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Students, Parents Speak Out on Plan to Shift School Boundaries

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008

For Brian Stout, a junior at South Lakes High School in Reston, inequities in high school enrollment across western Fairfax County have crystallized on the football field, where his team is compared with regional powers more than twice its size, such as the one at Westfield High. "The schools are literally not on a level playing field," he said.

The 17-year-old and a handful of other teens topped the list of speakers at the first of three public hearings before the Fairfax County School Board on a proposal to redraw boundaries for five high schools to fill spots on Stout's football team and about 700 seats in classrooms at his school. But a majority of about 100 parents and students who spoke disagreed with the school system's remedy of rerouting students to South Lakes High from nearby schools.

More than 300 people have signed up to speak about the controversial proposal at the three hearings at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church. The second hearing is tonight, and the third is scheduled for Feb. 9. The School Board is expected to vote on the plan by the end of February.

The proposal, from School Superintendent Jack D. Dale's staff, would reduce demographic disparities among the five 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 plan would take effect in the fall. Current high school students would not be affected.

At last night's hearing, which continued late into the night, many parents called the boundary process "flawed" and "unnecessary." Some criticized the International Baccalaureate program at South Lakes as a poor fit for their children or as inferior to the Advanced Placement programs at the other high schools. Others held up graphs and charts showing their analysis that South Lakes could boost its enrollment by drawing back students from within its existing boundaries who attend private or other schools.

Some opponents of the plan said the solution can be found in strengthening South Lake's programs and reputation.

"Adding more deck chairs to the ship and rearranging them is not going to keep the ship afloat," said Nicholas Pesce, a parent of a preschool-age child who would eventually head to South Lakes rather than Westfield High under the plan. Another parent, Choa-Chong Lee, whose children would be similarly rerouted, shared a cartoon he drew of a ship sinking while School Board members depicted as sailors invited people aboard.

Many opponents urged the board to slow down and retool the boundary process by adding incentives to attend South Lakes, which has lower test scores than the other schools, or broadening the number of schools considered for new boundaries. "We need to do it right the first time and not do it again," said Maryclaire Ramsey, whose children would go to South Lakes High rather than Oakton High under the plan.

Among the proponents of the redistricting were Alan Webb, a 2001 South Lakes alumnus, Olympian and U.S. record holder in track and field, who praised his alma mater as a place where high-achieving students can thrive, and Susan Sather, a South Lakes parent and Girl Scout troop leader. Sather wore her forest green jumper and argued that her 21 Brownies and Daisy Scouts deserve to look forward to "a community high school with enough students to let that school blossom."

"They are the future of South Lakes, and they need your help right now," she told the board.

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