Despite the similarities, the city known as “the Park” holds an edge over Manassas in student achievement.
About 85 percent of Manassas Park students pass state English tests, and 84 percent pass in math. The Park’s on-time high school graduation rate is 85 percent. In Manassas, the test pass rates are 78 percent for English and 79 percent for math, and the graduation rate is 77 percent.
Among Hispanic students — a group that gets particular emphasis in both cities — the Manassas Park pass rate in English was 11 percentage points higher last year than in Manassas.
These disparities have drawn notice as Manassas prepares for City Council and School Board elections on May 1. Many parents and officials wonder why Manassas Park gets better results even with Manassas spending about $1,590 more per student, according to a Washington Area Boards of Education report.
“A lot of people are scratching their heads,” said Rick Bookwalter of Manassas, who has had nine children in city schools over the years. Manassas Park, he said, is “dealing with all the same kinds of problems that we’re dealing with here.”
Educators say there is no simple answer to the question of what separates Manassas Park, the smaller of the two, from Manassas.
Demographics could be a factor. About 45 percent of Manassas Park’s 3,019 students come from families poor enough to qualify for meal subsidies, but the rate is 54 percent among the 7,154 students in Manassas. Manassas Park has a high share of students with limited English proficiency — 36 percent. But the rate in Manassas is even higher — 41 percent.
School officials in the Park also credit a uniform curriculum from elementary to high school, a focus on small-group instruction in reading and math, and the use of test data to identify each student’s weaknesses and then address those problems.
Manassas Park faces plenty of challenges, too. Students in Prince William and Fairfax counties generally post higher achievement on various academic measures.
Manassas Superintendent Gail E. Pope, who is retiring in June, was previously an associate superintendent in Manassas Park. She said the small size of Manassas Park and its shared campuses help educators maintain a uniform curriculum. Pope also said the higher percentage in Manassas of students with limited English proficiency is significant.
“We have inner-city demographics without having the problem of having a . . . Washington, D.C., size,” said Scott Albrecht, the Manassas School Board chairman. “We can honestly make a difference for every child. That’s what everybody in Manassas wants.”
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In Manassas Park, a 2.5-square-mile community divided by Route 28, educators often cite the “family” feel in the four public schools. The superintendent is typically a phone call away. Schools have aggressive outreach to parents, especially newcomers. Teachers and administrators say innovation is encouraged so good ideas can turn into reality in a short amount of time.