School Board Weighs Leesburg Attendance Options

There are two different educational philosophies, and now five proposed attendance maps, up for debate as the Loudoun County School Board considers how to redraw elementary school boundaries in Leesburg.

Attendance zone changes have to be made in the town to reduce overcrowding at Evergreen Mill Elementary School. But the board seems to be split on whether to reassign just a few hundred students to bring down Evergreen Mill’s enrollment, or make major changes to fix what some consider an unfair distribution of the town’s poorest and non-English speaking students.

When attendance boundaries were drawn in 2006 and again in 2011, previous board members adopted a model that assigns students in some of Leesburg’s low-income neighborhoods to schools as far as 3.5 miles from their homes. The idea was that students would do better if schools were more socioeconomically balanced, as opposed to leaving one or two schools with high populations of poor students.

The first proposal, Plan 1, was presented by the district’s Legislative and Planning Department last week. It leaves students in apartments near Plaza Street in Leesburg divided into three different schools, and moves just 149 students to different schools. It moves a neighborhood on Clubhouse Drive (known as planning zone CL 28.3) from Evergreen Mill Elementary to Catoctin Elementary, and reassigns students in a planning zone north of town (CL 03) from Lucketts Elementary to Frances Hazel Reid Elementary. It would still leave Evergreen Mill’s enrollment 20 percent above its building capacity.

Three board members presented four new proposals during a meeting Thursday.

Plan 2, drafted by School Board member Eric DeKenipp, is similar to Plan 1 but moves more students from Evergreen Mill Elementary to bring that school’s enrollment just below it’s building capacity of 600. It also reassigns students in the Beacon Hill neighborhood northwest of Leesburg from Catoctin Elementary to Kenneth Culbert Elementary in Hamilton.

“We have significant capacity available at Culbert, and I found it hard, as I went through various options, to not make that move,” DeKenipp said.

His second proposal, Plan 4, would move more students but it would also return students who are bused several miles back to their neighborhood schools. The biggest change is for students who live in apartments and townhomes along Plaza Street; they would be reassigned from Evergreen Mill and Cool Spring to either Frederick Douglass or Leesburg Elementary, both within walking distance. The proposal does leave students in one planning zone in that neighborhood, labeled CL 20, at a school they would need to continue to ride the bus to, Frances Hazel Reid.

“Previous boards created these islands where you would leap frog to get to your school just to balance demographics,” DeKenipp said. “If it’s the will of the board and the community to move toward a more community school-based boundary, this is the way to do it, gradually.”

School Board member Beth Huck (At Large) presented her map, Plan 3, which primarily assigns students to the schools closest to them. The down side of the proposal, she noted, is that it would leave three-fourths of the students at Frederick Douglass Elementary qualifying for the federal free and reduced lunch program.

She said she drafted the plan based on several board members’ comments last week. “I wanted to see if there was a way for our higher needs population to go to the school that’s closest to their community,” she said, adding that it was a lot harder than she’d expected. “It was like having a thousand-piece jigsaw, and you couldn’t get all the pieces to work correctly.”

Her plan sparked the most conversation among board members, with a few registering their opposition and a few saying they were open to the proposal, even if it meant having a lot of low-income students at one school.

“This is a no way for me,” Joy Maloney (Broad Run) said. She cited research that indicates students’ achievement goes down when they’re in schools with a majority of low-income students.

Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said Loudoun County successfully runs schools like that in Sterling and their students bring in some of the best test scores in the district. “Our schools aren’t underperforming. Ours are doing great,” she said.  “I am very happy to see the plans that move toward community-based schools.”

Plan 5, proposed by Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn), which is similar to Plan 2. It reassigns about 800 students, including those in several planning zones along the west side of Rt. 15 and south of Leesburg. It would move students in Woodlea Manor and Country Club neighborhoods from Evergreen Mill to Catoctin. It would also move Beacon Hill students to Kenneth Culbert.

Hornberger cautioned board members against plans that, while well-intentioned, reassign more than 1,000 students. He referred to plans 3 and 4 that would return students to schools closer to their homes. “One thing I do know is that moving at risk-kids is very difficult for them to adjust as opposed to kids who have other support at home,” he said.

Board members are expected to present other proposals in the coming days. The board will hold one more public hearing March 14 ahead of adopting a map March 29. The hearing begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be held at the Loudoun County Government Building, 1 Harrison St. in Leesburg.