0
Votes

Boundary Bungle?

Residents show no satisfaction with four school redistricting proposals.

Leaning up against a hallway wall at Westfield High School, South Lakes High School student Christopher Sterling tried to explain the differences between his school's International Baccalaureate program and the more well-known Adavanced Placement program to a small group of Oakton parents.

"AP places more emphasis on testing. IB is more analytical," said Sterling, a junior wearing a "Proud to be a Seahawk" pin button.

The teenager was one of more than 100 South Lakes students to attend the second of three public meetings about the controversial western Fairfax County high school boundary study on the evening of Dec. 3. The event drew more than 2,000 participants overall and provided the first opportunity for the public to comment on the school system's four boundary change proposals released last week.

Several South Lakes students said they decided to show up because they heard their school had been slandered during the first boundary study meeting.

"We felt we needed to come out and represent our school and dispel the rumors," said Sterling, who said that he heard some people had described South Lakes as "really ghetto" and thought the students had to pass through metal detectors to enter the school.

THE SCHOOL SYSTEM'S redistricting study encompasses the Chantilly, Herndon, Oakton, South Lakes and Westfield high school boundaries as well as a small portion of Madison High School's boundary located north of the Dulles Toll Road.

The four options presented by the school system last week directly impact residents in the Fox Mill, Oak Hill, Armstrong, Aldrin, Wolf Trap, and Navy boundaries and those in portions of the McNair and Floris elementary school boundaries.

School Board members and officials have said one of the primary aims of the boundary study is to fix programmatic inequities caused by Chantilly and Westfield's high school populations — which are too large — and South Lake's population — which is too small.

The school system would also like to see a better balance of students with limited English and who qualify for free and reduced lunch across high schools in the western county, they said. South Lakes has both the largest limited English and low-income student populations, according to school system figures.

SEVERAL PEOPLE attending both the first and second boundary meetings disagree with the premise of the redistricting study, particularly since school officials have said there is no pressing building capacity issue at any of the schools.

Many parents were opposed to shifting to a different high school at all, even if their children are still in elementary school and years away from entering ninth grade. Some parents accused the school system of "social engineering" and equated the proposed boundary changes to the busing programs of the 20th century.

"I think South Lakes has a great new principal. ... But right now we don't think they are offering parity," in terms of academic rigor, said Charlie Woloszynski, whose children would be moved out of the Madison pyramid and into the South Lakes pyramid under three of the four options proposed.

Sending more high-achieving students to South Lakes would not help address South Lakes' at-risk students who are not performing. It would merely mask or "dilute" the problem, he said.

Several parents suggested the school system consider opening a new honors program — which some dubbed "TJ West" — to boost South Lakes enrollment instead of shifting boundaries.

"This is an opportunity to create a new magnate program. Clearly [Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology] is crowded and the commute is very long for students from western Fairfax," said Michelle France, who has children at Wolf Trap Elementary School that would possibly be moved.

FOR SOME PARENTS, transportation and distance was as much as or even more of a concern than academics when it came to the proposed boundary changes.

"My daughter who is at Herndon walks home from school. It is that close to our house," said Kristy Freeman. Freeman, who can hear the Herndon marching band practice in her house, has younger children enrolled at Armstrong Elementary School and Herndon Middle School that could be moved under the fourth option.

Shifting students from Floris Elementary under two different options will result in a much longer commute to high school and potentially increase traffic along major corridors, said Floris parent Paul Moskowitz.

"South Lakes is 30 minutes away from my house during traffic in the morning. I can get to Westfield in 10 minutes," he said.

A few residents also mentioned concerns about the value of their house dropping if they were moved from one school district to another.

"I am here because it will affect my kids. ... And it will affect the value of my house," said Bin Zhang, a Floris parent whose boundary may be moved from Westfield to South Lakes.

ALMOST ALL people attending the second meeting said they were frustrated with the process and felt as if they were being ignored by school officials and elected School Board members.

"They certainly ignored the public and our sentiment about the boundary study not being justified," said Floris parent Brenda Wallace.

The School Board previously agreed not to "get involved" in the boundary study until after the staff had made it final recommendations to the board after the new year. The purpose of the three public meetings this winter is for the staff to gather information and the School Board should not interfere with that process, many of them said.

But many people attending the meeting last night said the School Board, both literally and figuratively, has turned it back on the public.

"I don't feel like I am living in a democracy here," said Ellen Dickerson, who lives in the Oakton High School area and has grown children.

Several complained that, during the first meeting, School Board members had sat with their backs to the crowd of approximately 2,000 people. And though some school board members attended the meeting this week, they didn't participate in discussions and few people actually saw them.

"I am getting the sense that the School Board is not listening. They have not replied to any of my e-mails or letters," said Moskowitz.

Others said they find the boundary study's public meetings pointless because they think decisions about what the school system will do have already been made.

"Almost every parent I know thinks the School Board has already made up its mind. And after the last meeting where they sat there with their backs to us, I think so too," said Oakton parent Maureen Lopina.

Lopina and other parents also said it was unfair and suspicious that Langley High School was not included in the study, even though it shares a boundary with South Lakes.

"That Langley isn't included is a problem. Clearly, someone made a deal there," said Lopina.