Fairfax Parents Put Map To Test

South Lakes High School granted more transfer requests to the siblings of students at other schools that were affected by the new boundary map.
South Lakes High School granted more transfer requests to the siblings of students at other schools that were affected by the new boundary map. (By Hyosub Shin -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Despite a court ruling this week that upheld the School Board's decision to reshuffle high schools for hundreds of western Fairfax County students, many parents have found a way to bypass the new boundary map and send their children to campuses of their choice.

More than a third of the 226 rising freshmen who were to be added to the roster of South Lakes High School for the coming year have transferred to nearby high schools for curricular reasons, school system records showed. Most of the 85 students who left the Reston school applied to pursue Advanced Placement classes not offered at South Lakes High. By contrast, nine incoming freshmen transferred from the school last year for similar reasons.

South Lakes High Principal Bruce Butler said more transfer requests were granted to siblings of students at other schools affected by the new boundaries, which means the number of rising freshmen who transferred from the Reston school could exceed 100. In the 2008-09 school year, Butler expects enrollment to reach 1,560 to 1,580 students from about 1,440. He said he does not expect the high transfer rate to continue.

"That number will drop drastically in the future, I predict," Butler said. "The vast majority of South Lakes students and parents are very supportive and excited about the school . . . and we think those that are new to us will become part of that."

The School Board launched a boundary review in western Fairfax last fall to boost enrollment at South Lakes, which was below capacity by 700, and bring it in line with higher enrollments at nearby schools. The plan changed the destination high school for some students from Westfield High School in Chantilly, and Oakton and James Madison high schools in Vienna. Only incoming students were affected, and the plan projected enrollment growth of 600 students for South Lakes High by 2012.

South Lakes has undergone a $63 million renovation, and officials point to its rigorous courses and strong faculty. About 18 freshmen are transferring into South Lakes from nearby schools for its International Baccalaureate program. Many parents opposed sending their children to the Reston school, which has a higher portion of disadvantaged students than its neighbors and somewhat lower test scores. Some parents said they viewed IB as less desirable than the AP program.

After the board approved new boundaries in February, parents raised about $125,000 for a lawsuit filed in Fairfax County Circuit Court to challenge the decision. The suit claimed that the board action was "arbitrary and capricious" because, among other reasons, members violated board policies when they decided which neighborhoods would be subject to attendance-zone changes. The suit also said that the board exceeded its authority when it sought to balance socioeconomic characteristics in the schools.

Judge Gaylord L. Finch Jr. sided with the board in a brief decision issued Monday.

While the suit was pending, many families applied for transfers for their children. The county allows students to switch from base schools for a variety of reasons, including proximity to day-care centers or availability of courses. This year, principals were also given discretion to grant transfers for students with older siblings at schools affected by the boundary change, Butler said.

Some families tried multiple approaches. Cynthia Fry said she filed a transfer application days after the board's decision. She applied to send her daughter to high school at Oakton, where she would have gone before the boundary change, so she could enroll in AP classes. Fry was turned down, however, because the rules require students to attend the closest school that offers the requested curriculum. For her family, that high school was Herndon.

Fry reapplied. Her daughter, who has some hearing loss, said she wanted to take American Sign Language, a course offered at Oakton but not the other two schools. The application was approved.

A friend whose transfer request was also accepted sent Fry a jubilant e-mail.

"You would think she had gotten accepted into Harvard or Yale, we were so excited," Fry said.

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