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As Leesburg school prepares to open, excitement — and complaints — escalate

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The site of the new Frederick Douglass Elementary School in Leesburg is a work in progress, with piles of cinder blocks stacked in dirt and plywood walls framed by scaffolding.

As the structure takes shape, so does the community that will call the building home: Timothy Martino, Frederick Douglass Elementary’s principal, assumed his new role this week and will oversee the months-long process of preparing for the school’s opening in the fall.

Martino, 37, said he has been contacted by numerous parents who have expressed their support for and excitement over the school’s arrival.

“There’s been a great outreach on the parents’ part. They’ve been contacting me via e-mail, and I’ve had some really good conversations with parents who are eager to help, eager to volunteer,” Martino said.

But not all members of the new school community share that enthusiasm. The opening of the school required the Loudoun County School Board to establish new elementary school attendance zones in Leesburg last year. The heated, months-long process ended last month, when the board adopted a plan that will relocate a little more than 1,000 students to different schools for the 2012-13 academic year. The outcome pleased some communities but left others angered by the prospect of having to send their children to a different school.

Parents from the Potomac Station and Beacon Hill communities filed complaints in Loudoun County Circuit Court this month to ask that the court direct the new School Board, which took office in January, to reverse its decision and reopen the school redistricting process.

Some families from the Potomac Station neighborhood, labeled CL-19 on the adopted attendance zone map, were distraught that their neighborhood was split from the rest of their community. Their attorney in the case is Bob Ohneiser, a former School Board member for the Broad Run district.

Ohneiser, who practices school law, said the petition for judicial review was filed to correct what he referred to as a “due process failure.” He said residents of CL-19 thought they were considered part of a larger community.

It was only at the “eleventh hour,” Ohneiser said, when residents were told that they were going to be split from their surrounding community and that their children would attend Frederick Douglass Elementary instead of John W. Tolbert Elementary, in a move designed to help balance the number of low-income students and students identified as English-language learners across Leesburg’s nine elementary schools.

“They were told, ‘We’re going to ignore the fact that you’re actually part of Potomac Station; you’re part of an HOA. We’re going to ignore all that because we need to make the numbers work,’ ” Ohneiser said.

Under the adopted plan, 31 percent of Frederick Douglass Elementary’s students are considered low-income students, a number that school officials have said will lower in coming years as students from neighborhoods under construction are added to the mix.

Wayde Byard, spokesman for Loudoun public schools, said that there are generally “ill feelings” about new school boundaries in the immediate aftermath of the rezoning process but that the school system has never been sued before.

“It’s been threatened before, but this is the first one that’s actually gone to court,” he said. “We have split communities before. We don’t like to, but sometimes it’s inevitable.”

Martino said he is focusing on preparing the school for its opening and is looking forward to working with a diverse student population. He has spent his entire 15-year career in Loudoun, and has served as principal of Sully Elementary in Sterling for the past five years, a school with a higher percentage of low-income students and English-language learners than Frederick Douglass, Martino said.

“We’re excited for all of the kids who are coming, every one,” he said.

In the coming months, Martino said, he will be busy putting together his staff and holding community meetings so that parents and students can “have a chance to talk and start building our own Frederick Douglass community.”

He said he and his staff will focus on ways to “meet all of the children where they are, whatever that level is” and to help them succeed.

“It will be an exciting time for all of us, once we get the ball rolling,” he said.

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