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Good Grades for Schools

Survey shows parents, teachers mostly satisfied with schools. But many others in community left in the dark.

Parents, students and teachers give Arlington’s public schools high marks, survey results released last week show. But Arlingtonians without children in the schools said they didn’t know much about the school system.

It’s a cause for concern, said superintendent Robert Smith. “We definitely do want to reach more people,” especially in a year when the schools are seeking bond approval from Arlington voters.

“It’s an indication we need to do a better job,” said Larry Fishtahler, County Council of PTAs president. So many people saying they don’t know about the schools means they don’t know what the schools need, he said.

But it also means community members are missing out on the highlights of Arlington schools. “I’ve been a judge in the science fairs at Yorktown, and there’s a lot of terrific work,” he said. “I’ve often thought there’s more we ought to do to get the community to come and see what that work is like.”

Members of survey firm Development Associates focused on the passing grades that parents, teachers and community members gave the school overall as they discussed the results of the 2004 Customer Satisfaction Survey at the June 3 School Board meeting.

When asked to grade the school system, 91 percent of parents and 92 percent of teachers gave the schools an A or B grade. In a 2003 national survey conducted by Phi Delta Kappa, a non-profit education association, only 55 percent of parents gave the schools A or B grades.

“On the whole, for almost all of the items we asked about, we did find a relatively high level of satisfaction with the school system in general,” said Nadra Garas, survey team leader for Development Associates.

That was good news, said board member Libby Garvey. “I’ve been on the board for almost eight years, and my sense is, [parent] satisfaction is up.”

<b>BUT GARAS NOTED</b> that the general public in Arlington was more likely to say they didn’t know enough about the schools to answer questions. “We found a lack of knowledge if they didn’t have students in the schools,” Garas said.

Development Associates called 402 Arlingtonians without children in the school system, asking them to grade the school system, grade Smith’s performance as superintendent and how well the system spends tax dollars, among other questions.

Almost half of those 402 respondents said they did not know enough about the school system to give a grade; 70.3 percent said they didn’t know enough about how Smith did his job; and almost 40 percent said they didn’t know how the school system used county tax dollars.

In Phi Delta Kappa’s national survey, only 6 percent of non-parents were unwilling to respond to similar questions.

<b>EVEN SCHOOL STAFF</b> were taken aback at how little the general public in Arlington knew about the schools. “One of the surprises was how little the community feels comfortable grading the school system,” said Lisa Stengle, assistant director of evaluation. “But then they have no problem giving an opinion on teacher pay.”

The lack of knowledge for Arlingtonians is remarkable, Smith said, “particularly since the community has been so supportive of the schools,” overwhelmingly supporting spending on the schools over the last 16 years, whether through real estate taxes or bonds.

Demographics could play a role in that, Smith said. More than one-third of Arlington’s population is between the ages of 18-34, according to the 2000 Census, and only 21 percent of the county’s households have school-age children. “I’ve been talking to young married couples with no children, or who just had children,” said Smith. “They’re just finding out about the schools.”

It could be the “Arlington way” at work, he said. “People in Arlington are less willing to give an opinion if it’s a topic they don’t know about.”

One of the solutions to the problem could lie with those satisfied parents, said Fishtahler. “We need to get parents to get with their neighbors. Let them know what the quality of education is.”

<b>LOCAL NEWS MIGHT</b> be at fault too. “Bad news attracts more eyes,” said Frank Sesno. “Stories that get out about schools are metal detectors, crime and a superintendent getting fired.”

Now a George Mason University communication professor, Sesno once served as CNN’s Washington bureau chief and before that, as a local radio reporter in Vermont.

Working in Vermont, he regularly spent nights covering the local school board. “Your school is the essence of the community. School board and the schools were among the big stories we covered, because that was the point that people congregated.”

But in the Washington region, where Arlingtonians may work in Maryland and spend the weekend at events in DC, it’s harder to connect with the community. “A parent, a reader and a news consumer really has to hunt to find news about what’s going on in their schools,” he said.

For the same reasons such coverage is hard to report, and hard to find, it’s absolutely crucial for parents to read, said Fishtahler.

“What we really need to do is look at ways to communicate what’s really going on … for folks who don’t have their finger on the pulse of the schools,” he said.