A few weeks ago in this space we urged the School Board to question whether its policy of scattering students from Leesburg’s poorest neighborhoods to elementary schools all around town was in their best academic interest.
Since then, scores of speakers have lined up at public hearings to defend the policy or, conversely, to advocate the return of the children to a neighborhood-school setting. School Board members, too, appear split, although by Monday night a move to abandon the policy appeared to gain momentum.
A final vote is expected before month’s end, with no more meetings planned on the topic.
This is no small decision. The outcome of the debate will result in anywhere between 200 and 2,000 students being transferred to new schools next year.
Yet, the School Board still lacks the two most critical pieces of information.
First, they don’t have empirical data from which they can determine whether students from low-income families—many coming from homes where English is not the principal language—reach greater academic heights when served in a neighborhood school equipped with extra resources to address their special needs or when they are blended with a significantly different student population. This week, the administrators began circulating information that appeared to show students in eastern Loudoun schools with similar demographic backgrounds to those in the targeted Leesburg neighborhoods performed well in their neighborhood schools when supplied adequate support resources. A deeper examination is needed.
Also, School Board members have not heard from the families that would be most affected by a policy change. The collection of speakers appearing during four nights of public hearings—while divided on which course was best—certainly lacked the diversity that is at the heart of the debate. They were white, articulate English speakers. Some effort has been made to reach out to a broader audience—letters announcing the dates and places of the public hearings were sent home in backpacks, for example—but without tangible success. School Board members should not interpret that silence as indifference when dealing with members of the county’s most disenfranchised populations. If those families won’t or can’t travel to Ashburn or the County Government Center for weeknight hearings, School Board members should at least offer to meet with parents in the apartment and townhouse neighborhoods that are in the bullseye of this exercise. Having those conversations is the only way school leaders can sort through the increasingly heated rhetoric and determine how to best meet the students’ needs.
It may take more than two weeks—perhaps far longer—for School Board members to get those answers, but it serves no good purpose to pursue a “paradigm shift” without having them.