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School System Meets Most of Its Targets

The Fairfax County Public Schools went 11-4 for the 2001-02 school year.

The school system achieved 11 of the targets established for last year, while it fell short on 4, according to results released at the superintendent's annual School Board retreat Saturday. Actually, the board adopts 10 divisionwide strategic targets each year, however, three of the targets had submeasures by which to gauge the school system's achievements.

THE REPORT showed the school system's failings came in the areas of reducing gaps in white and minority students' SAT scores, reducing minority suspension rates compared to white students, reducing the number of repeat offenders of violent acts, and reducing the overall suspension rates.

In one case, Superintendent Daniel Domenech suggested the School Board had a hand in the suspension-rate target not being met.

The overall target calls for staff to use "research-based alternatives to student suspension, staff training in methods of classroom management and the provision of positive intervention measures that foster and promote civility within the classroom" and improvement would be measured on three levels: a 10-percent reduction in the disparity of suspensions between minority and white students; a 5-percent reduction in the rate of recidivism for suspensions due to acts of violence; and a 5-percent reduction in the rate of suspension for all students.

"Target eight has been a target that has been discussed and debated. The debate by the School Board is known very well by staff and may have been affecting [our progress]," said Domenech. "We were moving along and then reached a dead stop. A lot of our administrators are wondering if this really is something to work toward [because of the indecisiveness of the board]. Students are being suspended in larger and larger numbers. There has to be a clear message we send our staff as to whether this is a target or not."

Domenech said of the 10 main targets, the one dealing with suspension is the only one where the board does not speak with one voice, which some staff perceive to mean it is not as important as the others.

However, School Board Christian Braunlich (Lee) disagreed, saying "There are other targets that have not been unanimous."

To defuse the debate, board chairman Isis Castro (Mount Vernon) asked staff to schedule a work session, which should include what steps have been taken to meet the target and what type of intervention techniques are being used in the schools.

IN TERMS of results, the suspension rates actually increased instead of decreasing. According to the report, the disparity between minorities and white in the 2000-01 school year was 1.26 percent, with the target goal set at 1.27 percent. For 2001-02, the goal was a rate of 1.23 percent and the result was 1.29 percent. The number of repeat violent offenders in 2000-01 was 364, making the goal for 2001-02 346 students. The actual number of repeat offender suspensions was 370. And as for the number of overall suspensions, the goal for 2000-01 was .0539 percent and the actual was .0531 percent. For 2001-02, the goal was .0504 percent, while the actual was .0565 percent.

"My personal opinion is that using suspensions is an antiquated discipline technique," Domenech said. "Punishing a student who has missed five days of school by suspension makes no sense."

Another factor in the increased numbers, is the change in the rules by the state, said Domenech. Two years ago, the state changed the definition of "acts of violence," making more offenses punishable by suspension than in previous years.

At-large School Board member Robert Frye said he supported the target, but would like to see it more focused on the positive steps and not the negative steps being taken in the county's schools.

"What comes to my mind is what are we doing about creative solutions to suspension?" Fry said. "I would hope we keep the target but stress more of what we are doing to improve student conduct."

AS FOR THE GAP in SAT scores between minorities and whites, Domenech compared it to a race.

"This target we did not meet and have not been able to meet because it is a moving target," Domenech said. "The front runners are moving faster and the others are moving faster too, but not fast enough."

The overall target calls for the "percentage of students scoring above the national average on the verbal and on the mathematics sections of the SAT will exceed the previous year's percentage, and the gap between minority and majority students' scores will narrow by 10 percent."

It was on the last part, the school system fell short for the second year in a row. For the two years prior to that, the school system neither lost nor gained ground.

In the 1998-99 school year, the goal and the actual difference between the average white scores and the average black scores was 110 points; in 1999-2000, the goal and actual was 100 points; in 2000-01, the goal was 90 points and the actual gap was 108 points; and in 2001-02, the goal was 97 points, while the actual gap was 112 points.

The future of this target is in question, with the national overhaul of the SATs slated in 2005 and the reduction in the importance of the tests with some college admission boards. For now, the target remains in place through the 2002-04 school years, at which time the board will review all the targets for their usefulness and make any appropriate changes.