Most Loudoun County School Board members seem to be leaning toward making major changes to Leesburg school assignments to fix what they consider an unwarranted distribution of the town’s poorest and non-English-speaking students.
Attendance zone boundary changes have to be made to reduce overcrowding at Evergreen Mill Elementary School. A few board members and some residents favor reassigning just a few hundred students to bring down Evergreen Mill’s enrollment. But comments from board members Monday night indicate the majority want to see what board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) called a “paradigm shift.”
Hornberger and board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) unveiled their proposal that would return hundreds of students to their neighborhood schools. Their attendance map, Plan 12, would reverse decisions made by previous School Boards in 2006 and 2011 to assign students from the cluster of apartment complexes in central Leesburg to schools that are as far as 3 miles away.
The shifted boundaries would mean a higher concentration of low-income students at two schools. It would mean that 59 percent of the student population at Leesburg Elementary and 56 percent at Frederick Douglass Elementary would qualify for the federal free and reduced meals program. The rate is currently 26 percent at both schools.
Hornberger said the proposal, if adopted, would assign students to the closest school that has space. “As it appears now that there is more interest by individual board members to explore and look into this paradigm shift, I thought it’d be important to bring forward a plan that actually does it,” he said.
It also frees up classroom seats at Cool Spring, Evergreen Mills and Tolbert elementary schools for future developments such as Tuscarora Crossing and Market Square to avoid future boundary changes. “This is a district that’s gone through four boundary reviews in eight years,” DeKenipp said. “We’re tired of this.”
Board members Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) and Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said they liked Plan 12 because it would return students to their neighborhood schools.
Turgeon had strong words in response to several emails she received urging the board to send academically at-risk students to the best schools, referring to busing low-income students and English Language Learners to schools where they can be with more affluent students.
“There’s not a school within Loudoun County that’s not the ‘best school.’ To say that a particular school is not the ‘best school’ is insulting to that population and insulting to the education professionals who teach there,” she said.
Rose pointed to data that showed Loudoun County students do best when they attend schools closer to their home. She noted that elementary schools with some of the highest rates of poor and non-English speaking students in Sterling have tallied impressive test scores in recent years.
Tom Marshall (Leesburg) countered Rose’s point. Marshall, who favors evenly distributing students based on their socioeconomic make up, said “the jury’s still out” on which model is best for students.
“Central Loudoun is happy with what we’re doing and we feel we have good results,” he said, prompting cheers and applause from several in the audience.
Jeff Morse (Dulles) also questioned the school system’s research. He said it differs from what research shows on a national level, and much of the progress made by Sterling schools has been over the past couple of years.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to throw out the entire model of distributing low-income students when we have just two years of data,” he said.
Of the more than 70 speakers who approached the board during a public hearing Monday, parents fell on both sides of the issue. Several from Leesburg Elementary spoke against Plan 12 because it would split Exeter, assigning some students to Frances Hazel Reid Elementary. They waved blue signs urging the board to “Keep LES Together.”
Others, including Kara Griffin, wore green to show solidarity to stay at Evergreen Mill Elementary. “Plan 12 is brilliant,” Griffin said. “It’s the right thing for the students, the teachers and the principals.”
Read more about the other proposals on the table here. See all of the plans on the LCPS website here. The board is expected to adopt a map March 29.