There have been a dozen meetings about Leesburg school attendance zone boundaries in the past two months, but none like this.
A standing-room-only crowd of about 200 parents and students packed a room at the Rust Library on Tuesday to protest a proposal by the Loudoun County School Board to reassign hundreds of low-income and non-English-speaking elementary students to schools closer to their homes.
It would reverse a 2011 board decision that distributes about 700 elementary students living in apartments and townhouses near Edwards Ferry Road and Plaza Street to schools as far as three miles away. But that change would also concentrate most of the town’s low-income and Hispanic elementary students to two schools, Leesburg and Frederick Douglass.
That community is at the center of the debate. Few of the residents who live in the neighborhood have attended the School Board’s public hearings. But Educate Don’t Segregate, a group formed in the past week out of the heated debate, did its part to mobilize those families during Tuesday’s session.
“You are a part of our community. We are stronger for having you here. We need your voice in this conversation,” Evan Macbeth, a Frederick Douglass Elementary parent who led the meeting, said to loud cheers.
An interpreter stood alongside Macbeth and translated his comments in Spanish throughout the meeting. And sheets of paper were distributed outlining—in both English and Spanish—principles that the group is urging the School Board to follow as it draws attendance lines.
“We want to make sure everyone in the room understands what we’re talking about,” Macbeth said.
The elementary attendance lines have to be redrawn to reduce overcrowding at Evergreen Mill Elementary School. The Educate Don’t Segregate group favors reassigning just enough students, about 200, to reduce enrollment at that school. But some School Board members see the boundary process as an opportunity to reverse what they consider an unwarranted distribution of the town’s poorest and non-English-speaking students. They have said that families will have more opportunity to be involved in a school that is closer to their homes.
[See related article, “School Leaders Eye Paradigm Shift for Leesburg Boundaries.”]
But Macbeth said that students, even those who ride the bus a few miles each morning and afternoon to class, have built ties in their school. “Each of these schools has a strong community in the greater Leesburg area, and we want to preserve and extend those school communities, not break them apart,” he said.
The group graded four of the proposed boundary maps under consideration by the board. They voiced support for Plan 6, one drawn up by board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg) to maintain the model of distributing students across the town’s schools to balance enrollment by socioeconomics. They spoke against Plan 12, drafted by Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) and board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin), which would send students to the school closest to their homes as space permits. That map, Macbeth said, “is least likely to yield the best educational results for students based on the current state of national and local education research.”
He stressed that the Educate Don’t Segregate group wants the board to just make the changes that are immediately needed by assigning the fewest students possible, and have a separate, thorough discussion about what type of school settings are best for students outside of the time-strained and emotional boundary process.
School Board members who support revamping school assignments have cited their own set of research to support their stance. They said that eastern Loudoun elementary schools with more than 70 percent of low-income and non-English speakers have made impressive improvements in test scores in recent years because the school system has provided them with additional staff.
It would do the same for Leesburg and Frederick Douglass elementary schools, Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said during a March 14 meeting. “We can take what they’ve done and apply it in these schools. … We have authority here to find a way to solve the problem.”
Earlier this week, School Board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said the Educate Don’t Segregate group is mischaracterizing the board’s intentions and implying that it is developing attendance zones based on students’ ethnicity or economic status.
“That’s completely untrue,” she said. “We’re basing boundaries based on proximity to where they live and taking into account the benefits of having a school within their neighborhood, a chance to be involved in school activities, summer school, giving parents easier access to attend parent-teacher conferences…all of the same criteria that we look at for every other LCPS student across the district.”
She added that under Plan 12, “The students who have been zoned based on ethnicity and economic status can now return to their neighborhood school just like every other student across Loudoun.”
Reyna Cruz, who attended Tuesday’s Educate Don’t Segregate meeting, said she wants her youngest daughter to stay at Frances Hazel Reid Elementary, even though she rides a bus past two closer elementary schools. “Yes, it is further away. But it’s a much better school with more resources,” she said, with the help of her oldest daughter translating. She thinks her youngest daughter, Tiffany, does better when surrounded by students of various backgrounds, as opposed to mostly Spanish-speaking kids. “She’s learning English faster, and she’s happy.”
The smiling 8-year-old chimed in. “I don’t want to move schools. I have a lot of friends I wouldn’t want to leave.”
Marshall, who sat on the board in 2011 when the current boundaries were set, acknowledged that there is no plan that everyone will like. “There are trade offs,” he added. “If studies show economic balance is better for students, then the trade off is a longer bus ride for some and dealing with the transportation issue.”
The hundreds who gathered at the library Tuesday are expected to make their positions known to board members when they return from spring break and meet for a vote on the matter Tuesday, March 29. Macbeth urged the parents to “show up in force,” wear brightly colored shirts and fresh-off-the-press sticker “Educate Don’t Segregate,” and sign up to speak.
“They need to hear from you,” he said. “You can make your voices known.”
[See more on the boundary process: “Debate Over Race and Class Surface in School Boardroom.”]