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Opting for Incremental Change

Oakton High School ready for new year.

Oakton High School won't try to fix a system that isn't broken. "We're a very successful school. There are only a couple schools in the county that do better than us, testing-wise," said Principal John Banbury. As a result, the school continues to make minor adjustments without diving into any major systemic overhauls.

Because more students are taking advanced placement (AP) science classes, the school will begin running two sections each of AP Chemistry and AP Biology. Also a new math class has been added — Multi-Variable Calculus. "That'll be exciting for the few kids that actually make it that far in math before graduating high school," Banbury remarked.

The staff has dabbled with some of the concepts presented in the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) program that has become popular in some school clusters. The program emphasizes cooperation among teachers who teach the same class, in order to coordinate teaching methods and frequent student assessments, as well as intervention strategies for students who fall behind.

Schools that follow it closely observe which teachers' classes score higher on assessments and which students lag or excel in each class, and teachers continually adjust their methods and refocus their attention accordingly. They also generally leave a half-hour or so free during the day for students to get individual attention from teachers as needed.

"I think there are some real benefits to PLC, but I think each school needs to pick and choose what they can take from it," said Banbury. He said Oakton emphasizes the strength of "curriculum teams" — groups of teachers within the same subject — but asks the teams what they need rather than telling them what to do.

The school does not have a free period for individual instruction. He said the idea was considered last year, but faculty was split about evenly.

Banbury is now entering his third year at Oakton. During his first year, he said, he and staff "kicked around" ideas contained in the PLC program. Last year, they worked on having teachers cooperate on curriculum teams. This year, they will begin working to "fulfill the potential that's there in the model," he said, adding that some new methods may be adopted.

THE SCHOOL IS WAITING for the official results of last year’s Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, but, said Banbury, “as far as the initial runnings, I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen.” In several areas the school is percentile ranking is in the upper 90s, leaving faculty trying to find a way to close out the last few percentage points. “The World History I and II and English numbers, in both reading and writing, are very solid,” he said.

He noted that there have been substantial increases in the chemistry scores, although there is still room for improvement in the subject. In a couple of areas, such as biology, Oakton is still scoring in the lower to mid-80s. “We’re still trying to hammer out how to raise those scores,” Banbury said.

Enrollment at Oakton has risen slightly this year from about 2,300 to about 2,350 students, “which is a good size for us,” he said, adding that the school has about a dozen trailers, which it will continue to occupy. “Since I already have the trailers, I don’t consider myself over capacity.” He noted that at one point, before Westfield High School was built, enrollment was up to about 2,500.

Staff size remains about the same, hovering between 175 and 180. About 25 of those staff members will be new this year.

Ellen Reilly may not be new to the school, but she is new to the position of assistant principal. Previously, she spent seven years teaching American Sign Language, splitting her time between Oakton and Falls Church high schools. Before that, she was a sign language interpreter for Fairfax County elementary schools.

Reilly said she is excited about new teachers coming to the school, “helping them to do really well and get where they need to go, and helping them grow.”

“As a teacher, I watched the students grow, and now I’ll be watching teachers grow,” she said.

Reilly will be in charge of the 11th grade, attendance, and the art and foreign language departments. Given her teaching background, foreign language “is the easy move-in for me,” she said. “I think it makes everyone in the department happy to know that I know what the curriculum is about, and I know what they’re trying to do.”

Although she enjoyed working in elementary schools, Reilly said she prefers high school, where she can have more meaningful conversations with the students. On the other end of the spectrum, she also taught sign language to adults at Northern Virginia Community College. “There wasn’t a class clown or anything like that,” she said. “It just wasn’t as much fun.”

THIS WILL BE the ninth year of involvement with the Oakton PTSA for Liane Carlstrom, who served as president for the last two years and is now taking the position of vice president. Carlstrom said one project the PTSA will be undertaking this year is planning for the celebration of the school's 40th anniversary next year.

Also, the organization is raising funds to offset the cost of last spring and summer's major renovations to Oakton's athletic fields, which got new turf and sprinkler systems. "We're going to end up with, probably, some of the best sports fields in the county," she said.

Much of the proceeds from the school's 12th annual Athletic Booster Golf Tournament, to be held Sept. 12 at International Country Club in Chantilly, will help pay for the work. Carlstrom noted that the new turf will soon be put to the test at the Cougar Kickoff preseason game against South County High School Aug. 31.

The PTSA is also continuing its usual projects, including putting out a student directory and planning the all-night graduation party.

Another service the organization has made part of its annual agenda is a free, open discussion between parents and a local child psychologist "because we all have questions about raising teenagers," said Carlstrom. Oakton will host five such sessions this year. The discussions have no set agenda and are also open to parents of middle-schoolers.

"So it's going to be another busy year," Carlstrom said.

Back-to-School Night for the parents of ninth- and 10th-graders at Oakton High School will be Sept. 20, and the 11th- an 12th-grade Back-to-School Night will be Sept. 28.