A wealthy Virginia county is weighing a plan that would concentrate children from a poor, largely Hispanic neighborhood into two schools, rolling back a policy of economic integration and stoking arguments reminiscent of the “separate but equal” debate a generation ago.
Tasked with redrawing enrollment boundaries in fast-growing Loudoun County to ease overcrowding, some school board members have suggested doing away with the practice of dispersing students from a cluster of high-density Leesburg apartment complexes to several affluent schools, some up to three miles away. The board members have argued that it may be better to keep those students — many of whom are underprivileged — closer to home in two schools that could qualify for more resources.
The proposal would mean that a majority of students at both schools — Frederick Douglass and Leesburg elementaries — would come from impoverished households and about half of each school’s population would be English-language learners. It would make their former schools wealthier and less diverse.
The board members argue that grouping those students will allow teachers to focus on their specific needs, and they say that neighborhood-based schools are more conducive to building community.
“I think there are a lot of benefits in allowing a natural grouping of the students according to their neighborhood,” school board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said at a recent board meeting.
Those who support continuing to bus students out of the neighborhood say that putting them in Leesburg and Frederick Douglass — built on the same site as a school that served the county’s black students during segregation — amounts to segregation that will exacerbate their academic challenges. They point to research that shows that poor children who have affluent classmates perform better academically.
“The statistics show that children who are in schools where there are well-to-do kids do better than if they’re relegated to schools where there’s just disadvantaged kids,” said school board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg). “Loudoun County is a fairly well-to-do school system. There’s no reason why we have to relegate poor students to one school building.”
Patricia Barrera, who lives in Sterling but is moving to an apartment in downtown Leesburg this month, said she objected to the effort to concentrate children from the neighborhood. She worries that her 8-year-old daughter, Kristal, would be relegated to a lower-quality school.
“She was born in this country. Her language is English,” said Barrera, a Guatemalan immigrant who works in retail. “I want to have the best opportunities for my child.”
There is increasing evidence that many of the nation’s public schools are resegregating, with some studies suggesting that U.S. public schools are as segregated by race as they were in the 1960s. There also is growing evidence that widening differences in socioeconomic status, not race, are driving academic achievement gaps.
The nation’s most segregated schools often are among the worst performing, experts say, in part because of the concentration of poverty and the myriad challenges that come with it. Some research has shown that teachers in segregated schools do not expect as much of their students, for example.
Some schools have made specific attempts to focus on disadvantaged populations with special programs housed within their schools. The international academies at Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School — a racially and economically mixed school — and at D.C.’s Cardozo High School, aim to help immigrant students graduate.
But the idea of purposeful segregation by neighborhood, and not into a specialized and targeted program, is inherently controversial.
“It’s horrible,” said Jenene Quentmeyer, whose 6-year-old daughter attends Leesburg Elementary. She said that parents from the low-income Hispanic community who probably will be affected by the plan have been conspicuously absent from the meetings and public hearings. “I think that it’s essentially socioeconomic and racial segregation. It feels very unfair, very unjust to me.”
Loudoun has a median income in the six figures, and its students boast some of the highest test scores in Virginia. But as the county’s population has surged in recent years, so has its proportion of students living in poverty. Eighteen percent of the student population qualifies for free and reduced-priced meals, and the county’s economically disadvantaged students and English-language learners have trailed far behind their more affluent peers on state tests.
The board has focused its attention on a section of downtown Leesburg where 709 elementary school students reside. According to district data, 84 percent are considered to be living in poverty, and 70 percent of students there are English-language learners. The board is weighing a proposal that would send all but 186 of those students to the two nearby elementaries, shifting them out of schools that serve some of Loudoun’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
Board members and parents in favor of concentrating the students point to the success of some of the county’s high-poverty schools in the Sterling area and note that such schools can qualify for more federal resources, as the two elementaries probably would with the change.
“When you have students that have common needs, you can direct your instructional methods in that manner and you have more resources because you have more students with that particular need,” said Turgeon, who used to teach at a Leesburg elementary school. “When we’re balancing demographics . . . to me we’re watering down the focus we need to have on the students.”
Parents who have noticed an influx of English-language learners and low-income students at their schools said that the culture shift has made it more difficult for their children to make friends and that the academic environment has changed, with test scores falling and talented teachers leaving.
“It’s a distraction when you have a child who has to translate because a child cannot speak English,” said Rachel Bruce, who has two children at Frances Hazel Reid Elementary. The number of low-income students and English-language learners rose dramatically when its enrollment zone was redrawn in 2012, a process that proved contentious. A third of the school’s current students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, up from about 5 percent in 2011. About 30 percent of students are English-language learners.
Bruce worries that teachers are spending so much time focusing on high-need students that her children are not getting the attention they need.
Some parents, such as Susan Murphy, a project manager who has two children at Francis Hazel Reid, said the rising number of poor students has strained parent volunteers. Murphy helped start the school’s Backpack Buddies program, which gives bags of food to students who might be going home to bare pantries, and helps prepare bags for 120 students every week.
Murphy said she and other parents who want to shift the poor students out of their schools have been unfairly tagged as bigots.
“I wouldn’t have put so much time into this if I was a racist and a segregationist,” Murphy said, adding that she is concerned about the school’s slipping test scores and the fact that many of the poor children live too far from the school to participate in after-school activities and summer programs. “I’ve lived this and I’ve been part of this and I just don’t think what happened four years ago is working.”
Creating an economically integrated environment in which low-income students see others striving for college is better academically, said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the progressive Century Foundation and an expert in economic integration in schools.
“There’s a pretty strong consensus among researchers that one of the worst things you can do is concentrate poverty in schools,” Kahlenberg said.
Some Loudoun parents told the school board that economic integration also has had benefits for the county’s affluent and middle-class students.
“It’s real life. Not every place that you go is going to have people who look exactly like you or come from the same background as you,” said Darcy Cunningham, who has a daughter at Frederick Douglass, a racially diverse school. “I think there’s an incredible value to that.”
Maribel Santiago, who lives in a downtown Leesburg apartment, said it would be difficult for her daughter Yurely to move from Evergreen Mills Elementary, where she likes her teacher and friends. Santiago said that her daughter benefits from attending a school with a mix of children; she is learning English and is picking up vocabulary from interacting with her English-speaking classmates.
Asked about her English, Yurely said she understands the language but speaks “poquito” — a little.
“But I’m learning,” she said in Spanish, adding that she likes everything about Evergreen Mills.
“I like to read,” she said. “I like to learn. All of it.”