Throughout last school year at South Lakes High School, math teacher Frances Walker gave extra help after school twice a week to a student who suffered from fairly severe learning disabilities.
The student wanted to join the U.S. Coast Guard after graduation, but first he needed to overcome his difficulty retaining information if he was going to bring up his grades and pass the Standardized Learning tests needed to pass his senior year.
The hard work paid off. By the end of the year, the student's drive to succeed — coupled with Walker's tutoring regimen — had helped him raise his GPA and pass the Algebra II SOL test.
"I kept pushing him and pushing him and now it looks like he's going to make it," said Walker.
That student and other South Lakes students with disabilities passed the math SOLs in greater numbers last spring than the year before. But still only slightly more than half — 51 percent — of the school's students with disabilities passed the test.
In fact, almost all groups of traditionally underperforming students at South Lakes failed to meet targets last year set under the No Child Left Behind Act. The goals were for 59 percent of all student groups to pass the math SOL test and for 61 percent of all student groups to pass the English test.
According to recently released SOL results, only 53 percent of the school's black and Hispanic students passed the math SOL test. And only 52 percent of the school's poor students passed the test.
South Lakes failed to meet testing targets in 25 out of 29 demographic categories of students — more than any other high school in Fairfax County.
Realista Rodriguez, the school's principal, acknowledged South Lakes needs to do better. But, she said, things are already starting to turn around.
"We know which students need to improve," she said. "We know who they are. And we are implementing strategies to help them get better."
NEARBY LANGSTON Hughes Middle School appears to be having an equal amount of difficulty. It was one three Fairfax County middle schools that failed to meet six No Child Left Behind testing targets, though two out of three middle schools in the county failed to make targets in at least one category.
Every minority group at the school failed to meet targets last spring on the English exam. Only 43 percent of black students passed the test, along with 57 percent of Hispanic students, 39 percent of disabled students, 45 percent of the poor students and 54 percent of students who have a limited ability to speak English.
Also, only 53 percent of the school's students with disabilities passed the math test.
But despite Langston's disappointing scores, the school has improved its performance significantly over the previous year. Though scores for students with disabilities and black students declined slightly, it posted gains for the school's poor students, Hispanic students and limited English students.
"We owe it to our students to educate every child," said the school's principal Deborah Jackson. "This is our mission as educators. Failure is not an option."
BOTH SOUTH LAKES and Langston Hughes face the issues of poverty and limited English proficiency to a greater extent than many of their peer institutions.
The schools' district, which draws students from throughout South Reston, includes a greater concentration of subsidized housing than anywhere else in Fairfax County.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 24.8 percent of South Lakes' 1,600 students are poor and 132 are speakers of other languages. At Langston Hughes, 24.5 percent of the school's 904 students are poor and 153 are speakers of other languages.
With one out of every four students considered economically-disadvantaged and with so many students attempting to learn difficult subjects in a language other than their own, it is little wonder the two schools are struggling to meet academic targets. "We have so many obstacles we have to overcome," Jackson said. "But we can't let that stop us. We have to do our best teaching them from the minute they walk in the door to the time they leave here."
RIDGE LOUX, South Lakes' PTSA president, said he was unhappy to learn that while the school's white and affluent students slightly increased their scores, the performance of poor and minority students generally declined.
"It's disappointing," he said. "But I think the school is certainly aware of it and the school's working on it."
Loux said he is confident South Lakes can improve its scores and ensure that every child is receiving the best possible education.
At Langston, PTA President Joan Burkhart is similarly optimistic. She said it appears the school's performance is improving and believes most parents are happy with the school.
"It looks like there's an upward trend and we hope it will continue," she said. "I know they're really concentrating on getting better."
BOTH OF THE SCHOOLS' principals said they are using the test score results, coupled with other indicators such as grades and attendance data, to better identify struggling and at-risk students. Using that information, they said, they know which students need extra help.
"We can analyze each student's total education and make sure we address where we are not meeting their needs," Rodriguez said.
At South Lakes, that means struggling students are placed in more preparation courses and encouraged to attend after-school remedial programs — like the tutoring program attended by the South Lakes student who wanted to join the Coast Guard.
And at Langston Hughes, those programs similar remediation, but also include technology-based reading and comprehension tutoring.
"We try to create an environment where kids begin to believe that their dreams can become a reality," Jackson said.
Both principals said getting parents more involved in their child's education is among the top priorities.
South Lakes has started offering classes for parents on English and in technical subjects like algebra. The school hopes to expand its offerings this year to include geometry, chemistry and computer skills. These classes, Rodriguez said, will help parents assist their child and get them directly involved in helping their child succeed.
"We want parents to feel the excitement of learning," she said.
At Langston, the school has an automated calling system for parents in several languages that lists school announcements. Since it was implemented, Jackson said the school's PTA meetings have become more diverse.
"We realize that many of our parents are working two or three jobs," she said. "But they still care about the success of their children. That's why, in many cases, they came to this country in the first place."