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Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 06:00 PM ET, 07/10/2011

Why parents love a lower-rated school

For many years, families in the tree-filled Wakefield Chapel neighborhood of Fairfax County heard experts predict the school system would eventually move them out of the enrollment area for Annandale High School, full of kids from poor immigrant families.

Wakefield Chapel was one of very few Annandale High feeder neighborhoods outside the Beltway. Neighbors thought that policymakers, wanting to keep everyone happy and comfortable, would send them to a school more in tune with their ambitions and backgrounds.

But the boundaries didn’t change, and many Wakefield Chapel homeowners found they loved what Annandale High was giving their children. The school had the advantages of all Fairfax schools — skilled teachers, high standards, great equipment and generous budgets. But what was special to them was their children mixing with young people of all races, income groups and national origins.

Now, finally, the predictions have come true. Annandale High is overcrowded, and Fairfax officials are suggesting the school board move the Wakefield Chapel kids to W.T. Woodson High, which has mostly affluent families.

But in a switch from the usual boundary change debate — affluent parents objecting to sending their kids to a school with a large number of low-income families — the Wakefield Chapel parents are angrily demanding that their children be allowed to stay with the poor kids.

The boundary change probably won’t affect students now at Annandale High, but many Wakefield Chapel residents say that whenever the shift takes place it will hurt their community. They plan to attend a public hearing Monday night to try to persuade the school board to choose some other way to lessen crowding at Annandale High.

“We have seen our children learn so much from their classmates who hail from all over the world,” said Leonard Wolfenstein, whose son Ben just graduated from Annandale and whose son Noah is a rising sophomore.

“Our son Clark has been exposed to so many different cultures and perspectives that it has significantly impacted his world view,” said Pamela Girardin. Jim Barker, another parent, extolled the great student newspaper, band and sports teams.

Last year, 49 percent of Annandale students were from low-income families, compared with 9 percent at Woodson. As a consequence, the Woodson test scores are higher — 71 percent scored advanced and 28 percent proficient on the state English test, compared with 45 percent advanced and 49 percent proficient at Annandale.

Many neighborhood parents whose children have not yet attended Annandale High say those differences are important and support the move to Woodson. That makes no sense to Wolfenstein, his wife, Jan Kaplan, and their son Ben, who wrote about his love for Annandale High in a college application essay. “Almost every day I find out something new about a person or a country,” he wrote, “and I am always meeting new people from other backgrounds.”

My high school rankings figure in the debate. Some parents who prefer Woodson note it ranks 108 in the country on my Challenge Index ratings based on participation in college-level tests such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate. Annandale is ranked 1045. But from a national perspective, that is a small difference. With about 22,000 public high schools in the country, Woodson is in the top one half of 1 percent, Annandale in the top 5 percent.

Given Annandale’s demographics, that is a remarkable feat. Wakefield Chapel parents say they are particularly pleased with Annandale’s IB program, one of the strongest in the country for many years.

Parents who want their children to learn about their world say they don’t mind a little crowding at the school, or their children getting to know many students from different environments. That is why they are upset about being separated against their will from the diverse and involving family that Annandale High has become.

By  |  06:00 PM ET, 07/10/2011

 
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