So far this school year, students and staff have had to come to grips with the death of two students on the first day of classes and a sniper targeting people of all ages, sex and race, barely one year after overcoming the trauma of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In spite of the distractions, the students, as a whole, have continued to increase test scores and qualify for gifted and talented programs in record numbers.
The Fairfax County School Board, has also faced its challenges, including finding ways to slash the current fiscal year's budget while maintaining services, presiding over oft times contentious boundary meetings for four new elementary schools under construction and proposed gifted and talented centers, and heated debates, most recently on the renegotiation and renewal of the superintendent's contract.
So what does the rest of the school hold?
"I hope we will have an ordinary rest of the school year," said Superintendent Daniel Domenech.
THE 2001 SCHOOL YEAR was barely a week old when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners Sept. 11, 2001, three of which crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Arlington while the fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing thousands of people. Around the same time, letters laced with anthrax were sent through the mail, also with deadly consequences. The trauma forced school officials to think about safety issues that had never even been on the radar screen before that, such as chemical and biological threats, as well as grief and fear on a countywide scale.
The start to this school year shook the school system once more. Two Oakton High School students, Jacob Wilens, 16, a senior, and David Chu, 17, a junior, were killed as they drove home in Jacob's car after the first day of school, Sept. 3. The boys were stopped at a traffic signal at intersection of Lee Highway and Alder Woods when their car was struck by a dump truck, and forced into the intersection where it was struck by another car.
"If I contrast yesterday [Sept. 3] with today, there's a numbness," said Oakton principal Charles Ostlund at the time.
A month, almost to the day later, a series of sniper attacks began, lasting from Oct. 2-22. The attacks spanned six counties including Fairfax, killed 10 and wounded three others including a middle-schooler in Prince George's County. Two suspects are in custody.
The ordeal led to the school system canceling all outdoor activities and field trips as well as evening adult education classes, postponing and then moving athletic events to undisclosed locations in other jurisdictions and local military bases and put a hitch in most of the high schools' homecoming activities.
"This goes in the category of a positive and a negative. This year we had the sniper incident, which looms large following on the heels of 9/11. We've been severely impacted by events we can't control," Domenech said. "We are one of the few school systems traumatized by 9/11 outside of New York. There were 50 individuals killed in those attacks from Fairfax County. Those individuals were students' parents or neighbors or staff's family members, or had some sort of connection to the school system.
"This year with the sniper, it was a prolonged event that also traumatized the community. I'm grateful none of our children were hurt, but there is a positive side. Through both events, which were once-in-a-lifetime experiences anyone could hope to have, our staff responded admirably. It showed how caring this community is and how dedicated our teachers are. The teachers were out there putting their bodies between the kids … sheltering them from harm."
THE FEAR CREATED by the sniper and terrorist attacks gave way to pride as results of various academic achievements began rolling in.
"One of the biggest accomplishments that stand out is student achievement. Having nearly 90 percent of our schools passing accreditation standards, and for me, 92 percent of our second-graders are reading at or above grade level. That's a testament to our teachers," said School Board chair Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill).
School Board member Robert Frye (At large) echoed the chair's sentiments: "I was most proud of the fact that, thanks to the outstanding effort of our teachers, students and parents, almost 90 percent of Fairfax County Public Schools were rated 'fully accredited' by the Virginia Department of Education, under the state's Standards of Learning testing program. This is well ahead of the state's 2007 deadline to have all schools meet that goal."
In addition, the school system accepted it largest freshman class, the class of 2006, at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, creating the most diverse class in recent years at the magnet school.
The gifted and talented (GT) center program also saw a jump in enrollment, with 1,913 children identified for the GT center program — an increase of 519 over last year — in part because of the introduction of the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test and the switch to administering the Cognitive Ability Test in second grade instead of first grade. The increase resulted in the school system proposing to open six new elementary GT centers in Clearview in Herndon, Oak Hill in Herndon, Riverside in Mount Vernon, Mosby Woods in Fairfax and at the Andrew Chapel and Lorton Station sites, currently under construction.
“I would say the main goal is to have as many students as possible passing the end-of-course SOL tests to qualify for graduation,” said School Board member Mychele Brickner (At large).
MONEY, HOWEVER, was one of the biggest issues of the year and will continue to be in the near future. The School Board cut $47 million from its FY '03 budget, eventually passing a $1.554 billion budget in May, after state aid was reduced due to changes in the local composite index and a loss of state sales-tax revenue.
Then in September came unofficial word the school system would receive at least $10 million less than the $200 million it thought it was getting from the state for the current budget year. The exact figure will not be known until January when the General Assembly passes the state budget. The deficit for the school system's FY '04 budget is expected to in the $60 million to $70 million range.
"I think what is going to be our biggest disappointment is dealing with the budget. I was pleased with the superintendent’s efforts to try to hold on to as much money as he could. We’re not spending our mid-term money,” said School Board member Ernestine Heastie (Providence).
At the mid-year budget review in November, the board elected to save the more than $10 million surplus for next year’s beginning balance. The extra funds were mostly do to over-projected enrollment figures.
In addition to less state funding, there are the unknown expenses of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which will require all public schools to have a 100-percent passing rate for all children in the subjects of reading, math and science by 2014, including students with special needs, who are not English proficient or are part of the free or reduced lunch program. The act requires statewide testing in every grade level. Currently Virginia has SOL testing in third, fifth and eighth grades and as end-of-course tests in selected high-school classes. It will also require teachers meet certain benchmarks to be considered “highly qualified.”
“No Child Left Behind will be an incredible unfunded mandate,” Gibson said. “We haven’t seen SOL testing in other grades. The state will be creating those tests and we’re going to have to absorb the cost of administering them.”
One of the priorities for school officials will be to lobby the General Assembly for more money, using the Legislature's own study — the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission's (JLARC) Review of the Elementary and Secondary School Funding report — which concluded the state severely under funds education. In fact, if the state properly funded education, by its own estimates, Fairfax County would receive about $80 million more than it does, said Gibson.
“As I look ahead to the 2003 session of the General Assembly, I believe that it is imperative that we — School Board, parents, business leaders, citizens — band together to make education a priority,” said School Board member Catherine Belter (Springfield). “As the legislative chair for the School Board, I urge PTAs and other groups to make every effort to contact your delegates and senators and let them know we cannot allow our educational system to suffer. We cannot let our children down.”
However, not all of the financial trouble has been directly related to the budget. Most recently a wedge was driven between the Democratic-endorsed majority on the board and the Republican-endorsed minority members when the remainder of the superintendent’s contract was renegotiated and the new contract renewed until 2007. The new contract moved an annual performance bonus of $30,000 to base salary and increased the board’s contribution to a tax deferred annuity account in Domenech’s name from $30,000 per year to $40,000. The four minority members were faxed the details of the contract two days before being asked to vote, while some of the majority members had been informed prior to that of the changes.
“The contract is so recent and was so bad,” said School Board member Tessie Wilson (Braddock). “The budget was bad and we were able to work together, but this. …”
Brickner said the contract was her biggest disappointment of the year so far.