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Votes

Closing the Gaps

Mount Vernon planning to pull together teachers, students, parents and cultures.

New principal Nardos King said she has no plans to bring “large changes” to the course Mount Vernon High School has been following for the last two years. “We’re in a good place,” she said. But good can always be better, and King said the community should expect to see her “tighten up” many aspects of education at Mount Vernon.

As King described her plans for the school year, it became apparent that the metaphor can be applied broadly. King wants to tighten the mechanics of school programs like the professional learning communities that facilitate teacher collaboration. She described her plans to tighten “the gap” in test scores between minority students and white students. And she wants to tighten the relationships between the school and its parents.

According to data released last week by the state, 86 percent of students at Mount Vernon passed the Standards of Learning reading tests that have become the basis for the federal government’s No Child Left Behind evaluation of schools’ Adequate Yearly Progress. In Fairfax County, 89 percent of high school students passed the reading test, and 84 percent passed statewide. AYP required a minimum 69 percent passing rate for reading. On math tests, 81 percent of Mount Vernon students passed, compared to 82 percent in Fairfax County and 76 percent in Virginia. The AYP requirement was 67 percent.

King said the school will keep working to improve these numbers. One way it will do this is to continue to increase teacher collaboration through the professional learning communities program, which schedules teachers of the same subject to meet at least once a week. The program began two years ago, and King said it will take at least three more years to realize its potential and entrench it in the schools’ operations. She said the program has already allowed teachers to break down test results and perform “real-time assessments” of each student’s trouble areas. With these assessments, King explained, teachers will “have time during the school year to repeat what they’ve done instead of looking at the SOL’s at the end of the year and saying ‘Okay, our students didn’t learn that.’”

King said the communities are also a boon to new teachers, who are no longer isolated in a classroom with no formal mechanism for seeking advice. She called this, “no teacher left behind, and she said the results are tangible. “You can feel it in the air in the building. Everybody is taking ownership of all kids.”

BUT KING SAID the school has been less successful in bringing all of its students into an academic program that allows them to realize their potential. “We need to work on closing our gaps here at Mount Vernon High School,” she said. “There is a gap and that’s something we need to pay attention to.” She said black and Hispanic students are not achieving the same results as their white classmates. She described minorities as “a segment that we are not reaching.” King said that although the school was proud of its passing AYP scores, focusing on the majority of students who passed cannot mean ignoring those who failed.

She said there was no “fix pill” for this issue, but added that she is trying to bring in more minority teachers with whom the students can relate, and hoping that teachers can tailor lessons to fit the needs of all their students instead of keeping pace with the most advanced. But she said the most important change in the school had to occur within the students themselves. “It’s the whole concept of capturing kids’ hearts,” she explained. “There are some kids that are going to get it. But there are some kids that we need to give it to them, and give it to them, and then call them in and give it to them again.”

But King added that success is impossible if the school is calling in students, but leaving parents outside. “We may not be doing a good enough job to make [parents] welcome. I want to break those walls down. I want to get them in here.” Sub-school principal Esther Manns, the chairman of the Minority Student Achievement Committee, echoed these words. “If parents are involved, we know that directly impacts how well their students are going to do,” she said. “We have to do some things in order to validate [parents] and say, ‘You’re welcome. We want you here. We want you involved.’”

King said the school plans to draw as many parents as possible to a Minority Student Achievement Night and to explore the formation of a Hispanic Parent Coalition with the Hispanic population of nearby Good Shepherd Catholic Church. Manns said she was encouraged by the large parent attendance at the “meet and greet” the school hosted last week for its new principal. “I think we’re off to a good start,” she said. “Our meet and greet was just outstanding.” Manns credited King’s 11-year tenure at the school for the high attendance. Dean Norton, Mount Vernon’s new PTSA president also cited King’s popularity at the school. “We want her to have some smooth sailing,” he said, adding that helping King implement her policies would be the PTSA’s focus for the year. “That’s going to be my main mission. Making sure we can do everything possible to take the school in the course [King] chooses.”