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Essential Boundary Policy for a New Century

It Is Time For Some Real Change

"Boundary Policy for a New Century" title on a white background with map of Fairfax County and location emoji

After months of debate, the Fairfax County School Board is finalizing a comprehensive overhaul of the county’s current boundary policy which was originally adopted in 1986 and last revised in May of 2013, despite 5-year review requirements. This all followed a February school board meeting on Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) amendments, when most of the school board members expressed strong concerns that one-off boundary adjustments at individual schools ignore the overcrowding across the county and directly impact school boundaries at nearby schools, a sentiment echoed in a 2023 Annual report from the FCPS Facilities Planning Advisory Council (FPAC).

The school board universally agrees that change is necessary, but they have different approaches and concerns regarding a new boundary policy. I find that I agree with their expressed positions, even when they are seemingly at odds. For example Mr. Kyle McDaniel told Fairfax Now that he wanted ”data-driven decision making, and [wanted] our expert boundary and facilities staff out doing this….Because … if you remove the politics from it, it means that every school gets treated fairly through the same process.”

In this same article, Dr. Ricardy Anderson said, “I don’t think we should tie our hands…. We have to realize that while we want to have comprehensive structures in place, we still need to give ourselves the opportunity to be nimble. We have to be responsive to what’s going on in front of us.” Of course, Dr. Anderson was referring to immediate needs to address overcrowding at Glasgow Middle School, which has overwhelming community support.

So let’s hope that the new boundary policy developed by this school board, the first new one in nearly four decades, will address both of their concerns. Hopefully, it will be nimble, non-political, fair, and data-driven by experts while including community feedback. 

Of course, in the past 38 years of boundary changes, it has often been the loudest, angriest, and most organized voices who have steered school boundaries that affect the majority of the community. Looking at a side-by-side comparison of the old versus new boundary policy, I see improvement that protects families, supports students, and removes politics and strong-arm tactics. It also involves community participation, which is critical. 

The school board is trying to ensure that current and future families in this century have the boundary policy that they need. At the same time, I hope that schools that critically need boundary reviews and adjustments like Glasgow Middle in Mason districts will be prioritized for future boundary changes to alleviate the burdens on families and students.

A Look at School Boundaries

Honestly, if one looks at any one of the current maps of elementary, middle, and high schools across the county, it is blindingly obvious that many school boundaries do not make sense. Boundaries are influenced by decades of population growth, new construction, and carve outs by developers and more influential communities who successfully lobbied to remain at “preferred schools” which often involve miles of commuting and a removal of students from their home community. 

These “preferred schools” often tend to be less demographically diverse, particularly in terms of economic diversity. For example, “preferred schools” are rarely Title 1 schools, which receive grant funding to upgrade educational programs, in part to close achievement gaps.

Additionally, it is easy to see that historical placement of schools make boundaries difficult. For example, 9 of 26 regional high schools in Fairfax County (Annandale, Fairfax, Falls Church, Lake Braddock, Oakton, Robinson, Thomas Jefferson, W. Springfield, and Woodson) are located at the center of the county in a three-mile radius, and very few high schools located at the outer boundaries of the county. Whitman MS is an island middle school located within Sandburg MS boundaries in the middle of the West Potomac High School boundary, yet Whitman MS students continue onto Mt. Vernon HS.

“Unfortunately, segregation of schools today is at the same level as it was when the Brown v Board of Education decision was made…. Gerrymandering that worsens school segregation has increased since 1991.” -- Sophia Marjanovic, Union of Concerned Scientists 
Graphic showing gerrymandered attendance zones where nearby students are excluded.

There is evidence that suggests that school boundaries can be (or have been) “highly gerrymandered into irregular shapes.” Briefly below, I will provide a couple of examples of this gerrymandering in Fairfax County at each school level; however, it is important to note that just looking at school boundaries is not enough, because boundaries include current and projected data (e.g., CIP data), families, communities, and an understanding of historical demographic and development changes.

Elementary School Boundaries

Recently, Mr. McDaniel stated, “We have an elementary school like Coates that’s pushing 176% projected capacity, and you have other elementary schools nearby that are under 100% capacity; that defies logic.” To understand what Mr. McDaniel meant, I looked at Coates Elementary (see 15-4 and environs on this map) and found that its boundaries defy logic, requiring miles of commute for some students when they live much closer to four other elementary schools. Additionally, Coates currently has 131% capacity utilization versus 83-99% at other nearby elementaries (see below). 

Map of Coates Elementary boundaries versus nearby school capacity utilization

Many Elementary Schools have non-contiguous attendance islands where students must pass through other elementary school boundaries on the way to their elementary schools. Examples of this in Mount Vernon District include: Fort Hunt ES (111-1 on the map) and Groveton ES (92-2 map). Walkable schools that have usable sidewalks should also be a consideration.

When you overlay the Advanced Academic Program (AAP) maps over the local schools, you see a picture that is equally complicated as AAP elementary centers take students out of their high school pyramids. For example, my kids’ elementary, Mantua ES, takes kids for AAP from at least three different high school pyramids, which is disruptive for the students and families in those pyramids, and has resulted in overcrowding for the last 10 years. Mantua has a decades-old system of trailers where the entire 6th grade has been located, and closets and small storage rooms were repurposed for music rooms and offices when my kids were there. I’ve heard that the trailers are now used for the 5th grade, as well.

Middle School Boundaries

Middle school boundaries mostly seem to follow the high school boundaries, thus they seem pretty gerrymandered and make little logical sense. However, it is the AAP middle school boundaries that are particularly unusual, because these schools draw from multiple high schools. 

Luther Jackson Middle School AAP boundary map encompasses 4 different high schools.

For example, Luther Jackson Middle School (see this map) pulls from four different high schools: Falls Church, Oakton, Madison, and Marshall. Presumably for two years, students from at least five different AAP elementaries (Mantua, Mosaic, Sunrise Valley, Hunters Woods, and Louise Archer) would go to Luther Jackson and then return to their four different high schools? In fact, Ms. Rachna Sizemore Heizer mentioned the impact of this on student mental health at a recent meeting and Ms. Melanie Meren mentioned this in terms of effects on families, as well.

Honestly, this issue seems as chaotic and disruptive as any boundary change could be but the boundary change could simplify the chaos and would last into the future so that future families do not suffer the same level of chaos as exists in the current situation. 

High School Boundaries

High School boundaries are equally gerrymandered For example, Langley High School (see 21-4 and environs on this map) includes communities that are over 11 miles away (as the crow flies) from Langley and are within one mile of Herndon. Nearby McLean High school (see 30-4 and environs on this map) has two communities that are not even contiguous to it. Why are those communities not part of the Langley or Marshall high school communities? I bet there is an interesting story behind it.

Langley and McLean high schools have gerrymandered boundaries on a Fairfax County Map.

My own kids’ high school, Carter G. Woodson, has surreal boundaries that extend all the way west past West Ox Road and into Clifton and all the way east to 495. This unnatural barbell shape (see 58-3 and environs on this map) makes little sense, particularly when 1) those communities are easily a 20 minute commute from Woodson in the morning, and 2) some are less than a mile from Robinson or are much closer to Centreville and Fairfax high schools.

As a parent, I don’t want any one of my kids’ friends (or my friends!) to be at a different high school, but as a taxpayer and parent, I can't help but question the value of all of those daily bus miles for these kids.

Fairfax County map showing that Woodson's boundaries look like a barbell.

School Board Boundary Policy Review

It seems that the issues that I highlighted above are pretty much what the school board wants to avoid in the future. During the FCPS Policy Review this spring, they have identified the following intended benefits:

  1. Improving instructional quality by reducing class sizes, improving student-to-teacher ratios, decreasing overcrowding, and reducing student travel time. 

  2. Improve financial sustainability by providing “more timely and cost-effective results,” better prioritize funding, reduce renovation project waits, and best “maximize transportation routes” resulting in lower costs.

  3. Improve student well-being and experience by shortening commutes, increase time for sleep, reduce “split feeders”, living closer to their school community, better engagement with community and school. 

It has been reported by FFX Now that the “The biggest difference between the current policy and the new policy is this “may”/”shall” language…. The old policy just had 14 criteria that had no priority or no ranking or no real intentional guidance to staff in terms of what the board would prioritize over other items,” per Mr. McDaniel. This can be seen in the side-by-side of the old and new boundary policy.

The policy changes so far have also given the Superintendent greater authority for emergencies or catastrophic events to temporarily adjust boundaries.

We are 24 years into a new century, and our families deserve thoughtful change. Nevertheless, even with a new policy, it will take time for necessary boundary changes.

The school board has the goal of implementation of the new boundary policy by the 2025-26 school year. Although there is community interest in updating some boundaries as soon as possible, it will likely take time to do this right and include community input. Or, as Mr. McDaniel told FFX Now "that the committee’s recommendations would be implemented collectively and within a “reasonable timeframe” to prevent sudden disruptions to students and their families;" however, Mr. McDaniel reminded everyone that, "If the superintendent comes back and says, ‘Well guys, it’s actually going to take more like 18 months to recommend lines,’ then obviously, we have to wait and that’s fine.”

Our student and county population continues to change and dozens of schools are facing or projected to face “moderate to severe overcrowding” while our schools are now on a 42 year renovation cycle, so now is the time for change. 

Please consider signing up to speak at either of the next couple of school board meetings (on July 11th and 18th) to share your views on this subject (or any subject because the Summer can be slow) by signing up here between Friday and Tuesday before the meeting.

Helpful Resources about School Boundaries

FCPS. Capital Improvement Program (CIP).

FCPS. Maps: View Advanced Academic, Boundary, Region and Magisterial District Maps.

FCPS. School Boundary Adjustments: Everything you need to know about school boundary information, including the boundary locator.

FCPS, Facilities Planning Advisory Council. FPAC Annual Report (School Year 2022-2023).$file/FPAC%20SY%202022-2023%20Annual%20Report.pdf

Fairfax County School Board. FCPS School Board Work Session - 6/25/24. (Note: Boundary Policy discussion is at 23:53)

Fairfax County School Board. Local School Boundaries, Program Assignments, and School Closings.$file/P8130.pdf

Jarvis, James. FCPS hopes to alleviate school overcrowding with new boundary adjustment policy. FFX Now. 14 April 2024.

Richards, Meredith P. The Gerrymandering of School Attendance Zones and the Segregation of Public Schools: A Geospatial Analysis. American Educational Research Journal. December 2014, Vol. 51, No. 6, pp. 1119–1157.

3 comentarios

Very interesting! I always wondered why some kids went to Woodson when it seemed like they should be going to Annandale HS. I thought maybe it was some kind of “request an out of boundary school “ kind of thing. Do you have any historical information on why the Woodson boundary was drawn in such a strange way?

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Vanessa Hall
Vanessa Hall
7 days ago
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Great question, by the way.

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