Letter: Where's School System's Focus?

Letter: Where's School System's Focus?

To the Editor:

Re: "Into the Budget Fray," Mount Vernon Gazette, Jan. 23.

So the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman, "... shall from time to time give to ..." the citizens of Fairfax County, "... information of the State of the ..." County? In my 14 years here I had not yet come across this. It was a pleasant, anodyne read, though it reflected the near-universal tendency in government communications to effect a mildly self-important tone, use many words where few - or none - would suffice, and to trot out tired metaphors regarding the rolling up (never down ...) of sleeves. Still it is good to read of progress, however incremental. I learned again of the Beltway Express lanes, which allow, for example, drivers from points south and east to speed along to gridlock in points north and west. For the first time I learned that that hulking relic of bad ā€˜70sā€™ design (redundant, I know ...), the Springfield Mall, has been newly renovated.

I was thus in a mildly somnolent state when I passed over the first of Superintendent Garza's remarks. I snapped awake at the second, and rounded back on the first. I was - and remain - alarmed.

Have we so lost our moorings that the superintendent has to appear to wonder aloud, "... what our community expects of its schools"? Really ...? Whether our "community" knows it or not, a school provides - or should - an education. Not to sound hopelessly 19th century in this era where something called "21st century skills" is all the rage, begin with reading, writing, and arithmetic, and proceed from there ... to higher levels of these basics ... to the arts and sciences ... to the trades ... include athletics in the mix, and so forth. Does anyone not know this ...?

In the face of declining budgets, the superintendent seems pleased to announce that one of her "big projects" is to employ a "broad-based community committee to develop the "Portrait of a Graduate." Apologies for repeating myself, but ... really? Does she - and we - really not know what it means to be a high school graduate? Again, are we so adrift?

I'm not a "broad-based community committee," but I know that a high school graduate is someone who can function in the world after high school. No doubt the committee will eventually - and tortuously - arrive at the conclusion that the "portraits" will vary. To cite just a few examples out of what is an incredibly broad spectrum of students, those who wish to go on to university should be provided a solid grounding in the liberal arts; those heading for the trades should be prepared for - and begin - apprenticeships; those who would like to start a chain of pet food stores should get a mix of the first two; those who wish to take advantage of the promise of the internet should be given ample opportunity to learn computer coding ... and some mix of the first two; and so forth ... Additionally, all should be prepared to vote intelligently.

It's really not that difficult to define what a high school graduate should be. FCPS high schools, to the extent that they can exert influence on the outcome, will achieve this ideal to greater and lesser degrees. A motivated student, imbued by his parents with a work ethic, sense of responsibility, and knowledge of the value of education, will, under the tutelage and care of FCPS, achieve success both as a student, and in later life. For the unmotivated student, imbued with little of the above, FCPS can offer the same path; some will take it, a disappointing number will not. However well-intentioned, no long lists of action items from interminable committee and sub-committee meetings will change these outcomes.

I have little doubt that Superintendent Garza really does know what a community expects from its schools, and could, unaided, paint a portrait or two of a successful graduate. Why then, in this roll-up-one's-sleeves era of apparently inadequate budgets, are she and her staff expending precious resources seeking answers to questions long since answered, and otherwise engaging in, and - more importantly - nurturing a culture that tolerates such collective navel-gazing? More practical thinking is required. Schools have one mission: to educate. To do this, they need teachers who can pass information, some measure of knowledge, the occasional pearl of wisdom, and perhaps even a note or two of Bach's into the brains of their charges. They need a basic support structure - shelter, lunch, electricity, etc. - in which teachers ... teach. As the budget process moves forward, Superintendent Garza and her staff need to fund, as best they can, those things which directly support the mission, eliminate those which do not, and recognize that they can not cure all the ills of society. She does not need to expend further energy seeking that which is already manifestly evident.

John Fagan, Alexandria