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Pyramid Meeting Held to Gather Input

Parents at Mt. Vernon High look for answers.

When parents at Mount Vernon High School wanted help, they turned to their elected school board representatives. They invited Fairfax County School Board Representatives Dan Storck, Brad Center and Janet Oleszek to speak at the February meeting of Mount Vernon High School's PTSA.

Not only did the School Board members speak, but they also listened. As with other schools, the parents had concerns about the status of their children's educational institute. In this case, however, the concerns were such that one meeting was not enough to resolve them. Storck suggested that they schedule a community meeting.

Community meetings are a tool frequently used by Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). They are facilitated by the cluster director, in this case Dr. Calanthia Tucker from Cluster Four. Parents and community members are invited to a meeting; this one was held on March 24 in Bratten Hall.

All participants are gathered together for a brief overview; Tucker spoke as did Storck, Center and Dr. Nicholas Fischer, assistant superintendent of instructional services for FCPS. Approximately 62 community members attended the meeting. After the overview they were broken up into groups and asked to go to their assigned rooms. Each of the small groups was moderated by a facilitator from FCPS who recorded the thoughts and ideas expressed by the groups. This part of the meeting was for information collection only; after the small group sessions, community members met to review all of the thoughts and ideas expressed in the small groups.

JO-ANN MUIR, Mount Vernon High teacher and acting PTSA president, said, "The PTSA had an opportunity to invite the school board members to our PTSA meeting. Out of that meeting grew the idea that Mount Vernon needed help. The school board said that they could help us try to figure out what to ask for.

"I think parents are very pleased," said Muir. "Instead of us trying to do everything on our own, we had somebody who was paying attention to us. They were saying 'What do you want? What do you need? What can we do for you?'"

Dr. Cathy Crocker is the principal at MVHS. She said, "I think this is a very good process to see what our needs are. Things are always changing."

Crocker will be leaving at the end of the year, but said, "I think we've done an excellent job in meeting the NCLB and SOL [standards]. I want every child to be successful; to do that we need to go one step more."

Looking down the road, she said that the person who will be taking her place should be "somebody who is concerned about children, and interested in the community."

Storck, who was instrumental in getting the meeting set up, had met with Fairfax County School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech before he resigned to express his concerns.

Storck said, "I wanted to know what was being done and how we could improve the school. I feel strongly that we need more parent involvement and that they need to have a greater say."

Another PTSA member, Rosemary Salak, said, "The meeting was certainly worthwhile. There was a good turnout of parents and community members. Particularly noteworthy are the parents who came who no longer have children in the school system but who still care about what happens in our community, particularly with our future and our children. School Board member Dan Storck was instrumental in working with MVHS Academic Boosters Club and PTSA to get the gathering scheduled. If anything could be improved about the process, it would be the manner in which the notice of the meeting was handled. The flyer announcing the meeting was pretty nondescript and not widely disseminated. A few parents responded quickly to remedy that situation."

THE THREE QUESTIONS that the community members were asked to answer at the Mount Vernon meeting were: What is going well academically at Mount Vernon High School? What can be done to make Mount Vernon High School academically stronger? What can the community do to make Mount Vernon High School better academically?

The responses were varied. Things that are going well include: the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) Program, improvement in the SAT and SOL scores, block scheduling, the teachers, the students, the Center program and use of Blackboard [.com].

The list of things that can make the school stronger was substantially longer. Items mentioned here were: smaller class sizes, Touch Base every quarter, better communication between school and home, more parent liaisons, late bus service for after-school programs, more and consistent discipline, summer programs, male administrators, Character Education Program, more SOL practice tests and teacher accountability.

When asked what the community can do to make the school better, answers focused on volunteering, recruiting corporate sponsors, recruiting retired administrators and teachers to help, giving more money, distributing bilingual information, providing opportunities for Community Outreach and implementing a mentoring program. The above are just a small sampling of some of the responses; the full list has been compiled and posted onto the internet: www.fcps.edu/cluster4/MVHS032404.pdf.

These responses will be added to responses from administrators, teachers and students and compiled into a needs assessment. Salak was disappointed that the raw data [information] from the session was slow to make its way back to the community, and said, "It is now posted on the Cluster IV website.

"The community session has become a part of a larger evaluation of MVHS initiated by Cluster IV which includes a curriculum audit conducted a couple of months ago, and sensing sessions among the student population. We are still awaiting the report consolidating the findings of the three interventions."

WITH SUCH A LENGTHY and varied list, the key will be to hone down these answers and determine which items are the most critical and prioritize them accordingly. Storck said that a follow-up meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 25, at 7 p.m. at Mount Vernon High School in Bratten Hall. The community is invited to attend.

Muir said, "What the school board told us is that they can't get a lot of changes right away, but that we can plan what we need for the next budget cycle and they can advocate for us. In the meantime, we need to take small steps to show the commitment of the community to move things along."

One of those small steps is a schedule change called Major Time. Muir said that this will help to resolve the issue of not having enough time for remediation.

"There's only one late bus day, and all the teachers are competing for the student's time," said Muir. "We can't have a longer day or force the students to stay after school."

This revised schedule will have eight periods and will include a floating fourth period. During this period, teachers will "get their students back."

In other words, every two weeks or so, the students will get an extra period with their teacher. This will be used for remediation, SOL preparation, make-up tests and review. This is just one of the many changes that will hopefully be implemented at the school after the new principal looks at the information and determines how to implement the results of the needs assessment.

Salak said, "I think it is a shame this kind of intervention is not routinely done as a non-threatening business process review to keep schools on course. Too often it seems they are done only when the school is facing serious challenges. Had this been done a couple of years ago, the principal, Cathy Crocker, could have used the information to make necessary changes at Mount Vernon. I am optimistic something will be done with the results.

"The Cluster offices are really not staffed to do this magnitude of work and I appreciate their efforts to work with the parents and community. I am hopeful the new principal will study the results and begin to address the challenges at MVHS. Ideally, he/she will meet with staff, parents, students, and community members to develop strategies to address the challenges and strengthen the strengths. I'd personally like to see the new principal embrace character education in an effective way, and have MVHS teachers trained in the Schools Attuned Program (a professional development program that focuses on how kids learn)."