The teenagers at Stonewall Jackson High know what gets said about their school. They’ve heard it themselves.

There was the man who showed up at an informational meeting about the International Baccalaureate program at the campus in Virginia’s Prince William County.

“What’s the murder rate at this school?” the man asked one student.

They have fought rumors that the hallways of Stonewall are rampant with violence, crime and teenage pregnancy. They know, in the eyes of some in this Washington suburb, that Stonewall is inferior, a “bad” school — particularly when compared with newer, shinier campuses in the county’s western precincts.

So when county officials released a boundary proposal the Stonewall teenagers felt would segregate students based on race and class, they did what years of being underdogs taught them. They defended their school.

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They made pointed observations about racial and economic divides, and — echoing arguments about school segregation that have tested communities throughout the country — raised questions about the responsibility a school system has to bridge those divisions.

“Segregation is wrong. Point blank, period,” said Kayla Lubin, who graduated in June. “Separating students based on their race or their economic status is just something that we should have never even started doing.

“We need to stop it now.”

The scrutiny mirrored criticism Prince William County Public Schools faced in 2014, as boundaries for a new high school were being drawn. The Justice Department intervened, determining too few students of color would have been sent to the new campus under the school system’s proposal.

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This time, Stonewall students turned out en masse at public meetings. They campaigned for more resources at the Manassas school. Above all, the teenagers set out to show how their lives are enriched, their education strengthened by Stonewall’s racial and cultural diversity — in ways that cannot be captured in a textbook or scored on a test.

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“Even though it wasn’t directly said, a lot of the people opposed to being zoned for Stonewall don’t want their kids going there because of that image,” said Lubna Azmi, president of the Class of 2019. “That’s definitely the biggest reason that we fought so hard.”

Ultimately, the Stonewall community brokered a deal with a school board member to bring more resources and additional programs to the campus — changes officials said they believe will address concerns about school segregation. Spokeswoman Diana Gulotta said the district “is always mindful of the many effects the redrawing of boundaries can have on schools and students.”

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School system officials said the Stonewall building is not treated differently because of the school’s demographics, with a renovation in 2005 and a nearly $2 million overhaul of the stadium and field that is ongoing. A $1 million upgrade is planned for the school’s entry and offices.

The Stonewall students, however, said their arguments were ignored for much of the boundary process, spurring deeper conversations about imbalances across the fast-growing school system that educates nearly 91,000 students and is the second-largest in Virginia.

At Stonewall, which opened in 1972, desks are mismatched, classroom technology is outdated, and carpet in the orchestra room is held down with glue. Newer schools, miles away, boast a pond for environmental science, a television station and an indoor aquatics facility.

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“We’ve all been aware of what we weren’t given,” Azmi said. “This gave us an opportunity to really show what Stonewall is made of.”

Students organize

Conversations unfolded in math and history classes, at family dinner tables.

Teachers at Stonewall had alerted students to the rezoning, which called for bringing more students of color, students from poor families and those with limited English proficiency to Stonewall — a school that already had by far a higher number of those students than any other campus involved in the rezoning.

On fliers, the teenagers assailed the proposed zoning as “MODERN DAY ECONOMIC AND RACIAL SEGREGATION.”

Students stood in class, explaining to peers why the boundary changes mattered, recruiting classmates to speak out. They tweeted. They contacted teenagers calling for integration in New York schools.

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The school system released several boundary proposals over a couple of months. When redrawing boundaries, officials said they take into account crowding, demographic balance, transportation and a desire to keep students from small neighborhoods together.

The teenagers said more consideration should have been given to the demographic implications. Kimberly Elias, who graduated in June, said students were not suggesting the school system should bus students across the county to achieve diversity.

“There can be a middle ground,” she said. “An all-black or all-Hispanic school isn’t diverse, either, because you’re surrounded by people who look and think like you.”

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'There is a problem'

One night in mid-May, more than 100 current and former Stonewall students streamed into Patriot High’s auditorium, clad in shirts emblazoned with the school’s name, for a tense, three-hour meeting where they touted their school and blasted the county’s rezoning plans.

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A cluster of residents from Victory Lakes, a leafy development in Bristow with a clubhouse and sweeping views of lakes, were there, too, dressed in red. They were there because they wanted their children sent to Patriot High, a newer school, instead of to Stonewall.

Some Victory Lakes families wanted to stay at Stonewall, but the parents assembled in the auditorium argued that Patriot is closer to their neighborhood, that they wanted their children to attend school with their friends.

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Mariaizabel Escobar de Cheung said moving to Patriot would ease the commute between her younger daughter’s elementary school and her son’s high school. She felt families like hers were unfairly branded as intolerant. She had faced struggles, she said — she learned English on her own and was raised by a single mother who worked long hours.

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“I’m Hispanic. I’m not afraid of sending my kids to a predominantly Hispanic school,” Escobar de Cheung said. “I am where I am because of hard work.”

Another parent who spoke on behalf of some Victory Lakes families, Shouvik Biswas, said school segregation stems from broader issues that redrawing boundaries can’t make a “meaningful mark on.” Instead, he said, the county should give students from low-income families preference to transfer to other schools or establish high-caliber programs at Stonewall that attract students from afar.

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“There is a problem. That problem is borne from a hundred years of racist, segregationist housing policies,” Biswas said. “The more and more high schools we put in, the more and more the school boundaries are going to echo the geographic isolation that these communities are experiencing.”

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Booming development west of Manassas over the past 15 years — in Gainesville, Bristow and Haymarket — has given rise to high schools that have absorbed wealthier and whiter neighborhoods as Stonewall has become more diverse, said Tom Darrow, a social studies teacher.

About 80 percent of students at Stonewall are children of color, 51 percent come from economically disadvantaged families, and 19 percent have limited English-language proficiency, school system data shows. Stonewall’s dropout rate is nearly double the county average, and 36 percent of students were chronically absent in the 2017-2018 school year.

At Patriot High, 48 percent are students of color, 12 percent come from low-income families, and 3 percent have limited English-language proficiency.

As the District and parts of Northern Virginia gentrify, lower-income families must look for less expensive homes in older suburban areas, such as the neighborhoods around Stonewall, said Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

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The percentage of students who receive free and reduced meals has nearly doubled in Prince William County since the early 2000s, according to data compiled by the Weldon Cooper Center. But the population of students who receive subsidized meals at Stonewall has nearly quadrupled in the last 16 years, despite once falling below the county average.

Given the prevalence of housing segregation, Kevin D. Brown, a law professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, said it would be difficult to produce integrated schools without a conscious effort.

A divided Supreme Court in 2007 restricted school systems’ ability to use race to determine school assignments. But districts can consider neighborhood demographics when carving boundaries, and school systems are free to use socioeconomic status to determine school zones.

After the community meeting at Patriot ended and the auditorium emptied, Darrow settled into a seat.

The Victory Lakes parents had every right to defend their community and do what they thought was best for their children, the social studies teacher said. But he still believed the county’s plans defied Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional.

“Talking about race and economics and property values is icky. And nobody wants to come off sounding like they’re racist. And I’m sure everybody over there doesn’t think of themselves as a racist,” Darrow said. “It’s more about the result of their actions. If what they’re doing, no matter how well-intentioned, is resulting in economic and racial segregation, then it’s illegal.”

Embracing differences

A mural of a tree is painted in a second-floor hallway at Stonewall, its leaves resembling flags from countries around the world. Images of Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and Frida Kahlo adorn other walls, accompanied by motivational quotes. “We did not come to fear the future, we came to shape it,” one reads.

The art was meant to inspire students, especially students of color. The school is 60 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black, 14 percent white, 6 percent Asian and 5 percent multiracial. Students have roots spread around the world: El Salvador, Taiwan, Morocco, Sierra Leone.

Research has shown that students in diverse schools perform better academically. Integrated settings expose students to different perspectives, sparking more complex thought and conversation, said John Yun, an associate professor of educational administration at Michigan State University.

Elias, an aspiring engineer, said she has spent her life fearing what others think of her, concerned she will be viewed as lesser because she is protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

She never felt out of place at Stonewall, where teachers helped her write college essays and fought to get her financial aid, where classmates supported her after she learned she could not attend an engineering program because of her immigration status.

“I feel, truly, just so blessed,” the 18-year-old said.

Beyond a map

By early summer, the local NAACP chapter had weighed in on the rezoning plans, as did Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William). The Class of 2019 had graduated, and school was out for the summer, but Stonewall students remained fixtures at school board meetings.

The board had considered several boundary proposals, none of which would have changed the projected demographics at Stonewall by much. Chuck Ronco, a math teacher who mobilized faculty members to attend meetings, realized “there was no way we were going to solve this problem with a map.”

He had helped create one of the earlier plans and, weeks before the final vote, returned to the drawing board with a school board member.

They devised a measure to accompany the new boundaries: The school system would increase spending at older schools, which often have large numbers of economically disadvantaged students. It would establish two specialty programs at Stonewall, in hopes of drawing more students from other parts of the county.

School board members passed the map and spending measure, 7 to 1.

Azmi, the class president, said the plan has promise, even if it does not correct the demographics in the straightforward way the students hoped. Early on in the rezoning process, a friend told Azmi there was “no use fighting this because we never win.” But she said the students were able to change some attitudes about Stonewall, to correct false assumptions.

“This battle, even though it started off with boundaries, was able to address many more of the problems and help bring solutions to them,” she said. “We won in a much greater way.”