Parents Sound Off on Proposed School Goals
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Parents Sound Off on Proposed School Goals

Parents stirred up about academic versus ‘life skills’ goals.

Just days after Hunter Mill District School Board member Stu Gibson hosted a meeting Tuesday, May 2 to discuss new school goals for the county, Newsweek released a list of the 1,000 best high schools in the nation (see “The List”).

The rankings — which list South Lakes High School 611, much lower than neighboring high schools of Oakton at 104 and Herndon at 137, not to mention the eight schools in Arlington or Fairfax counties that cracked the top 100 — have since reconfirmed concerns about school objectives local parents discussed during the May 2 meeting.

“What do we want students to be able to do when they leave Fairfax County Public Schools?” said Gibson, explaining the purpose of the meeting to about 35 parents who gathered at Langston Hughes Middle School.

Gibson added that the county’s school goals for students were last updated in 1998, which is why the board has begun soliciting input from the community to guide the revisions.

AS A BASIS for discussion, Gibson also provided a handout that included a draft inventory of goals, divided into two areas: academic goals, such as reading and writing, and “life skills,” such as integrity, environmental stewardship, respectfulness and compassion.

Parents generally applauded all the goals, but split on what types of goals the school system should focus its attention.

“I think the School Board should be concerned with the big issues, and the big issues are academics,” said Maria Allen, president of South Lakes’ PTA.

While Allen and others agreed that life skills are important to teach in schools, they objected that they were included as part of the county’s goals. In fact, some didn’t even think they were goals at all. “I don’t think the life skills are goals. They’re expectations,” said Maryclaire Ramsey, who has four children attending county schools.

Nonetheless, academic skills should have priority, said Richard Stout, who has three children going through the school system.

“We care a lot about the basics being covered,” said Beth Badgett, a parent who was worried that by listing life skills as goals could unintentionally displace academic goals.

PARENTS ALSO SEEMED particularly worried about the context in which the goals would be administered. Several parents felt the dialogue about goals lacked any context, arguing that if the emphasis on testing was not addressed then the discussion was taking place “in a vacuum.”

“There’s this other goal out there called No Child Left Behind,” said Allen, referring to the 2001 federal law that requires that all students are proficient in reading and math by the 2013-14 school year. “Are we just kind of pretending that it doesn’t exist?”

“A lot of what goes on during the [school] day is preparation for the test,” said Elizabeth Vandenburg, who has a ninth grader at South Lakes. “Tests run everything in the year 2006.”

“I understand what you’re saying, but as a School Board we get to decide what the goals are with your help and input,” said Gibson, who tried to steer the discussion away from testing. “You can’t implement anything if you don’t know where you’re going,” he said, adding that he hoped to “move beyond the question of how to measure this stuff.” But Gibson also said that the goals would eventually help guide the superintendent when making decisions about implementation.

Parents, however, had a hard time suspending “reality.” If tests are driving educational opportunities, said Joan Delcoco, whose two children attend Reston schools, then “that’s a real problem with the system.”

A county official on hand recorded all of the input from parents, which Gibson said would be considered as the School Board moved forward to revise the goals.