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Lubna Azmi, president of Stonewall Jackson High School's student council, speaks during a May 16 town hall meeting at Patriot High School. Azmi said boundary plans for the 13th high school, which boost the numbers of minority and low income students at Stonewall Jackson, would "lead to the segregation of high schools in Prince William County."

The latest boundary plans for Prince William’s 13th high school remain under fire for further exacerbating demographic disparities among the county’s western high schools.

The 13th high school, which has not yet been named, is scheduled to open in 2021. It’s being built behind Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, primarily to relieve overcrowding at Battlefield High School, in Gainesville, which is at 146.4 percent capacity this year, or about 950 students overcapacity, and Patriot High School, in Nokesville, which is at 130.5 percent capacity, or more than 600 students overcapacity this year.

Stonewall Jackson High School, located further east in the Prince William area of Manassas, is also overcrowded but less so. Stonewall is at 102.7 percent capacity this year, or about 70 students overcapacity, according to school division documents.

The new high school will rearrange attendance areas for all three schools. The two proposals school division officials have released in recent weeks, shift some of the area’s more affluent neighborhoods from Stonewall Jackson to Patriot or the 13th high school, leaving Stonewall Jackson with higher percentages of minority, low-income and English-language learning students. 

At the same time, the plans generally reduce the already lower numbers of such vulnerable populations at Battlefield and Patriot high schools.  

During a town hall meeting held at Patriot High on Thursday, May 16, Lubna Azmi, president of Stonewall Jackson’s student council, called the newest boundary proposal “a step backward” that would “lead to the segregation of high schools in Prince William County.”

Other students called the boundary plans “modern-day segregation.”

“We want to tell you that separate but equal was back in the 1950s,” said Stonewall Jackson senior Zahra Wakilzada, who immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan three years ago. “We want to tell you that we stand with Stonewall and we are not going to accept segregation.”

Like other Stonewall Jackson students, Azmi praised her school’s diversity – students of color now comprise 80 percent of the student body -- and said she “would not have become the person I am today” without it. Azmi’s remarks drew loud cheers and applause from more than 50 Stonewall Jackson students in attendance.

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Stonewall Jackson High School senior Ja'Chelle Johnson speaks out against current boundaries for the 13th high school, calling them "modern-day segregation," as speakers line up behind her. In the foreground, with back to the camera, is Matthew Cartlidge, supervisor of planning for Prince William County schools.

In an interview, Azmi said Stonewall Jackson students and alumni want school division planners to place more value on diversity, not just at Stonewall Jackson but at all three high schools affected by the new school’s boundaries.

“We’re not asking for everything to be equal,” she said of student demographics. “But diversity needs to be up there.”

The May 16 meeting was the second and last community town hall before the new boundary plans are presented to the Prince William County School Board for their consideration on Wednesday, June 5. The school board is scheduled to take a final vote on the proposals on Wednesday, June 19.

The numbers

Among the three high schools, Stonewall Jackson already has the highest percentage of students in three demographic categories tracked by the school division: minority; “economically disadvantaged,” or those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals; and “limited English proficiency,” or English-language learners.

Among Stonewall Jackson’s 2,475-member student body, 80.8 percent are minority, 18.7 percent are English language learners and 50.7 percent are economically disadvantaged, according to school division documents.

Those numbers are already much lower at Patriot and Battlefield high schools. Battlefield’s 3,006-member student body is 41 percent minority, while 1.7 percent are English language learners and 9.9 percent are economically disadvantaged.

Patriot High School’s 2,678-member student body is 47.4 percent minority, while 2.6 percent are English language learners and 12.1 percent are economically disadvantaged.

According to school division projections, Stonewall Jackson would see its percentages in all three categories grow under both proposals, while Battlefield and Patriot would be left with fewer minority, poor and English-learning students. 

The one exception is that Patriot High School -- under the latest plan, dubbed “1a” -- would see its economically disadvantaged population tick up from 12.1 percent to 13.4 percent. In contrast, Battlefield would see its economically disadvantaged number drop from 9.9 percent to 5.3 percent. 

Because the 13th high school is drawing mostly from Patriot and Battlefield high school attendance areas, as well as from some more affluent subdivisions zoned for Stonewall Jackson, its student body is projected to be 53.8 percent minority, 17 percent economically disadvantaged and 3 to 4 percent English language learners. 

Meanwhile, Stonewall Jackson would see its percentage of minority students climb from 80.8 to 89.2 percent; its number of poor students jump from 50.7 percent to 60.9 percent; and its number of English language learners jump from 18.7 to 24 percent.

Concerns about equity

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During the May 16 town hall meeting at Patriot High School, parent Tracy Conroy spoke against boundary proposals that would result in economic disparities among Patriot, Battlefield and Stonewall Jackson high schools. 

Tracy Conroy, a Stonewall Jackson parent who ran for unsuccessfully for the school board in 2015, said the issue is not racial diversity but rather economic diversity. Creating a high school where three out of five kids are living in poverty puts too much stress on a school, she said.

“I want you to imagine… that three out of five of you in this room were living in poverty right now. I want you to imagine that [a teacher] had to make sure you ate today, had somewhere to sleep last night and could also take an SOL. That’s what you’re asking Stonewall Jackson to do when you want a boundary that creates [a school] where three out of five kids live in poverty.”

Some who attended the town hall, however, spoke in favor of the boundary plans. Residents of Victory Lakes, a subdivision of about 1,300 homes currently zoned for Stonewall Jackson High School, said they approve of plan 1a because reassigns their neighborhood to Patriot High School when the new high school opens in 2021.

Many noted Victory Lakes is also a diverse community and said their desire to be reassigned to Patriot High is about distance – Patriot is closer– and their children going to the same high school as their middle school peers. Victory Lakes is zoned for Marsteller Middle School, which sends most of its eighth-graders to Patriot.

School Board Chairman Babur Lateef listened to the back-and-forth at the town hall and said the Stonewall Jackson students’ impassioned comments about the importance of diversity were impressive. 

Still, Lateef (at large) said the real question is whether the school division is doing enough to address equity if schools receive the same per-pupil funding regardless of student demographics.

“That’s really the question here,” Lateef said. “It’s ‘Can we address inequity better?’”

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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(4) comments

GangsterRapMadeMeDoIt

I hope the students aren't saying they learn better when there are more white kids in the class. I think the woman talking about economic diversity makes a better case. But the question then becomes, at what cost do you prioritize for said economic diversity? Busing people out of town, breaking up neighborhoods...at some point you're just trying too hard to escape the reality that people of like economic ability live together and you end up doing more harm than good. More high schools mean more homogeneity--imagine if every neighborhood had its own high school.

Cwyounts

The 1300 homes in VL statement is misleading. This year there are 268 VL high school students in the PWCS system. A far cry from the implied 1300. This reporter was given this information in person that night, multiple times in fact, backed up by FOIA data. Yet this very relevant number was deliberately omitted. Has to make you wonder what else is missing from this article?

Alligam

I am concerned that the students don't understand what segregation is and that their characterization of the current plans as such reflects poorly on the education that they have received.

With the extreme traffic in the area, the busing required to alleviate the concerns expressed becomes untenable, requiring extremely long times on the bus and would probably require the school system to come up with more buses and drivers.

Why not consider making the 13th high-school a magnet school, allowing anyone who is academically qualified to apply and attend? This model works in cities across the country -- with the relatively close proximity of the schools ion question I believe that it could work here as well.

Computer Expert

Who the heck is driving this social strata baloney? First and foremost is, what is in the best interest of the student? Obviously, location and travel safety, is a key issue.

The children are being used as puppets. Who are the folks putting these youngsters up to this nonsense?

They are setting the school system up, for a lawsuit. This "separate, but equal" garbage, is nothing short of a diversionary maneuver.

People are free to move, where they want to. If the chooses to live in an area where there is a high population of immigrants, low income or some other nonsensical story, it is called, choice, people.

Now, someone call CPS, to find out who is manipulating these youngsters.

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