Striving To Define Excellence in Education

Striving To Define Excellence in Education

Parents and school employees discuss ways to improve the Fairfax County public schools curriculum.

With one daughter in Gifted and Talented classes, and one son struggling with learning disabilities, Lucinda Brown pays close attention to the education of her children. She knows that every child has different educational needs. Brown was particularly impressed with a class project that her daughter did two years ago.

"I think the best class she's had yet was a course they did in the third grade called 'The City,'" said Brown.

"The City" required students to set up an imaginary community within their class. They each had jobs, daily responsibilities and "income." They made financial choices such as whether or not to buy health insurance, and when students without health insurance had an "accident" they lost their money to "medical bills." Some of the students even made products and put them up for sale.

"This one student made these socks that everybody wanted, and on the day that the socks would be for sale, the other students would be lined up waiting to buy them," said Brown. "So they kind of got to experience the Beanie Baby craze — it was just extraordinary."

Brown, whose daughter is currently a fifth grade student at Haycock Elementary School, said that she would love to see the students play "The City" in the sixth grade as well, just to see the effect of three more years of life experience.

This kind of school lesson — one that teaches students practical life skills — is what many parents would like to see more of in the Fairfax County public school curriculum.

LAST THURSDAY, April 20, the Fairfax County School Board held a community dialogue at Langley High School. The purpose of the meeting was to allow residents of the Dranesville district to express their opinions on how the Fairfax County Public School system can improve its curriculum. The School Board has held several of these community dialogues throughout the last month.

Dranesville District School Board Representative Jane Strauss ran the community dialogue, which asked participants to discuss school curriculum "beyond the SOLs."

"What's next, what do we need to do, what is the best way to go?" asked Strauss. "This is an opportunity to think about where we want the schools to be in the next 10-20 years. We want big picture thinking tonight."

Strauss began the dialogue by asking those in attendance what expecations they have of a Fairfax County Public School graduate.

"They need to be able to live at least somewhat independently," said Leslie Barnhart, who has two children at Kent Gardens Elementary School. "I hear about so many of these kids who go off to college and then come right back home. So they are living at home with their nice car... these children that have been coddled their whole lives are supposed to live on their own?"

Barnhart added that students should be taught how to manage and invest their money, and that the ability to build and create is a lost art among today's youth.

"Engineering is dying in this country," said Barnhart. "I'd like to see them put things to together instead of just expecting it to be made in China."

Many people felt very strongly that Fairfax County students should graduate with the ability to speak a second language.

"We have the resources," said Samuel Klein, whose daughter goes to school at Haycock Elementary. "We have 25,000 students enrolled in the ESOL [English as a Second Language] program, and one third of our students are in families where there is someone who does not speak English. Our students should be bilingual."

Parents also expressed the desire for their children to have a firm grasp on how politics work, and to have an understanding of why it is important to be civically active.

"I think everybody is alarmed with the low rate of voting among young people," said Pat Kobor, who has one child at Kilmer Middle School and one at Colvin Run Elementary School.

A COMMON CONCERN was that the current academic curriculum does not adequately prepare students for life in the real world, nor does it provide them with useful career skills.

"My son is in the fifth grade, and in his Social Studies class there is too much minutia," said Harry Chernoff, whose son goes to Forestville Elementary School . "He has to memorize all the details of the Mayan calendar, the Egyptian gods and goddesses — it's just disembodied pieces of data. The basic concepts are not there, so when they get out it's no wonder that they don't know how to figure out if our Board of Supervisors is handling the budget properly, or anything about how local government works."

Chernoff said that he would like to see math classes like Problems and Statistics that would "require the kids to think about how things work together."

"It will teach them things like, should I take this risk? Should I buy that? Should I buy a lot of them or a few of them?"

Attendees also suggested better career guidance throughout a child's schooling, keeping them abreast of what kind of jobs are out there and what skills are necessary to get those jobs.

Chernoff said he was dismayed when he discovered that one third of his son's classmates are hoping to be professional athletes or Hollywood stars.

"They need one day on the statistics of the reality of life," said Chernoff.

DIALOGUE ATTENDEES were provided with a handout listing the goals of the Fairfax County School Board. The goals were broken down into three categories: Academics, Essential Life Skills and Citizenship. Some parents complained that the long list of essential life skills overshadowed the rather basic list of academic skills.

"It sends the wrong message to the employees and the community that these are so much more important than academics," said Klein.

Klein's comment opened up the sensitive topic of whether or not schools should be involved in issues that are traditionally considered the responsibility of parents. Although some parents believe that ethics and integrity are personal life lessons that should be left to individual families, many feel that such an approach is naive and unrealistic.

Susan Anthony, who has children at Franklin Sherman and Haycock Elementary, agreed, pointing out that the realities of poor parenting should not be ignored.

"Reinforce is a great verb, but the fact is a lot of life skills aren't being taught at home, and I think it's a really big problem," said Anthony.

Lucinda Brown said that as children get older, reinforcement of values becomes even more important.

"When children are high school age, they are spending a lot less time with their parents, and a lot more time with their friends, some of whom might not be learning those life skills at home… I think it takes a village to raise a child," said Brown.

Most dialogue attendees agreed with the notion that schools should provide students with both academic and life skills, particularly since students lacking essential life skills do not do well in class.

"Academics are the context in which these life skills need to be taught," said Kobor. "A school is a society, and the kids are all there with their jobs."