While it’s great to be back to work after a short August reprieve, the work of the school board never ends when it comes to ensuring that our students are receiving the best education possible. As we continue pursuing this goal, these are the five major initiatives to watch this coming year.
1) Pushing back against the state and federal government
For the past couple of years, the board has become increasingly frustrated with the mandates coming from the state and federal governments. The board believes that the need for accountability and testing has been taken to extremes to the detriment of our students and teachers. Don’t get me wrong—the school board absolutely supports measuring student performance, but we are seeking better measures of student achievement that take more into account than scantron test scores and allow our teachers to embrace creativity in the classroom.
To this end, at our board retreat in July we tasked Superintendent Karen Garza and her leadership team to develop better measures of student achievement over the coming year. Once established, the board will explore how to use to these measures to substitute for today’s SOL testing regime. In addition, the board will use these measures to influence our legislators and seek to transform the national dialogue on education from one that demonizes public schools to one that restores hope in public education for future generations.
2) Teacher workload
Over the past year, with the support of our Superintendent, the board has debated how to best reduce the workload of our teachers so that they can be freed to focus on the needs of students. To give teachers a tangible reduction in workload, we have provided one fully unencumbered day for planning during the week before the start of school, begun centralized scoring of fine arts assessments, and reduced the number of required eCART/Horizon Quarter Assessments.
As we continue to address workload concerns, we have focused on three areas for the coming year. First, to improve leadership oversight, we have tasked Dr. Garza to realign the management, implementation, and communication efforts for initiatives and policies. Second, we are developing new working conditions standards related to time, school leadership, teacher leadership, instructional practices, student conduct, facilities and resources, community support, and professional development. Third, to improve school-level support, we will continue working to help school leaders understand FCPS working conditions survey data and how to determine issues individual communities should address.
3) School start times
It is very likely that this will be the year that the perennial issue of start times will be settled at last. The current board has spent much time discussing and debating the issue, and as a result the board passed a resolution in 2012 that created a board goal to achieve start times after 8:00 a.m. Following that resolution, the board convened the Start Time Action Group (STAG) and hired the Children’s National Medical Center to create a blueprint for change for the system. In the coming months, as soon as the school board receives that blueprint, the board will revisit, and hopefully resolve, the start times issue.
4) Healthy food and drinks
Over the next two months, the board will receive and discuss the results from the contracted study of our Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) program conducted by Prismatic. After reviewing the analysis of and recommendations for improving the quality and delivery of our food and vending services, the board will determine what changes should be implemented.
In addition, the school board has initiated two pilots for the coming year. As part of the renovation of Marshall High School, the board set aside funding for a freshly-prepared food bar, which will include items like salads, soups and sandwiches. The board will also be piloting new soda machines that remove regular soda as an option, but expand healthy beverage options like coconut water, flavored water, V-8, iced tea, and lower-calorie Gatorade at seven schools: Chantilly, Falls Church, Langley, Marshall, Thomas Jefferson and West Potomac high schools and Lake Braddock Secondary School. Throughout the year, we will be monitoring these pilots to determine our options for expansion to other schools.
At the first forum meeting of the school year, the board will vote on whether to create a committee to tackle the multi-pronged issue of internationalization, which includes expanding foreign language programs to all elementary schools, study abroad programs, partnerships with other countries, and engagement with our local ethnic communities and the D.C. diplomatic community. As part of our revision of FCPS Student Achievement Goals in 2012, the board re-committed itself to ensuring that our students graduate as global citizens with proficiency in at least two languages. This is an issue about which I have been passionate for many years, and between 2006 and 2008 I chaired a committee and authored a strategic plan for the University of Virginia on the subject.
In a dynamic community like Fairfax, it is impossible to predict all of the issues that will arise during the 2013-2014 school year, but these five issues will dominate much of the board’s time.
With many system-wide studies coming before the board, including a much-anticipated state-funded school system efficiency review by the Gibson Consulting Group, this school board will be re-examining many concerns on which it sought feedback during its first two years in office. This will make for a very interesting and eye-opening year.
We look forward to hearing from you on these and other issues as the board embarks on its first-ever county-wide listening tour with Superintendent Garza, the dates for which will be announced soon. Have a wonderful school year!
Ryan McElveen is an at-large member of the Fairfax County School Board.