The Fairfax County School Board wants your opinion. School board members have been traveling the county conducting 31district dialogues to listen to the public’s reaction to the draft statement of goals that the board will soon adopt for the entire school system. These goals will shape the budget of the county’s public school system for years to come.
Currently, “we know that our funding doesn’t correlate to some of our deeply held goals,” explained the School Board’s representative for Mount Vernon, Dan Storck. “We need to make sure that our funding is consistent with our goals and the direction of our system.”
As an example of this inconsistency, Storck said that the school is not adequately assessing the needs of more than half its students. “Over 50 percent of our students will never graduate from college. Which means it is essential they graduate from high school with some technical skills that will enable them to get additional training or an apprenticeship.” He says the school system is too focused on preparing students academically for college and not on providing skills that would allow students to begin earning a living immediately. “We need to make sure that the money follows the needs of our students.”
The board hopes that after adopting these goals, the school system will adhere to a consistent philosophy during its budget appropriations. The goals are divided into three broad categories, each with multiple sub-headings: Academics, Essential Life Skills and Citizenship. Core competencies in traditional subjects such as reading, writing and math head the list under academics, but the category also calls for students to be able to “communicate in at least two languages,” “understand and value the arts,” and “understand diverse cultures of the world and their interrelationship and interdependence.” Essential Life Skills focuses on inner qualities, rather than technical skills, that will enable to students “to lead responsible, fulfilling and respectful lives.” These values include honesty, integrity, respect, compassion, conflict management, and the ability to “courageously identify and pursue their personal goals.” The final category, Citizenship, is brief. It calls for students to understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and to be productive participants in every level of the world community.
ABOUT 25 people attended the Mount Vernon District Dialogue at Walt Whitman Middle School on April 24. School Board Members Storck, Steve Hunt, Janet Oleszek and Brad Center were there to listen. The first comment came from Lou Kobus, the owner of Fox Run Nurseries. He said that although the school system may place the most emphasis on its highest achievers, it is the average or below-average students in the system with whom many people interact every day. “I know that we put out some of the best students who go to the best universities,” Kobus said. “But as an employer on Route 1 I don’t see those students … People think landscaping is an entry level job, but they have to read, use math, calibrate, calculate. I’m not seeing those types of students.”
A recurring theme throughout the night was the need to equip students with practical skills. “The one thing that every kid is going to have to have is the ability to deal with the world of transactions,” said Steve Keating. “No matter where they go they are going to live in the world of rent, credit cards, payroll.”
Heather Anderson agreed. She called for an “emphasis on practical life skills, [such as] sewing on a button and cooking. I realize the importance of what you can learn in those classes… I didn’t take those because I was on the college bound route… You get kids who go to college and can’t boil an egg.”
Tish Howard, Principal of Washington Mills, turned attention toward an area more explicitly stated in the School Board’s proposed goals: values. “I always tell my staff I don’t want to raise smart evil people and I don’t want to raise nice idiots either.” Howard framed this in terms of the wider challenge of helping students actively learn. “The [state Standards of Learning (SOLs)] do not encourage higher thinking skills. It’s like giving someone pabulum or giving them a fish,” she said. “Teach children about how to be thinkers instead of just receptors of information.” This theme resonated with many participants in the discussion. Several people stood up to advocate for the school to take a more active role in helping students self-actualize, examples ranged from developing a strong sense of self to choosing the right career path.
PARTICIPANTS also debated the objectives and wording of the goals themselves. Several questioned whether achievement of the goals, particularly those focused on values and appreciation, could be measured. Others were concerned about whether helping students achieve their “full academic potential” would entail a decision by the school on the upper limits of a student’s potential. Howard had a response. “I don’t want to estimate [potential] … we provide fertile ground and opportunity so every child feels they have value and they can go as far as they can without restraint … We’re obligated to provide the environment where it will happen, not determine the potential.”
The category of Citizenship also came down to a question of semantics. Some participants asked what the school’s policy towards students who were not legally citizens, or even residents, of the United States. But this line of questioning was swept aside by a discussion of a “subjective definition of citizenship,” as one participant phrased it. She encouraged placing less emphasis on “Is the person a citizen citizen?” and more on “How do we inculcate our young people to [say] ‘I count. My parents count. The world counts. What can I do to make it a better place?’”
Other participants supported this perspective. “I really like seeing this as a goal,” said one. “That’s the whole reason we have public schools … I think we miss that sometimes, that the education is part of being a full citizen.”
ULTIMATELY, the subtext of many of the comments seemed to be a running, and never resolved, debate over ambition versus realism. One participant asked how the school board could make participation in the arts mandatory if every school did not provide the same access to them. Howard said it was not only a matter of budget, but of academic priorities. “Right now my teachers are crunching data like you wouldn’t believe to make sure our kids are passing the SOL’s… I have kids that I’m taking out of art and chorus and PE to make sure they pass their SOL’s.”
Another participant asked about physical education classes [PE], saying they did not appear anywhere within the goals.
Mark Mildorf identified these different priorities – achievement in arts versus maintaining physical health versus simply passing a minimum standard of academic competency – as “the fundamental conflict.” He questioned how the school system could aspire to produce outstanding students in every category of human achievement if it still had many students who were not even achieving the basic skills needed to function in society. “I don’t know what the solution is,” he said, but he felt it was important to raise the question of whether the School Board’s proposed goals overlooked the survival of the below-average in favor of maximizing the achievement of the exceptional. Regardless of debate over their implementation, “the goals of SOL are that students should have the basic skills, and it seems to be a struggle to achieve that,” Mildorf said.
After the forum ended, Storck addressed some of the questions that had been raised. He said that although some students will struggle with core competencies, the goals are designed to help students find an area in which they can achieve and encourage them to maximize that success.
Storck said feedback from these forums will be processed by the school board as they finalize the school system’s goals, an event that should occur in July. Concurrently, staff members will be studying how to “operationalize” these abstract goals within the workings of the schools themselves. Although the current school budget that will be approved in May will be unaffected by the new goals, every subsequent budget will evolve towards a complete correlation with the mission of Fairfax County Schools. The 25 community members who attended Monday’s District Dialogue asserted their visions of what this mission should be.