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Garza Holds Listening Tour

Schools Superintendent visits Cooper Middle School in McLean.

“My primary goal is to be out in the schools as much as possible.”

-- Schools Superintendent Karen Garza

Superintendent Comes to McLean

Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Karen Garza, Ph.D., held a Listening Tour on Saturday, Dec. 7, at Cooper Middle School in McLean where more than 100 residents of the Dranesville District shared their concerns about local schools. The meeting, which was attended by local teachers, principals and parents, included School Board Rep. Janie Strauss (Dranesville).

In the five-and-a-half months she’s been in power, Garza has visited 52 schools in the county. When she conducts meetings, she stresses “Pride, Concern and Hope” over the challenges she faces.

Garza oversees a $2.5 billion budget – where $500 million goes to the central office and about $2 billion goes directly to supporting classrooms. That translates to about $13,564 cost per pupil (FY-2013). She calls the $137 million, real-projected deficit a “real challenge.” The cause for the deficit is that revenues have not kept pace with growing enrollment and increasing costs. The county currently has 184,625 students and enrollment has been growing by more than 15,000 students over the past five years.

Garza said we need to be creative, looking at schedules and course offerings – and “how do we redesign ourselves.” She said she will avoid student programming, and on Jan. 9, she will present the new budget to the Board of Supervisors.

Garza hails from Lubbock, Texas, and oversaw two school systems in Houston. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, she organized the 8,500 students seeking refuge in Texas schools in just a few days.

ONE BY ONE residents took to the microphone at Cooper Middle School as Garza listened to their issues. The No. 1 concern was classroom overcrowding – what Garza said was the “most pressing challenge.” The actual FCPS class sizes are: 29 students in first grade; 30 in second grade; and 35 in fourth grade.

One P.E. teacher said she has 44 students in one class, and cited safety as a major concern. As a result, she has to incorporate “creative techniques” to adapt. One parent lamented how her daughter’s gym class consists of “sitting on the line,” waiting for her turn to participate in activities.

Another parent said it’s time to establish caps on classroom class size. “Large classrooms deprive them of a quality baseline education,” she said.

Garza agreed, saying she spends a lot of time on the overcrowding issue. “Our money has gotten tighter and tighter over time. There’s not a lot of fluff left over.” She said the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors controls the money decisions, with about 15 percent of school funding coming from the state. She told parents to talk to their elected officials about how much money should be allotted for schools.

An art teacher said that school art programs are slowly becoming “dismantled,” and former art galleries that once displayed students’ artwork have been converted into spirit-wear stores.

One parent pushed for more funding for special-ed programs, especially with autism on the rise, and teachers having limited resources. “Special-ed should not be cut with the rise in autism,” she said.

Another parent said large class sizes “impede access” for children with special needs, and kids with disabilities like ADHD are “getting lost in the system,” and require that parents spend money on private tutors.

Another parent complained how student’s progress reports (report cards) focus more on student behavior than on academic metrics.

Garza praised the county’s FLES foreign language program that’s currently offered in 40 out of 140 schools. She touted 47 percent of Fairfax County graduates who are fluent in a second language.

Marsha Sharon, a former special-ed teacher who transferred to teaching FLES, added: “I’d hate to see this wonderful program gone … It’s a global world now.”

Regarding the early 7:25 a.m. start time, student Robert Miller said he doesn’t want to change it because getting home from school later will allow him less time to do homework. A parent agreed, saying to leave the bell schedule alone or he’ll have to pay for 20 extra minutes of early childcare due to his demanding work schedule.

ONE PARENT lamented about teacher’s heavy workload, saying teachers are spending more time on administrative tasks and working more hours without extra pay. “Seventy percent of the teachers at McLean High have to have second jobs,” she said. “They’re being asked to do more and more for less -- in larger classrooms.”

Garza is proud of her ongoing “Portrait of a Graduate,” where a committee of 70 stakeholders is drafting a document to communicate their expectations for the school system – a tool that will help measure learning and teaching. “This is what our community expects of our schools,” she said. “It will help us craft conversations,” she said of the draft, which is due in February.

And as for goals, Garza said: “My primary goal is to be out in the schools as much as possible.”