Vote on School Zones in Fairfax Pits Neighbor Against Neighbor

Carly Mannava settled her family so that sons Vijay, left, and Vikram could attend Oakton High.
Carly Mannava settled her family so that sons Vijay, left, and Vikram could attend Oakton High. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Like many fastidious school shoppers, Carly Mannava planned ahead. She bought a map of Fairfax County high school attendance zones, combed through data on the Internet and pushed her twin sons, Vijay and Vikram, in a stroller around campuses to envision where the toddlers would someday become college-bound scholars.

Mannava vetoed one school after deciding it was "too chaotic" but settled on another that magazines had ranked among the nation's top 100. So three years ago, the family bought a 6,600-square-foot house on a former horse farm near a neighborhood called Fox Mill Estates.

Tonight, the Fairfax County School Board is to vote on plans that, among other things, could move the Mannavas and their neighbors from the Oakton High attendance zone in Vienna to that of South Lakes High in Reston, the school that Mannava rejected.

The proposal, which could reshuffle high schools for thousands of students in coming years, has thrown the Fox Mill area and other western Fairfax enclaves into turmoil as parents weigh the county's need for demographically and academically balanced schools against personal ambitions and expectations for their children. It is a drama that has played out over the years in growing communities across Virginia and Maryland but rarely on the scale faced in Fairfax.

"Do we move?" Mannava asked. "Private school? I'm scared to death."

For months, the school boundary debate has played out at neighborhood meetings and public hearings, raising questions about race, class and equal educational opportunity. School Board members have heard 500 speeches during 26 hours of hearings. Many parents want the status quo. Others agree with school officials who say South Lakes High needs more students and an academic boost.

With 1,440 students, South Lakes High is 700 students below capacity. It has a higher share of students living in poverty and learning English as a second language than five neighboring high schools that could be affected by a boundary change: Chantilly, Herndon, Madison, Oakton and Westfield. Of the six, South Lakes is the only one at which white students are not the majority. It also has lower test scores than most neighboring schools.

Under the school system's plans, which if passed would go into effect this fall, no current high school students would have to move. But the destination could switch for hundreds of younger students over the next four years, and more in the future.

Bruce Butler, principal at South Lakes, has given many parents tours of the campus, which is undergoing a $60 million renovation. He has promoted the school's challenging curriculum and said that South Lakes, like all Fairfax schools, "has students that succeed at the very highest levels in the country."

Fox Mill Estates and surrounding neighborhoods are, at some points, about three miles from South Lakes High and nine from Oakton High. With change in sight, "Save Oakton HS" signs dot lawns, and the subject dominates conversations at the local tae kwon do studio and grocery store.

Many parents have fought the school system's plans, delving into the minutiae of bus routes, enrollment, curricula, college admissions criteria and student mobility rates to counter the official line on the need for change. They have pledged money for litigation and plunged into politics. When a School Board candidate they backed did not win in November, some started gathering signatures to recall board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill), who favors the boundary change.

In recent weeks, parents have battled among themselves.

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