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Latest Boundary Option Reduces Impact

When Ta-Sun Hu first bought his home in 1996, he was not thinking about what high school his children would attend.

He hardly noticed when they decided to move his Herndon neighborhood from Oakton High School to the newly opened Westfield High School a few years after he moved into his house.

"I really didn’t pay much attention to which high school was better. My kids were small and I assumed pretty much all the high schools were good. Fairfax had a well-established reputation," said Hu.

Over the past few months Hu decided all high schools in Fairfax County were not created equal. The parent has been following the western county boundary study closely this fall and growing more concerned that his eighth grade daughter will be sent to South Lakes High School next year instead of Westfield.

Under the new alternative boundary adjustment option released last week, the portion of the Floris Elementary School district that encompasses Hu’s home would be redistricted and students starting high school next fall, including his daughter, would be moved.

His daughter would be also moved either to South Lakes or Herndon under two of the original four boundary adjustment options.

"I think the alternative option is actually their final option and as parent I am very, very sad," said Hu, who has solicited the help of his state senator and delegate to help put a stop to the boundary study.

HU AND OTHER concerned community members can attend the third and last scheduled community input session on the high school boundary study Dec. 19. The school system will also be accepting additional comments on the study via its Web site until Dec. 21 and staff expects to make its initial recommendations to the School Board in January.

Redistricting efforts could potentially affect families living in the Chantilly, Herndon, Oakton, South Lakes, and Westfield high school boundaries. The changes may also impact a few households in the Madison High School boundary north of the Dulles Toll Road.

In preparation for the third and final meeting, the school system released a fifth proposal for redistricting, called the alternative option, last week based on community response to four previous options.

The alternative option impacts people who live in portions of the Fox Mill, Floris and Navy elementary school boundaries. Families living in the Wolftrap Elementary School boundary north of the Dulles Toll Road would also be asked to move their children in elementary and middle school as well as high school as part of this proposal.

Several neighborhoods that would have potentially been impacted by the first four options — including Aldrin, Armstrong, McNair and Oak Hill elementary schools — would not experience any change under the new alternative option.

INDIVIDUAL REACTION to the new proposal depended largely on whether a resident’s community was being asked to move.

"We are pleased and happy that they have an option that leaves McNair alone. We were the only elementary school that had people moving in all four other options," said Christy Foor, McNair’s Parent Teacher Association president, who supports the alternative option over others.

Currently, 25 percent of McNair students attend Herndon and 75 percent attend Westfield and most parents would like to stay where they are, said Foor.

The elementary school has had enough upheaval over the past few years without the burden of redistricting.

Several of the school’s top performing students left McNair, a school with enough low-income students to qualify for additional federal funding, when it was labeled as "failing" under the No Child Left Behind Act two years ago. The school will also undergo another redistricting when a new elementary school opens in the area next year, said Foor.

"We like the new option because it doesn’t affect us," she said.

Several of the parents at Oak Hill Elementary School have similar feelings, according to Erica Carter, president of the Parent Teacher Association. Under previous options, Oak Hill families would have been moved to Oakton or Westfield.

"By and large, I would say parents favor staying in Chantilly," said Carson, who added that many Oak Hill students grow up playing in the Chantilly sport leagues and develop an attachment for the high school.

Chantilly is also much closer to the Oak Hill community than some other high schools under consideration. For students to get to Oakton from the Oak Hill area, they would have to get on Interstate 66, which could be dangerous for teenage drivers, said Carson.

SEVERAL PARENTS who children would have to move as a result of the proposal remained unhappy however.

Since his son will still be at Westfield, Hu said having his daughter at South Lakes would create a hug transportation mess for the family since the two children would be traveling in opposite directions. The Herndon resident also worries about the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at South Lakes, especially when the school doesn’t offer Advanced Placement classes like surrounding schools.

"Pretty [much] all the high schools [in western Fairfax] are competitive. Unfortunately, South Lakes is a little bit different. From day one, the program is different," said Hu, who added that he thought the school system might be trying to hide the low test scores of some of its students by bringing in higher performing children like Hu’s daughter.

Those living in the impacted portion of the Madison boundary said they are confused about what the school system continues to propose in moving them to South Lakes.

The neighborhood averages about nine students per grade, which would not address South Lakes enrollment problem, and does not alter Chantilly or Westfield’s overcrowding, said Michelle France, a parent living in the area.

School system staff have also told France and others that they are included in the study because they are a "Madison Island" — meaning that their boundary does not connect to the large part of the school district. But this problem can be easily fixed by redistricting an office park and industrial zone — where no one lives — into Madison and connecting their neighborhood to the larger area.

"They have given us several different reasons for why we are in the study. If they had a real reason, it wouldn’t change every time we talk to staff," said France.

YET SOME FAMILIES who would have to switch schools under the alternative boundary option said they are in favor of the change.

"I was in favor of it as soon as I heard about it. I understood the advantages of having them go to South Lakes. The overriding advantage is the commute," said Erika Castro, a Fox Mill Elementary school parent.

South Lakes is about 15 minutes from Castro’s house whereas Oakton is about 45 minutes. With a rigorous high school schedule, Castro said she does not want her children spending at least 90 minutes on the bus every day.

"Teenagers need sleep so any place where we can get sleep is a place we are looking for," she said.

Castro added that the roads a teenage driver would have to take from her house to Oakton are also more dangerous than those going to South Lakes.

A visit to South Lakes helped convince Sofi Cahoon, who has four children that would be affected, to be supportive of the boundary change. Cahoon, who lives in the Fox Mill area, said she was impressed by South Lakes principal Bruce Butler and said the students and teachers were very welcoming.

"I have a student going to high school next year and if he ends up going there I think he will have a great experience," she said.

While Castro and Cahoon support a change to South Lakes, there people who would prefer not to switch.

"It is a little bit of sensitive subject when people in your neighborhood don’t feel the way you do," said Cahoon.

MANY PARENTS had questions and doubts about the process and wondered why certain parts of the western county, such as Reston neighborhoods that attend Langley High School, had not been included as part of the study.

"I think it really is a flaw that Langley is not included in the study. Those Herndon and Reston neighborhoods could be looked at to solve the problem," said France.

Hu believes Floris was singled out in part because wealthier, better-connected communities like Crossfield Elementary School and Langley, which are closer to South Lakes, were able to influence the boundary study, he said.

The school system is also reluctant to move schools, like McNair, with large numbers of low-income students. So they have settled on Floris, where the students are high achievers but the families are not wealthy enough to exert pressure on the school system, said Hu.

A few people also objected to what they saw as the school system and South Lakes' community using South Lakes students to try to influence the discussion on the boundary study.

More than 100 South Lakes students showed up at a boundary meeting earlier this month, primarily because they had heard their school had been criticized during the first meeting, they said. Many students wanted to diffuse rumors that South Lakes was an unsuccessful or scary school.

But many parents questioned whether the students hadn’t been pressured to show up to the meeting.

"I believe the students were engaged by some authority figure to participate," said Bruce Bennett, a "Madison Island" resident.

The presence of South Lakes students in almost every classroom during the last boundary meeting allowed that school community to "manipulate" the discussion and "made things worse," for those from other communities, said Hu.

"We are the taxpayers and we go to the meeting to express ourselves. … For this kind of discussion, the [South Lakes students] are bias. We shouldn’t have any school-aged children at the meeting," he said.