Stafford County sixth-grader Cael Perry spends plenty of time working on merit badges with his Boy Scout troop. But on a Thursday evening in late January, the work hit a little closer to home.
It might determine where he goes to high school.
He and his troop were among about 400 people—mostly parents—at a Colonial Forge High School redistricting workshop and information session, where everyone present bent over maps and worksheets to tackle the difficult question of which neighborhoods to shift out of the popular but overcrowded school.
Normally, Cael—the only member of the troop who seemed likely to be affected by a zone change—wouldn’t be thinking much about high school yet.
But his parents have been thinking about it for years. In fact, it’s why they moved to Stafford County when their children were starting school. They have one child already at Forge, and expected their other children to attend, as well.
“People move to Stafford for the schools,” said his mother, Aubrianne Perry. She feels the county has the best balance between affordable living and good schools in the D.C. suburbs.
Perry said that with the clear forecasts of crowding, she can’t understand why the district is facing this problem, and why the county didn’t plan better for a sixth high school.
“These developments are building at a rapid rate,” she told a reporter at the Jan. 26 meeting. “You’ve got to be able to school your kids. … You’re kicking out families who have lived here for years.”
It’s an emotional issue for some. At a subsequent meeting last week, some attendees got into heated arguments and booed one another’s comments, according to some who were there.
The sixth school
Perry’s sentiments were echoed by many at the meeting, where the call for a sixth high school was the most resounding demand as around 20 groups worked to recommend which neighborhoods—or area planning units, called APUs—could and should be shifted to use available school space more efficiently.
The meeting was intended to draw feedback from the community and to educate the public about the redistricting process, School Board members said.
Administrators shared four-year goals for redistricting, which involve moving about 400 students out of Forge, about 275 students into North Stafford High School and about 125 students into Mountain View High School.
They are looking at about 20 APUs now in the Colonial Forge zone. Changes will affect rising ninth-graders in the fall of this year.
All rising 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders will have the choice to stay put, although “grandfathered” students who are moved to another school zone will have to provide their own transportation if they choose to stay at Forge. The guidelines said siblings of grandfathered students wouldn’t be allowed to transfer. Transportation routes could also affect final redistricting.
At the end of the meeting, a facilitator or spokesperson from each group addressed the whole crowd, and school administrators took notes and collected feedback. The feedback was combined into a report available on the schools’ website.
The School Board is not bound to follow the report, but will consider the feedback at a work session Thursday.
The board’s commitment not to shift current students out of Forge and instead look at rising ninth-graders hasn’t settled the concerns of many parents.
“What I think I’m hearing is, ‘First things first, we want a new high school,’ ” said Kate Trenkelbach, the staff facilitator for a group that broke off from the larger crowd to hear one another better.
Criticizing “Band–Aid” solutions and saying the district needs “construction, not paper,” group members wanted more information about the long-term plans.
School Board members have said there is a sixth high school in the capital improvement plan, or CIP, but its construction was delayed due to cost. In 2014, a committee discussed sites near Clift Farm or Westlake. More recently, School Board discussion has focused on a new school in the southern part of the county.
The school is expected to cost at least $120 million, Rock Hill Supervisor Wendy Maurer told the group. The replacement Stafford High School, opened in 2015, was a $70 million project, she said, but the district already owned the campus—and administrators have said construction costs can rise up to 5 percent each year.
The $120 million is based on a 2020 or later construction start, Maurer said, not present day.
Maurer, the chairman of the supervisors’ Finance, Audit and Budget Committee, said it was theoretically possible to start construction on a new high school by 2020 and open it by 2023, and to do it without a tax increase.
But it would be “painful,” she said, and require paying cash for repair and maintenance projects such as new roofs. Maurer wants to start fresh to create a joint CIP with the schools that would have a new ranking system for projects.
“Personally, I want to strip everything off the CIP,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of work.”
The income achievement gap
Even if that 2023 date were met, Colonial Forge would be bursting at the seams—close to 20 percent over its capacity of 2,150 students, according to information provided by the school district.
For a minimum of six years, redistricting is the only option. There’s just one problem: No one wants to leave.
Forge has been open for less than 20 years, but in 2016, U.S. News & World Report ranked it 30th of the almost 1,000 high schools in Virginia, and 1,017th nationwide.
The report—which includes criteria such as college readiness, graduation rates and performance of higher-needs populations—reviews thousands of schools nationally, but selected only 113 for ranking in Virginia. Brooke Point, also in Stafford, was the only other area school included. It stands at No. 54 in the state and 2,618th nationally.
Many factors affect the performance of a school’s students. But one of the most common correlations to more successful performance on everything from test scores to graduation rates is family income.
The “income achievement gap”—the average difference in success between a child whose family income was in the top 10 percent and a child whose family income was in the bottom 10 percent—has widened significantly, according to a often-cited 2011 Stanford University study.
And that’s not because low-income students’ performance is getting worse—but because high-income students’ performance is getting better.
“This may be in part a result of increasing parental investment in children’s cognitive development,” study author Sean Reardon wrote.
Stafford is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, and all of its high schools have exceeded state benchmarks by a wide margin for the past three years. But consistent with Reardon’s study, many of the differences in ranking seem to correspond to income levels.
The median income for the Colonial Forge zone is the highest in the county at $121,000. Brooke Point, the school ranked 52nd in the state, has the second–highest median income, at $112,000. North Stafford is the lowest at $79,000.
But do the students make the school, or does the school make the students? Some parents feel their child will have the best chance at the strongest school. Others feel that their child can succeed anywhere that offers them strong support and a chance to challenge themselves—even if it’s not technically the best-ranked.
Robert Porzeinski, who lives in the Augustine North neighborhood just south of Colonial Forge, has one Forge graduate, one junior and one rising ninth-grader. He feels strongly that the strength of the high school’s reputation was the draw for more development in its zone—particularly the new Embrey Mill subdivision across from the high school.
Embrey Mill hasn’t added that many students to Forge yet—but as construction continues, district officials expect it to be a significant source of the increasing crowding in the school.
At best, the county planned badly, Porzeinski said. At worst, he feels tricked.
“My wife and I knew it would be a problem as soon as we heard about Embrey Mill,” he said. “We’re 90 seconds away from being asked to go somewhere else [to make room] for kids that don’t even live in the county yet.”
Augustine North did not seem to get recommendations to move at the workshop. But as one of the single largest neighborhoods, with about 310 students who could be transferred, some were concerned it would look like a simple swap.
If that were to happen, Porzeinski feels that his eighth-grader might be deprived of the community his other children have enjoyed and that his youngest already feels a part of. He and other parents at the meeting argued that whatever happens, siblings of current and former Forge students should be grandfathered, and not made to move.
In a later email to The Free Lance–Star, supervisors and School Board members, Porzeinski said he believed that not only are the county’s officials quite capable of predicting student populations, they “literally planned it.”
“The county approves the zoning (or rezoning in many cases), the housing density, building permits, budget, roads, and school construction. If there is an overcrowding problem in our schools, our Stafford County representatives own it!” he wrote. “If the county was not committed to building the infrastructure for new developments, the developments should not have been approved.”
In an email response, Maurer said that because the School Board is the sole authority on districting and redistricting decisions, discussion of districts “would not have been appropriate” for the Embrey Mill Community Development Authority—the group of supervisors that oversaw county responsibilities in connection with the neighborhood’s development.
Parent Joy Nodurft, who has one rising eighth-grader, was also frustrated by the planning—not only for overcrowding in general, but particularly for discussing redistricting when incoming freshmen should be visiting schools. All county high schools postponed orientation, which some parents feel makes the transition to high school harder, and students who might be affected aren’t sure how to plan for registration.
But Nodurft is a little less concerned about exactly where her children end up, she said. Her family was affected by a redistricting in Stafford before, and was happy with the result.
“I think some people feel their school reflects their socioeconomic status, and I don’t feel that’s always the case,” she said.
More information on redistricting is available at staffordschools.net under the School Board tab.