High School Hostilities

High School Hostilities

Boundary study denounced.


School board members Stu Gibson (Hunter Mill), Kathy Smith (Sully) and Steve Hunt (At-large) listen to a presentation during the first town hall about the western county high school boundary study.

A handful of South Lakes High School parents and students were already wiping tears from their eyes before the staff introduction was over at the Nov. 12 meeting about Fairfax County's western high school boundary study.

"It is just ridiculous. They think South Lakes is a bad school. They are scared of diversity," said Carrie Herring, a 17 year-old South Lakes junior, red-faced and teary-eyed after the first round of questions from the crowd.

The "they" she referred to were community members from other high schools involved in the western boundary study — including Herndon, Westfield, Chantilly, Oakton and a small portion of Madison.

Though most people at the meeting refrained from publicly criticizing South Lakes, almost all participants who were not from South Lakes opposed any redistricting that might send additional students to South Lakes. One member of the 1,500-person audience openly questioned why the school system had chosen to renovate South Lakes if it was under-enrolled.

In smaller groups, community members also were more open about their fears of sending children to or attending South Lakes — who some perceive to have a safety and academic performance problem.

"The last thing Herndon wants to be is the next South Lakes," said Michael Sagan, a Herndon senior and Reston resident who attended the meeting.

Sagan said he chose to go to Herndon — even though he was accepted to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — because of the sense of community he had at Herndon.

Members of the crowd who spoke publicly said they opposed a redrawing of any of the high school boundaries and became hostile toward the school system's staff.

Some hissed and booed at School Board members Stu Gibson (Hunter Mill) and Kathy Smith (Sully) who favor a boundary change.

"I think it really immature for parents to act that way. What types of things are they teaching their kids?" said Katia Volkhonskaia, another South Lakes junior attending the meeting.

Fairfax County Public Schools needs to look at redistricting in the western county because two schools — Westfield and Chantilly — are overcrowded and one school — South Lakes — is under-enrolled, causing school programming problems.

Chantilly enrolls about 2,838 students, Westfield enrolls about 3,100 students and South Lakes enrolls 1,443 students, according to school documents.

South Lakes cannot offer some class courses without more students and Westfield and Chantilly students have limited chances to participate in co-curricular programs because the schools were so big, according to school staff.

Several school buildings — including Westfield and Chantilly -- can accommodate well over 2,500 students, so there is no urgent reason to move boundary lines from a facilities standpoint.

"Strictly from a capacity and facility standpoint, I don't see a compelling reason for the boundary study," said the schools' chief operating office Dean Tistadt at a school board work session Nov. 12.

But the school system considers the optimal size of a high school for program purposes by to be about 2,000 students, according to Dean Tistadt.

Schools that are smaller — like South Lakes — have a hard time offering classes like Discrete Math, Pre calculus Honors, Finance, Economics, Piano and Animation. Students at large schools have a hard time participating in after school activities like musical groups, sports teams and student theater productions.

"We have 47 seniors on one high school footfall team that don't get to play," said Denise James, the school system's director of facilities planning.

At the school board's work session, a couple of board members indicated they did not realize that capacity concerns had not factored into the decision to pursue a boundary study.

"This is not the perception I had when this was brought to the board last summer," said School Board member Steve Hunt (At-large), who loss his re-election campaign last week and will not vote on the new boundary proposal this spring.

Community members from schools other than South Lakes said they would rather see the school system contribute more funding to South Lakes for a wider array of courses rather than students from their school transferred to boost enrollment.

"It has been unanimous at community meetings I have attended at Oakton. Everyone would support that investment, and seeing more resources go to South Lakes even though it is smaller," said Crystal Philos.

Others suggested enrollment at South Lakes could be increased if a magnet program was housed in the building along with the regular high school programs.

In addition to program concerns, the boundary adjustments were also meant to rectify a socio-economic imbalance among the western county high schools.

Of the high schools in the study, South Lakes — with 33 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch and 15 percent of students eligible for English-as-a-second-language services — has the largest percentage of needy students. Four of the five other schools — Chantilly, Madison, Oakton and Westfield — have less than 12 percent of their students qualifying for free and reduced lunch and less than seven percent of their populations eligible for English-as-second-language-services.

For some members of school communities outside South Lakes, this amounts to "social engineering."

"Don't do it on the backs of my kids. ... All the kids need to benefit from the change, not just South Lakes kids, " said Chris Gallagher, a resident of Franklin Farms whose elementary school aged children would attend Chantilly if the boundaries did not change.

Gallagher said he is also concerned that South Lakes is farther from his house than Chantilly and that his neighborhood — which had several representatives at the boundary meeting — is already split between three elementary schools, two middle schools and three high schools.

Several parents were also skeptical of the reasons that Langley High School and more of the Madison community were not included.

When James mentioned that Langley was "not included in the study" during the school system's initial presentation, many members of the crowd screamed back "Why?"

Langley and all of Madison — two of the county's more affluent communities — should have been included in the study if the concern is really South Lakes under enrollment and socio-economic mix, said many people attending the meeting. Many noted that residents in north Reston attend Langley instead of South Lakes, Reston's community high school.

"It seems like they are treated differently," said Herndon parent Michelle Youngers, who added that "little pieces of the county appear to have bought their way into Langley."

Currently only the Madison attendance "island" — an area north of the Dulles Toll Road where residents attend Madison even though they are surround by the South Lakes attendance boundary — is being considered in the western county study.

None of Langley, which borders South Lakes's boundary to the north, is included.

Langley and Madison were not included because the western boundary study is suppose to address Westfield and Chantilly's excessive enrollment as well as South Lakes' need for more students, said Tistadt.

"If the only purpose of the study was to put additional students into South Lakes, then they would have been included," said Tistadt.

Some parents in the western county said that they are prepared to fight the county should redistricting come there way. Some neighborhoods — particularly those in Chantilly and Westifield's district — said they have already confronted redistricting before.

"I want to stay where we are. We were hit seven years ago with this redistricting when they tried to move us to Oakton," said Kim Ford, a Chantilly parent who lives in Fair Oaks Estates and wore Chantilly's school colors to the boundary study meeting.

Some who had been through redistricting several times also said they felt the boundary process had worked, even it is acrimonious at times.

"The issue of Westfield's overcrowding has to be dealt with," said Debbie Anderson, a Centreville resident who said she has been through five redistrictings processes.

Anderson has had children at both Chantilly and Westfield and teaches at Herndon.

"There is going to need to be a shift of students from the overpopulated schools to underpopulated schools. There needs to be an equitable distribution of programs and resources," said Anderson, who doesn't think her neighborhood will be moved out of Westfield's district.

In his personal opinion, Tistadt said at the School Board's work session that it would be best to move more students out of Chantilly because of the school's site constraints — which has an effect on parking and safety. Drivers turning in and out of Chantilly's driveway onto Stringfellow are of particular concern, he said.

"To me Chantilly has a greater capacity problem than Westfield," he said.

It is not wise to bring other factors — like traffic patterns — into the boundary study at this point because there is no quantifiable information and the public is already wary of the school system's intentions, said Hunt.

"I am extremely concerned this is the first time I am hearing this. That will play on the already limited trust the school system has with the community," he said at the work session.

Tistadt added that he thought a buffer needed to be left at South Lakes to account for an increase in enrollment that might happen after its building renovation is completed this summer.