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Vote on School Zones in Fairfax Pits Neighbor Against Neighbor

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.

"This whole process has pitted neighbors against neighbors, friends against friends, communities against communities," said Fox Mill resident Jennifer Kyle Herd. "We don't trust each other, and we don't trust the School Board."

Fox Mill parents have found allies elsewhere. At the hearings, some joined irate parents from the Madison High zone. They stood in solidarity with parents from the Westfield High zone, many of them Asian immigrants who are opposed to a boundary switch.

"We came here with empty hands," Yufang Wu, the Chinese-born mother of a Floris Elementary second-grader, said in an interview. "We can sacrifice many things, but not our education."

While opponents of a boundary change cited fears for their real estate values and their children's college prospects, parents of South Lakes students reminded the board that Fairfax tax dollars support all public schools and said that their school deserves equal resources.

The Fox Mill Elementary attendance area is largely composed of Fox Mill Estates, which has 1,100 houses. Fox Mill Estates is considered one of the more affordable neighborhoods in the Oakton High zone, with prices of some houses from the 1970s starting at about $400,000. The attendance zone also includes nearby subdivisions, some with newer, pricier homes.

There's no shortage of volunteers in the schools. In some years, the Fox Mill Elementary PTA has had 100 percent membership. Parents have joked that if they didn't sign up immediately to chaperone a field trip, they could forget it.

The school also has a prized Japanese immersion program. From Fox Mill, students go to Rachel Carson Middle and then Oakton High, which has received a governor's award for excellence and has been ranked among the nation's top 100 high schools by U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek.

Every school day, Elena Shillingburg drives down a winding road from Fox Mill Estates past sprawling mansions with terraced gardens to pick up her 10th-grade daughter at Oakton High. Shillingburg said she hopes her eighth-grade son will also go there and get into the University of Virginia. She said she does not want him to be "a guinea pig" at a school in flux.

For months, she has spent as much as 20 hours a week in meetings, making calls and knocking on doors to try to stop the plan. She said she has had trouble sleeping and has stopped talking to friends who support the plan as long as their schools remain untouched. "Everyone is in it for themselves," she said.

But some neighbors support the move to South Lakes High.

Erika Castro said that if her daughter and other newcomers can raise test scores at the Reston school and help bring more clubs and course offerings, it would make a big difference. "When a school is successful and people take pride in their success, it has a psychological impact on everyone," she said.

In response to a petition with 2,500 signatures against the new boundaries, Castro gave the School Board a petition with 500 supporting signatures.

Catherine and Jeff Doebrich moved to Fairfax in 2004 and chose Oakton High and the Fox Mill area after ranking about 10 schools by test scores, suspensions, college attendance rates and other factors.

South Lakes came in last on their spreadsheet. But after visiting the school and hearing the principal's pitch, they said they were impressed with the faculty and curriculum. "My instincts tell me that my child will not get lost there," Catherine Doebrich said. "She will be found. Her strengths will be found, and she will grow."

For months, Fox Mill parents have managed an uneasy peace, smiling across driveways, agreeing to disagree. But lately, tempers have flared. About two weeks ago, board member Kathy L. Smith (Sully) proposed an alternative -- to split the Fox Mill area in two, keeping half of the residents at Oakton.

Rona Ackerman, president of the Fox Mill Elementary PTA, dashed off a survey before the plan was publicly announced to gauge parents' opinions. A few days later, she sent a PTA letter home with students, urging parents to contact the School Board about the proposal.

Her actions touched off a furor. She supports the school system's plan for new boundaries. Some neighbors accused her of seeking to kill Smith's proposal since it would not move all Fox Mill students to South Lakes High. Disgruntled parents circulated e-mails urging a boycott of the elementary school's biggest fundraiser, the PTA-sponsored Family Fun Night.

Ackerman said she wanted only to keep the school community together, a goal she thought neighbors supported. But fallout from Smith's proposal to split Fox Mill showed she might have been wrong.

"Once they drew that line, it became us against them," she said.

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