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Commentary: The Children Fairfax Shouldn’t Leave Behind

It’s the beginning of a new school year, and we in Fairfax are justifiably proud of our schools, which we proclaim are “among the best in the nation.” But what we don’t discuss enough is whether they are the best for all of our children.

When we measure FCPS’s success, we often talk about the number of AP classes taken, high SAT scores and admissions to the best colleges and universities. These “US News and World Report” statistics measure how high our best students can go, but what about the rest? We have a minority student achievement gap. It’s narrowing but is still significant. Last year Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) reported that approximately 40 percent of FCPS graduates attending NVCC needed remedial help in either math and/or English. NVCC has helped reduce this gap by imbedding guidance counselors in Fairfax high schools to work with many students, beginning in their junior year—if not sooner, to ensure they are taking the right classes to be college ready. It may be time for FCPS to focus more on these youth as well.

Further, 40 percent of all disciplinary cases that reach the Hearings Office involve students with special needs, even though they comprise only 14 percent of the student population. Does that reflect a school system using the disciplinary process to avoid a more robust accommodation and Individualized Education Program (IEP) process that includes parents in decision-making? Many parents (myself included) who have tried to navigate the IEP process for children with learning disabilities have found the process overly bureaucratic and seemingly geared toward getting test scores that make FCPS look good, rather than making sure all students are learning.

Compounding matters is a challenging demographic picture that is not always adequately considered and calls out for a reexamining of priorities. One-quarter of the student body receives free or reduced priced lunches (a measure of poverty) and one-third are from homes in which one of 150 languages other than English is the primary language spoken. Yet last year, among FCPS’s priorities for new spending were expanding the advanced academic and world languages (teaching foreign language in the first grade) programs. These programs have noble goals, but they primarily help those who are already doing well. Instead, what about more English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for students and parents? Parents who can’t speak English can’t help their children with homework or communicate with teachers, making it more difficult for their children to succeed. Or what about more help for special needs students and for children living in or near poverty, whose parents can’t afford tutors or even a learning-based preschool?

Sure, it’s nice to make the cover of US News. But the real measure of success should be whether all our students are getting a solid education that provides them with true opportunity in a competitive world.