There’s a lot more to this than reassigning a few kids.
The work of redrawing the Leesburg school attendance map is sparking a complicated debate over educational philosophies and socioeconomics.
Elementary attendance lines in and around the town have to be redrawn because the map adopted by the Loudoun County School Board in December, if unchanged, would put enrollment at Evergreen Mill Elementary well over building capacity.
But the question at the heart of the discussion is whether the board will reassign just enough students, probably about 300, to bring down enrollment at that school, or undertake major boundary changes to return several hundred low-income students to their neighborhood schools.
The debate dates back to the School Board members who served in 2006-2011. The majority on the board at that time held the philosophy that schools’ student population should be as socioeconomically balanced as possible.
So when they redrew attendance boundaries in 2006 and again in 2011, they adopted maps that assigned students in low-income neighborhoods—including a cluster of apartments on Plaza Street with more than 200 elementary students—to schools as far as 3.5 miles from their homes. In some cases, those students are bused past three elementary schools to get to their assigned school.
Several parents who attended the first public hearing on the latest Leesburg boundary changes Thursday evening want to see the board return those students to their neighborhood schools.
A group of moms hung around the board room after the meeting sharing stories of the negatives of having hundreds of kids, especially from disadvantaged families, attend school on the opposite end of town from where they live.
Danielle Davis, who has kids at Frances Hazel Reid Elementary, said she knows of kids who could not participate in summer remediation because their parents didn’t have a car to get their children to school. Susan Murphy, also a Frances Hazel Reid parent, said she’s seen families walk along Rt. 15 during morning rush hour to register their children for kindergarten.
Davis’ biggest concern is that the parents in those neighborhoods may never come forward to advocate for themselves. Many don’t speak English or don’t have the resources, whether time or transportation, to come to a public hearing in Ashburn.
“They represent a significant population that is being effected by this, and they need to have a say in it,” she said, and she suggested School Board members go to those neighborhoods to get feedback.
A few parents who spoke during the public hearing argued the opposite point.
Jill Drupa, a parent of students at Catoctin Elementary, praised the board’s 2011 decision to disperse the town’s low-income students. “We are balanced at Catoctin and other schools, and I think it’s why our schools are succeeding,” she said.
Ironically, in the years since the last Leesburg attendance map adoption, the schools closest to the low-income neighborhoods—Catoctin Elementary, for example—have the lowest rates of disadvantaged students and the schools farthest from those neighborhoods—Frances Hazel Reid and Evergreen Mill—have the highest. A quarter of Evergreen Mill Elementary students qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program, as do 33 percent of students at Frances Hazel Reid Elementary.
The two Leesburg-area School Board members say they plan to work together to redraw the boundaries. But their philosophies about how to get there differ.
Tom Marshall (Leesburg), who also served on the board from 2007 to 2011, said he believes in “economic integration” by evenly dispersing students who have more educational needs.
“If you have a high percentage of those kids in your school, it’s a fundamentally different school,” he said. “You don’t have the volunteer support, you don’t have the financial support, you don’t have the support of the families because they’re working.”
School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) said he believes students should attend the school that is closest to their homes, if at all possible. He took the School Board to court in 2012 after his daughter was reassigned from her neighborhood school, John W. Tolbert Elementary, to Frederick Douglass Elementary 3 miles away. He lost the case, but the judge urged the School Board to make the process leading to boundary decisions more transparent.
DeKenipp said it would be difficult to totally remedy the disparity issue. The neighborhood near Plaza Street alone has more than 200 elementary students.
“Unless we go in there and chop it up into four, five, six pieces, there’s absolutely no way we’re going to equitably distribute them,” he said. “So I think there’s still going to be a disparity, no matter how hard we try.”
As a remedy, he’d like to see even more staff support for those schools with higher volumes of students learning English and from low-income families.
The School Board will hold several public hearings and work sessions ahead of adopting a boundary map March 29. Public hearings are at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 25; Thursday, March 3; and Monday, March 14.
The public hearings will be held at the school administration building, 21000 Education Court in Ashburn.