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Fairfax Teens Try to Dispel Rumors, Fill Classrooms

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007

Students from South Lakes High School have barnstormed western Fairfax County recently in an unusual marketing campaign, seeking to fill 700 empty classroom seats by reshuffling the enrollment of as many as half a dozen campuses. Their pitch at PTA meetings targets wary parents from more affluent schools.

To persuade skeptics, students say they counter rumor with fact. The Reston campus is diverse, they say, not "ghetto." Students don't flash gang signs in the hallways, and they don't have to walk through metal detectors to get to class.

"I think of this school as a family. When someone talks about South Lakes, I think, 'You can't talk about my family like that,' " senior Sierra Little said. She represented the school last week in a town hall meeting at Chantilly High packed with about 2,500 anxious residents.

That meeting began a contentious process that could lead the School Board to redraw attendance zones for about a quarter of the high schools in the region's largest school system. It would be the first high school boundary shift in Fairfax since the opening of South County Secondary School in 2005. New west county boundaries could go into effect as early as next fall, when South Lakes High completes a $63 million renovation. Since July, more than 2,000 people have signed an online petition seeking to halt the process.

The school system has not made public any proposal for new boundaries. More community meetings are planned for December.

But board members and school system officials say action is needed to balance what is a skewed distribution of students and academic and extracurricular opportunities. South Lakes High has 1,443 students on a campus built for 2,100. Westfield High has 3,171 students, and Chantilly High has 2,838, both exceeding their design capacities.

Nearby, Oakton High has 2,350 students and Herndon High has 2,190. In addition, Madison High, with 1,910 students, could be modestly affected. Enrollment at all three schools is closer to the school board's target size of 2,000 for high schools.

The 165,000-student school system projects enrollment at most schools in the study will decline in the next few years. To some parents, that's a signal that any campus crowding could resolve itself and that redrawing school boundaries is therefore unnecessary. Denise M. James, director of facilities planning services, acknowledged in an interview: "There is physically enough room in all these schools." However, several campuses have classrooms in trailers.

What's driving the school system toward action, James said, are differences in programs available at the various campuses. "When you stop and look at how much is being offered at larger schools, there really is a disparity," she said. South Lakes High cannot offer as many electives or advanced courses, such as comparative religion or multivariable calculus. And at schools with higher enrollment, there is more competition for limited spots in student government and on sports teams.

School Board Vice Chairman Kathy L. Smith (Sully) said that she has heard from many parents that Westfield High is too crowded. But some parents said that they are not convinced that action is needed.

Michael Saunders, a parent in the Oakton High attendance area, next to South Lakes, said he doesn't believe steeper "competition to get onto the basketball team warrants calling for the mass relocation of hundreds of kids."

Many parents are calling on the board to reexamine which schools are included in the boundary study. Some ask why nearby Langley High is omitted. That school is undergoing an expansion to handle its enrollment growth.


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