School Board Approves Boundary Redesign

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

The Fairfax County School Board approved new attendance boundaries last night for several high schools in the western part of the county, reshaping the school pipeline for thousands of students in years to come.

The board's 10 to 2 vote for the plan culminated a debate over how to reduce disparities in enrollment and academic programs in the Washington region's largest school system.

Under the proposal approved by the board, yearly enrollment at South Lakes High School in Reston will grow by as many as 600 students by 2012, an expansion that will switch the destination high school for thousands of students.

The new students will come from neighborhoods previously assigned to Westfield High School in Chantilly and Oakton and Madison high schools in Vienna. In addition, the plan calls for some students in Chantilly High's zone to be rerouted to Oakton. No current high school students will be affected.

The plan, to be phased in starting this fall, will help boost enrollment at South Lakes High and reduce the proportion of students there who come from poverty (about a third) and speak English as a second language (nearly one-sixth).

South Lakes has somewhat lower test scores than most of its neighbors and a higher percentage of disadvantaged students. But administrators boast about renovations underway on campus, strong course offerings and motivated students.

Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill), a proponent of the plan, said it is "about making sure that all children we serve have the same access to the services we expect for all our children."

Newly elected board members Martina A. Hone (At Large) and James L. Raney (At Large) urged the board to halt the process and rethink the school system's approach toward drawing boundaries.

Hone proposed a countywide moratorium on boundary changes, with exceptions for new schools, to allow a review of all attendance zones.

"I believe that this is the healthiest thing for our community to do," she said, "especially after this very difficult exercise: to stop, assess, plan and make the difficult decisions that we have to do countywide."

Her proposal drew an ovation from parents who oppose new boundaries but failed 10 to 2. Several board members said changes in western Fairfax are needed now. A moratorium "does not address the immediate problem," said member Tessie Wilson (Braddock).

The same majority held in the final roll call for the boundary plan, which concluded shortly before 11 p.m., with Hone and Raney dissenting.

In hearings leading up to the vote, many parents skeptical of South Lakes High called the plan unnecessary and urged the board to reject any change in high school attendance boundaries.

Some vowed to fight the plan in court if it was approved. Others said they would rather pay for private school or seek permission to place their children in another public school instead of South Lakes.

But there were also many parents and students who defended South Lakes, calling the school underrated and challenging skeptics to tour the campus.

The School Board started the boundary study in July. Officials held town hall meetings in November and December that drew thousands of residents, an unusual outpouring. The board also held several public hearings in recent weeks.

Last night the board also approved plans to move some students from Wolftrap Elementary School in Vienna to Sunrise Valley Elementary in Reston and from Thoreau Middle School in Vienna to Hughes Middle in Reston.

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