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First, Set Goals ...

School Board members ask residents what they want from their schools.

<bt>Goals as broad as instilling a sense of empowerment and as specific as teaching fluency in a foreign language were discussed at a Providence District Dialogue between parents and School Board representative Phil Niedzielski-Eichner last Thursday, March 30, in the Fairhill Elementary School cafeteria.

In the face of changing student demographics and the requirements set by No Child Left Behind and Virginia's Standards of Learning, the county School Board has been working to review and update its goals for student achievement. Meetings are being held between School Board members and the residents of their respective districts in order to gather input.

Niedzielski-Eichner told participants that laying out specific goals would create criteria for School Board staff to measure schools' success in the future.

The parents were first asked what they felt a graduate of the Fairfax County Public Schools ought to be able to do.

Jeff Nelson, who works with W.T. Woodson High School, said he felt Woodson succeeded in challenging both Ivy League-bound students and those from the school's emotional disability center. He said all students of all schools should graduate feeling that they had been challenged.

OTHER EXPECTATIONS for the schools' future graduates included being able to communicate effectively with both the spoken and written word, being well-informed and engaged citizens with a global perspective, having a sound foundation for decision-making, being proud of their school system, respecting others and having the skills to move on to the next stage of their lives.

While participants spoke, their ideas — entered into a computer document to be taken to the School Board — were projected onto a movie screen so the crowd could edit them.

Attendees were then asked to review and comment on the academic, life skills and citizenship goals drafted by the School Board. "If we can demonstrate that we've achieved these goals, will they meet your expectations of the school system?" Niedzielski-Eichner asked.

When participants pressed for specifics on how a goal might be achieved, they were reminded that this was a goal-setting meeting.

"These are the ends," said Niedzielski-Eichner. "We want to make sure we've got the ends right. The process will flow from there." The goals will be finalized in May, and the process for achieving them, he said, will be laid out by the superintendent. Another District Dialogue focusing on implementation strategies will be held in June.

It was pointed out that, while effective communication and fluency in a foreign language were mentioned by parents as expectations, forensic speech is not part of the schools' curriculum, and foreign language fluency is not supported by current programs.

Maria Allen, PTA president at South Lakes High School, which is outside the Providence District, said she disagreed with making fluency in another language a goal for all students. "Fluency in a foreign language takes a lot of time, and it's not going to be the most appropriate use of time for every kid," she said, adding that English proficiency ought to be a higher priority.

It was suggested that critical thinking and leadership skills could be added to the goals for life skills and that citizenship goals could be incorporated into the academic goals through classes like social studies.

Allen said she was uneasy about the citizenship goals. "When you start mandating that teachers teach kids how to be good citizens, it can get taken out of context and done in meaningless ways just for the sake of doing it," she said. While citizenship is important, said Allen, it should not be given the same weight by schools as academic goals.

Amy Hobbs, whose children attend Fairhill Elementary, differed, saying it is important that children learn how to treat each other.

FOLLOWING A DISCUSSION of the merits and inconsistencies of schools' community service programs, Laura Walter, who has children attending Mantua Elementary, Luther Jackson Middle School and Falls Church High School, suggested that the subject of volunteer programs might make a good goal. "It's clearly hit a nerve here," she said.

There was also some question of what constituted "effective use of technology."

Several parents said they wanted goals set not only for student achievement but also for teachers, school officials and the school system.

Nelson said the School Board should believe in its schools, as well as its students. He said he felt that individual schools are too hamstrung by the county and that one goal should be that schools should have more authority and get only the oversight that is necessary.

Carolyn Slocum, who has children attending Luther Jackson Middle School and Falls Church High School, said she thought "equal opportunity for every student at every school" ought to be a goal.

The crowd was also asked what barriers might keep goals from being met. Responses included too much concentration on Standards of Learning (SOL) testing, inequitable distribution of resources, not enough being expected of students, difficulty recruiting teachers, lower-income groups falling behind early on and the dropout rate for minorities.

Participants said assets of Fairfax County schools include a good reputation, high parent involvement, and motivated students and teachers.

The Hunter Mill District Dialogue will be held May 2 at 7 p.m. in the lecture hall at Hughes Middle School, 11401 Ridge Heights Road, Reston.