Fairfax Officials Tweak School Attendance Plan

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

Fairfax County school officials have crafted a plan for new high school attendance boundaries in the western part of the county, in a proposal that would send hundreds of students from neighboring schools to South Lakes High in Reston.

The proposal, from the staff of Superintendent Jack D. Dale, would reduce demographic disparities among five high schools. South Lakes, which is operating far below capacity and serves more low-income and minority families than the other four, would gain students bound for Westfield, Madison and Oakton high schools. In addition, some students in the Chantilly High attendance zone would be rerouted to Oakton.

The recommendation largely mirrors a proposal that Dale's staff floated Dec. 19 at a town hall meeting at Oakton. The only tweak affected a neighborhood near Navy Elementary School. Under the staff plan, more students from that neighborhood would be shifted from Chantilly's attendance area to Oakton's.

Current high school students would not be affected; the plan would take effect this fall.

The proposal is to be discussed tonight at a School Board meeting.

The board's decision in July to study school boundaries in western Fairfax has provoked concern and outrage among some parents. Many say efforts to ease crowding at Westfield and Chantilly are unnecessary. Some say they are reluctant to send their children to South Lakes because it has lower overall test scores than neighboring schools.

Thousands of parents attended three town hall meetings in November and December to protest potential changes.

The staff's proposal "flies in the face of logic," said Tom Painter, whose 3- and 6-year-old children would attend South Lakes rather than Madison if the board approves the plan. Painter lives in a small, isolated corner of the Madison attendance zone. He said it doesn't make sense to disrupt the community.

Hearings on the plan are scheduled for Jan. 30 and Jan. 31. More than 300 people have signed up to speak, prompting board members to schedule a third hearing Feb. 9. A vote on the plan could come at the end of February.

Until recently, board members have asked constituents to give feedback on boundaries through the town hall meetings and written comments to staff. Now, board members are free to respond to "massive numbers" of e-mails about the issue or set up constituent meetings, said board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill), whose district includes South Lakes.

"It's our turn," Gibson said.

The board could revise the boundary plan or quash it. But Gibson said he is committed to bringing more programs and students to South Lakes.

Under the staff plan, enrollment at South Lakes would rise to 2,056 by 2012, up from 1,443 this year. Enrollment at Westfield, which is over capacity with 3,171 students, would shrink to 2,642 during that time. Enrollment at Chantilly, also over capacity with 2,838 students, would drop to 2,413. Enrollment at Oakton, with 2,350 students, would dip to 2,050. The impact on Madison would be smaller.

The plan would lower the number of South Lakes students who receive free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty. About a third of the school's students receive meal subsidies; that ratio would drop to about a quarter. The poverty ratio would change little at the other schools.

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