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Parents: Board Lacks Communication

Storck hosts town hall meeting on educational issues.

From left: Supervisor Gerald Hyland, Mount Vernon School Board member Daniel Storck and At Large School Board member Ted Velkoff.

From left: Supervisor Gerald Hyland, Mount Vernon School Board member Daniel Storck and At Large School Board member Ted Velkoff.

— At a town hall-style education meeting at Whitman Middle School on Nov. 7, parents and advocates expressed their disappointment with the new online math and social studies textbook program.

Superintendent of Schools Jack Dale, responding to community complaints, admitted that the Fairfax County Public Schools had probably moved too fast and underestimated the continuing need for traditional books and it needs to rethink the process so that all groups of students would have equal access and capability to take advantage of the move to online math and social studies textbooks.

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Photo by Gerald A. Fill

Deborah Tyler, assistant superintendent and Jack Dale, superintendent of schools.

The overarching concern by the community was its dismay at the lack of communication and involvement by parents and teachers with the School Board regarding instructional and other policy changes.

Mount Vernon Council of Citizens Associations Education Committee chair Judy Harbeck said the concerns voiced by the attendees about “e-questions” were of particular importance. She and the MVCCA Education Committee have long been concerned about the “digital divide” and its effect on access to learning. She predicted that the equity, access, and policy concerns voiced by parents about the newly established online math and social studies textbooks would not lend itself to quick fixes as they will affect “instructional efficacy, budget issues, and community access to information and services” over the long run.

The panel included Dale, School Board member Daniel Storck, Supervisor Gerald Hyland, At-Large School Board member Ted Velkoff, and Deborah Tyler, Cluster IV assistant superintendent.

MORE THAN A YEAR AGO West Potomac parents and then other parents elsewhere in the county complained about the lack of communication by the FCPS with parents and teachers when changes in the Honors Curricula were being made, and the impact on students. It became a 2011 election issue. Now, a year later, lack of effective communication outreach has once again become a Mount Vernon area community concern.

Storck’s second annual town hall education meeting pointed toward the need for a more careful outreach approach on a number of pending issues: Superintendent selection process, boundary changes, advanced academic offerings and discipline policy.

Several parents and advocates stated that such a fundamental change in instructional access, and the impact of what one West Potomac parent and advocate Kate Vandyke described as a “sudden switch to online textbooks in math and social studies” was ill advised. “Insufficient attention was given to the impact of the program on a significant number of students who may lack home access to Internet and computers,” said Vandyke. “The precipitous purchase preceded public engagement, research on efficacy, no consultation with teachers or principals, no prior training on use, and no pilot study at a single school before going county-wide.”

Vandyke said the online textbook program was a $7 million “miscalculation” that didn’t include School Board involvement or approval.

State Del. Scott Surovell (D-44) highlighted several issues: the shortfall in funding for supplies, boundary changes and teacher salaries. “Having lived through the birth of West Potomac High School [boundary changes many years ago that resulted in the closing of Fort Hunt High School and combined that high school boundary with Groveton High School], I hope the process is done carefully with maximum community input and transparency. Pending boundary studies will affect Mount Vernon, Hayfield, and West Potomac High Schools, and there is a lot of anxiety about this in my district.

“An issue that I have received constituent feedback on but that I was surprised did not come up in the town hall meeting was student discipline policy. The School Board has delayed a decision on whether or not to institute parental notification requirements and the degree of transparency in the student discipline process. The superintendent and participating School Board members did not comment on this subject and I was disappointed no one in the audience brought it up. Among my fellow state legislators there has been a lot of discussion about this issue.

“There was a lot of questions raised about the gifted and talented and advanced placement and International Baccalaureate program, and effective communication between parents and the FCPS staff will be important as they move forward on changes in this area.

“I was disappointed that the town hall outreach did not result in any attendance by Hispanics, and African-American families were underrepresented. Current minority enrollment at Mount Vernon and West Potomac High School is 40-50 percent of the total student enrollment. We need to do a much better job of minority outreach. We are never going to close the achievement gap if the entire community is not present at meetings like this.”

Vandyke, commenting on the board’s delayed decision to establish an independent auditor reporting to the School Board expressed her concern that the School Board “does not have access to an independent audit process that reports only to them; leaving an over-reliance on feedback filtered through the school staff who have no degree of separation from the programs in question and which they supervise. The School Board needs to stop deferring the addition of such assistance and put it in place.”

Hyland said that he supports placing a referendum on the ballot in the next election cycle to seek community support for establishing a meals tax to help finance education program needs. However, he said that right now the feedback he is getting on the Board of Supervisors is not supportive.

“The questions and concerns raised about future boundary changes, advanced academic programs, curriculum rigor, and many others were well known to me.” Said Storck. “But having the district supervisor, at-large school board member, myself, the superintendent, and the area’s assistant superintendent, in one room to address them first-hand was very helpful to our understanding and getting changes made. The superintendent’s hearing from parents about the need for more new traditional math textbooks and reducing the number of math online textbooks was particularly valuable.” Storck said that the following day at a School Board meeting Dale “identified specific steps that he was taking to correct the problem.” Storck also said that more public meetings to supplement PTA meetings that he attends such as this “could also be beneficial” and intends to revise his schedule to be more accessible to parents and others in the community.