A group of Arlington high school students lambasted the county school board Thursday over a plan to shift the boundary lines for the district’s three high schools, saying that it fails to address concerns about economic segregation in the wealthy D.C. suburb.
The school board, tasked with redrawing boundaries to ease overcrowding at Washington-Lee High School, voted to shift about 350 students who would have attended the school in the next four years to the district’s two other high schools — Yorktown and Wakefield.
The changes will shift more students living in poverty toward Wakefield in South Arlington, where nearly half of students there qualify for free and reduced-price meals. It also will shift students from poor families away from the district’s wealthiest high school, Yorktown, where just 14 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Yorktown is also the least racially diverse of the three high schools.
The boundary adjustments will shift the share of students living in poverty by about one percentage point at Wakefield and Yorktown, but students who criticized the plan saw it as a missed opportunity to balance the demographics at the three high schools. School board members said they were balancing a number of competing priorities, including trying to send students to high schools close to their homes.
Matthew Herrity, a junior at Washington-Lee High, wrote an editorial in the student newspaper, Crossed Sabres, that was critical of the county’s plan, and he turned it into a Change.org petition asking the school board to lay out a concrete proposal for increasing diversity. It garnered nearly 1,400 signatures by Friday afternoon.
Herrity pointed out that some elementary schools in the small, wealthy county have disproportionately high numbers of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. One, Carlin Springs Elementary, is considered a racially and economically segregated school.
“Surely a school system that values diversity so much would be horrified by their levels of segregation, both racial and economic, and would take every opportunity they could to right this wrong,” Herrity wrote in his petition.
Board members, who voted unanimously to shift the boundaries, said in a written response that their mandate in redrawing the lines was simply to ease overcrowding at Washington-Lee. In doing so, board members sought to disturb the current feeder patterns as little as possible.
At Thursday night’s meeting, Herrity urged the school board to change its approach to drawing school boundaries.
“Arlington has the opportunity to reverse a trend . . . that is seen throughout the United States,” Herrity said. “It is imperative that we put diversity at the forefront of this boundary change.”
Grace Coldren, a 16-year-old junior at Wakefield, told the board that the county paid only lip service to diversity and failed to do enough to maintain affordable housing. Like many suburbs, housing prices in Arlington have soared, pushing poor families farther from urban centers.
“As much as we claim to value diversity, we have done little to curb the excessive demand to wipe out historically diverse communities in the interest of our pro-business climate,” Coldren said. “We are readily on our way to an apartheid system where we relocate diversity outside the county.”
During Thursday’s meeting, student after student shared their disappointment in the plan and about how the diversity of their classmates has enhanced their education. Students said the imbalance of demographics has left black students feeling isolated at Yorktown, where they represent just 5 percent of the student population.
A junior at Yorktown, her voice shaking, recounted a time when a classmate told her that slavery was justified and that she should go back to Africa. She said he then jokingly threatened to brand black people and make them his slaves if they didn’t leave the country, a remark that elicited laughter from other classmates.
“Ignorance and entitlement runs rampant through those halls, and your plan to redraw the lines will only help these sentiments to grow,” she said. “You are doing nothing to right the ailments that make this school so toxic.”
Barbara Kanninen, vice chair of the school board, said she was “horrified” by the girl’s story and pledged to address it.
Board members, too, urged the students to stay involved so their voices would be heard as the district prepared to redraw enrollment boundaries for elementary and middle schools.
“We heard the community speak loudly that the core value of diversity not be confined to a poster on our school walls,” board member Reid Goldstein said. “It’s going to take work and dedication to this principle to make this happen.”
Board member James Lander, the sole black member on the school board, said students should also be sensitive to the fact that many parents want to send their children to the schools closest to their homes.
“I challenge you to go and speak with someone whose thinking is different from yours,” he said. “That is diversity. Go sit down and talk to people who get up every day and go to work, come home [and] want to be able to attend a school event nearby their home where their child goes to school.”