The school board of a wealthy Virginia county is set to vote Tuesday on a controversial proposal that would consolidate students from a largely poor, Hispanic neighborhood into two schools, a proposition that has drawn criticism from those who see the plan as a form of segregation.
The Loudoun County School Board, tasked with redrawing enrollment boundaries to ease overcrowding, also is weighing whether to reverse a long-standing policy of economic integration in Leesburg, a wealthy community with a high concentration of poor, immigrant families living in a cluster of downtown apartment buildings and townhomes. The district currently sends the community’s 700 elementary school students to four elementary schools in an effort to balance out the proportion of high-needs students at each school. The new plan would send all but about 186 of those students to two schools closer to them: Frederick Douglass and Leesburg elementary schools.
It would raise the percentage of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals at both schools to above 50 percent and the percentage of English language learners to about 50 percent. But it also would allow those children to attend schools closer to their homes.
The plan has spurred an emotional debate and raised questions about the best way to serve high-needs students. Proponents of the plan say it is best to cluster high-needs students together so resources can be focused to help them. Opponents say it turns the clock back to the days of segregation and point to research that shows economic integration is beneficial for high-needs students.
Tuesday night, they are set to decide whether they will move forward with that plan. They also could vote to move forward with three other plans that would adjust boundaries but aim to maintain a demographic balance, keeping projected rates of poor students — who are labeled low-income because they qualify for free- and reduced-price meals — at below 40 percent at all Leesburg schools.
“We’re trying to figure out how best to serve the children,” said Chairman Eric Hornberger, one of the designers of the plan to concentrate poor, Hispanic students into two schools. He said he remains undecided and is weighing information from both sides of the argument.
Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said in a recent interview that she believes high-needs students would be better served in a school that would qualify for Title I funds, special federal dollars that target high-poverty schools.
“Are we doing well by any of these students or can we do better if we actually move to the community-based models and be able to provide the right resources?” Rose said. She noted the success of some Title I schools in Sterling that have boasted test scores above district averages. She also has said that she believes that schools with higher percentages of high-needs students would be better equipped to be “culturally sensitive.”
Board member Joy Maloney (Ashburn), one of the board members who opposes the plan to reverse economic integration, said that creating two new high-poverty schools would mean that existing high-needs schools, like those in Sterling, would get fewer resources. Local funding that was recently set aside to send more staff to high-needs schools also is at risk of being cut as the board looks to trim nearly $17 million from its budget proposal.
Maloney believes economic integration is more important to closing the achievement gap than funneling more resources into a school with a higher population of at-risk students.
Maloney said research shows that the poverty level at a school “is a better indicator of success at that school than how much money is spent at that school.” She cited a study in Montgomery County, Md., that found that students from poor families who attended school with more affluent peers did better than those who went to high-poverty schools that received targeted resources.
But those in favor of creating two, Title I-elgible schools say that they are skeptical that the research is applicable to Loudoun County.
“Each of those papers is very specific to facts and circumstances,” Rose said in a board meeting Monday night.