Specialty Programs Attract, Subtract from Neighborhood High Schools, Citizens Say

| October 31, 2013 | 0 Comments | Education

When weather forecasts predicted rain, Patriot graduates crowded into the school gymnasium for the first graduation ceremony.

After Prince William County Schools [PWCS] released their 2013-14 attendance numbers, it was clear that some schools were overcrowded, while others were operating under capacity. Many readers suspected this was more than a question of boundaries, but one of how specialty programs both attracted and subtracted students to and from their neighborhood schools.

Currently, 1,532 seats are open at county high schools that could be occupied by students who are sitting in learning cottage trailers. [Since high school students change classes, thousands of students attend at least one class in a trailer.]

While Brentsville School Board representative Gil Trenum explained that under capacity schools will soon be seeing more students, overcrowded schools, like Patriot and Battlefield, are still growing more overcrowded each year.

Our Schools brought the issue of attendance inequity to the forefront when the page published its analysis of this year’s attendance numbers on October 21. Their argument was that students should not be learning in trailers when there are empty seats in county schools.

However, they also addressed the role that specialty programs play in the attendance equation.

“The problem is not just a matter of boundaries, it is usually about transfers,” Our Schools wrote on Bristow Beat’s Facebook page.

Our Schools administrator Tracy Conroy noted the number of students transferring into, verses out of, a base school is not always in balance. Often, this results in a deficit of students at older schools.

Bristow Beat asked its Facebook followers what they thought could be done to make high school attendance more equitable. In response, many of our readers suggested creative ways to attract students to under capacity schools that would not involve drawing any boundaries.

Specialty Programs Creating Unequal Attendance at PW High Schools

Readers agreed that new schools are more attractive to students. So while new schools were intended to relieve formerly overcrowded schools, they instead become the schools which are overcrowded.

Candi DiRisio Jordan acknowledged that it is natural for students and their parents to prefer, “brand new schools worth millions of dollars with all the bells and whistles.” However, she suggested that the School Board could provide older schools with up to date technology of their own.

“All schools should open with the basics and the accoutrements should be spread throughout all of the schools in the county,” DiRisio Jordan wrote.

In a phone interview, Trenum said PWCS already tries to attract transfer students to older schools by locating some of its most desirable and most high-achieving specialty programs there. Programs like the International Baccalaureate Programme at Stonewall Jackson and Gar-field high schools and the Cambridge Programme at Brentsville District High School do a tremendous job at preparing students for college, he explained.

However, he also said he believes the School Board should help schools to promote their programs.

“As a school division I think we can do a better job of publicizing the accomplishments of some of those programs at those schools,” Trenum said.

How Much School Choice, Is Too Much School Choice?

While the School Board is considered how to attract more students into under populated schools, some parents think it would be better if more students simply remained at their base schools.

“Stop letting kids/parents choose which schools they prefer to attend. Don’t zone based on demographics but on geographic lines. All schools should be equally funded,” Elizabeth Houk wrote.

PWC Mom’s, Kristina Schnack Kotlus agreed.

“It would be great if kids went to the schools they were assigned to first, rather than redistricting kids needlessly,” Schnack Kotlus said. “Many of the ‘good’ schools take kids from out of their boundaries, and they should be send back to their base schools first.”

But others said specialty programs should not be eliminated in order to solve this problem. Instead they suggested PWCS better use those programs to attract more students to less sought after schools.

Controlling Students In/Not Students Out 

Trenum said he disapproves of telling any student that they could not choose to transfer into a specialty school if they made the requirements, saying that would be “anti-choice.”

Rather, he said he is in favor of providing limits on how many students can enter into a program; something, which he said schools are already doing.

For instance, Patriot, because it was already over capacity, did not accept any transfer students into their A.P. Scholars specialty programs last year. [This year a representative from the guidance department said it has not yet been decided if that program will be open to transfers. They also said the decision does not come from Patriot, but the school division in conference with the School Board.] Likewise, Battlefield and Brentsville have excluded transfer students in previous years when they were overpopulated.

Currently, to limit access to popular programs, many schools have also applied a lottery system. Trenum said the system is fair, because everyone who qualifies receives an equal chance of being accepted into the program.

Boundary Problems on the West End

On the western end of the county, parents are very concerned with the imbalance they see in their own district, and the imbalance between students who transferred to Patriot.

“Patriot High School boundaries need a major haul over, as well as Brentsville [which is under-capacity],” wrote Diandra Copening Munoz.

Trenum said the Bristow area will not see a new school until 2019, but parents should expect that empty seats are beginning to fill up at Brentsville as the redistricting is evening out.

Those who would prefer to send their children to a less crowded school can buck the trend of preferring a new school and opt for entrance into a specialty program at a less crowded school.

 

 

 

© 2013, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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