Commentary: The forgotten children in the boundary debate

As Shenandoah County considers solutions to the capacity issues in our schools, it is probably helpful to consider how we would look at this if we were talking about anything other than children. If a business had three facilities, two of which were overcrowded and one of which suffered from unused capacity, the solution would be painfully obvious. However, our schools deal with children, and not commodities, and that makes the solution slightly less obvious and considerably more painful.

However, in talking about the needs of the children, the discussion has focused overwhelmingly on the needs of children at the Northern Campus and the Central Campus. They are the ones affected by overcrowding and facing possible disruption with boundary adjustments. Often forgotten in these discussions are the children of the Southern Campus, whose educational opportunities have suffered because of under-population of their schools.

As a parent of four of the “forgotten children” I want the community to understand that boundary adjustments are not only about relieving overcrowding at W.W. Robinson and Sandy Hook; it is about ending the neglect – unintentional neglect, but neglect nonetheless – that the Southern Campus schools have suffered.

Some people seem to believe that the only consequence of our lack of students is fewer competitive teams. We are proud of our teams, but there are far more important issues involved here. Under-population prevents our children from receiving certain specialized instruction. While it is theoretically true that the same curriculum is available at all three high schools, as a practical matter, certain courses – AP courses, for example – can only be offered if enough children sign up for them to justify the cost of a teacher. Our middle school lacks a drama teacher because it is hard to justify the costs, given the number of students. New technologies, etc. generally come to the Southern Campus last, because it is always more cost-effective to deploy them in more populated schools.

This situation has created a perception among some people in other parts of the county that the schools in the south aren’t good schools. The truth is that our dedicated and talented teachers and staff do an excellent job, and that our parents are very happy with the schools our children attend. Stonewall Jackson has been recognized over the last several years for its academic accomplishments. The primary problem facing our schools is excess capacity, and it is time for the county to fix that.

Some have suggested that the solution to the crowding problem at W.W. Robinson and Sandy Hook should focus on new construction. We in the south pay the same taxes as everyone else. We bristle at the suggestion that we should pay additional taxes for construction of additional capacity in other parts of the county when our own schools are suffering from excess capacity. Only when resources are allocated fairly throughout the county will it be fair to ask us to pay more.

Under the proposed “plan C” that is before the School Board, the population of our southern schools would increase by 20-25 percent. This will make a big difference for educational opportunity in the south. In addition, the School Board has proposed spending over $300,000 to more equitably allocate resources, primarily to the Southern Campus. This will help our schools absorb the new children, and make sure that those incoming children have the same opportunities they had at their previous school.

We respect the proud purple and blue traditions in place in the northern and central parts of our county, just as we prize our own red and black identity in the south. Those traditions are a part of the fabric of our county, but they can’t be so important that they prevent us from being one united county that takes care of all of its children. The primary purpose of our schools isn’t to sponsor teams; it is to educate kids and provide them all with the same educational opportunities.

Finally, to the parents of children who will be reassigned to our campus, my heart goes out to you. I know that change is hard for anyone, and scary for children. I don’t envy what will probably be difficult conversations with your kids. But know this: it will be OK. Your family will be joining a vibrant, welcoming and caring community that will embrace your children as its own, and I am confident that you will come to love it as much as we do.

Elizabeth Estep is a Mount Jackson resident and parent of four Southern Campus children.