTHOUGH ONE of the guidelines that FCPS sometimes uses in setting attendance boundaries is “major thoroughfares,” the attendance lines along Route 7 jigsaw dramatically.

Between the Loudoun County border in the west and Gosnell Road in the east, there are 11 changes of attendance area along the south side of Route 7. On the north side, where density is lower, there are five.

Although school officials say they don’t like to create “islands” of attendance that are not contiguous with the school they serve, there are several along Route 7: Forestville, Westbriar and Wolf Trap Elementaries all have pods of attendance from non-contiguous areas.

FOUR TIMES, ATTENDANCE LINES cross Route 7 to take in students who go to Forestville Elementary School on the north. One of the areas, the Carper’s Farm, Colvin Glen, and Colvin Forest triad near Colvin Run Mill, is not contiguous with Forestville’s boundaries.

Neither is the “Westbriar island” contiguous with its school. It includes Middleton Estates on the south side of Route 7 and Locust Hill on the north side.

School officials say the Westbriar island on Route 7 will continue to be split. Homes on the north side of Route 7, including the neighborhood where Dranesville Supervisor and former Fairfax County School Board member Stuart Mendelsohn lives, feed into the Langley High School Pyramid.

The southern part of the island, including Middleton, feeds to Westbriar in grades K-6, then splits to Kilmer Middle School in Vienna and Marshall High School in Falls Church.

According to the FCPS web site, another portion of Westbriar’s attendance area goes to Thoreau Middle and Madison High School, making Westbriar the only “triple feeder” in the area.

“In the last school year, we struggled with some situations where we had an elementary split three ways,” said Dranesville District’s representative to the FCPS School Board, Jane Strauss. “I think we would be ill-advised to create another school that splits into three different pyramids,” Strauss said. “If we allowed Andrew Chapel to split three ways, we would create another one.”

Strauss lives in the McLean High School pyramid area. Gary Chevalier, FCPS director of Facilities and Planning Services, lives outside of Fairfax County, he said.

AT THE INITIAL BOUNDARY meeting on Oct. 9, parents in Middleton asked Strauss and Chevalier why their elementary-aged schoolchildren must ride a school bus 40 minutes in the morning and as long as 50 minutes in the afternoon. Their children will drive past Andrew Chapel, one traffic light from their subdivision, to reach Westbriar, they say.

And, they will continue to Kilmer Middle and Marshall High School, where average SAT scores were about 90 points lower than Langley’s last year, according to the College Board.

School officials are considering moving the north part of the Westbriar island to Andrew Chapel, which will feed to the Langley Pyramid. But the south part will stay where it is, they say.

“Why is it that part of the non-contiguous attendance zone that attends Westbriar [north] is specifically assigned to the Langley Pyramid, and another [south] is specifically excluded?” asked parent Ingrid Schneider.

The value of real estate, in configuring school boundaries, should be irrelevant, she said. “If you pay Fairfax County taxes, you have a right to send your children to Fairfax County schools,” Schneider said. “You do not have an immutable right to send them to a particular pyramid.

Schneider, a doctor who is married to a commercial pilot, moved from Houston to Middleton more than a year ago, she said. The elder of their two children just started kindergarten.

Schneider attended Fairfax County Public Schools in the elementary and middle school grades, then graduated from Madeira High School and went on to medical school and service in the U.S. Navy.

Now, she said, she wants someone to explain to her why her two children, ages 5 years and 19 months, must endure “an insane and incomprehensible commute” to Westbriar.

“No kid should drive past a Fairfax County Public School that serves their needs,” Schneider said.

Strauss and Chevalier say they won’t add Middleton into the Langley Pyramid because it is already overcrowded.

“There has to be a definition somewhere,” Strauss told Schneider at the boundary meeting.

“Then you create a situation where past iniquities and thinking that doesn’t make sense cannot be changed,” challenged Schneider.

Middleton parents say their subdivision would hardly be noticed at Langley High. They have fewer than 10 children in the subdivision who are now in elementary school and fewer than five in middle and high school, they say.

And new subdivisions that are now under construction south of Route 7 have been added to the Langley Pyramid, they say.

“Yes, we will be rocking the boat of the pyramid situation, but we are one mile from this new school,” said Traci Moore, a Middleton resident with a pre-schooler and a high school student who attends Marshall High.

“Why Westbriar and not Andrew Chapel? We can go to Marshall [High School],” Schneider said.

“If you want to try to get people to move into Marshall, be my guest,” Strauss said.

“We are aware that over time there have been some members of this [Middleton] community that have requested to be redistricted in to the Langley Pyramid. There is no room. Cooper and Langley are full. We will have to add modular units there,” she said.

“There is a perception that Langley High School is manna from heaven,” Schneider said. “Not that Langley is so good, but if Langley is so good, why are we not focusing on making the other schools as good?”

Langley’s average SAT scores for 2002, as reported by the College Board, are 596 in math and 580 in verbal. Only Thomas Jefferson, the magnet school for science and technology, had higher scores: 736 in math and 721 in verbal.

The next-highest school after Langley was Woodson High, with 585 in math and 565 in verbal.

After that, the College Board scores ranked McLean, Madison, and Oakton High Schools.

“WHAT DO I TELL MY KINDERGARTNER when he asks, ‘Mom, why do I have to go so far to get to and from school when there is one so much closer to our house?’” Schneider wrote to school officials.

She said school officials should explain their reasoning.

“Give me a logical, factually-supported argument that makes sense, and I will zip it in a heartbeat,” said Schneider.

“Accountability,” she said. “I want accountability. Show me the steps you have taken. Show me your math.”

“If by moving a project, we are creating an island, we don’t like to do that.” Strauss said. “It’s not good for the kids. As much as possible, we want to create contiguous neighborhoods,” she said.

“There is undeveloped land in there [near Middleton]. There are no plans for it, that I know of. [But] Cooper and Langley are over capacity. We don’t want to create a precedent to move more into the Langley pyramid.

“We don’t build to the peak. We build to less than the peak,” Strauss said.

Route 7 will probably not be used as a dividing line to form Andrew Chapel’s population, said Gary Chevalier, director of Facilities Planning Services for FCPS.

“Does it make sense to take kids from the Loudoun County line all the way to Andrew Chapel and not take in kids a quarter mile away on Towlston Road?” he said.

“Route 7 will not be a boundary,” said Strauss, “because clearly, Andrew Chapel is on the other side.”

“Pyramid lines are not going to change. That’s not under consideration,” said Chevalier.