Friday, October 12, 2012

School Board Update

Dear Friends,
I hope everyone is having a great first quarter of school! I enjoyed spending part of the first day at our brand-new Mason Crest Elementary School and at J.E.B. Stuart High School with Superintendent Jack Dale.

Here's the latest news from the School Board.

Superintendent Search: The most important thing the Board will do this year is hire a new Superintendent to replace Dr. Jack Dale when he retires at the end of this school year. The Board is in the process of reviewing bids from firms that specialize in nationwide searches for school superintendents, and we expect to choose and hire a search firm soon.

Once the search firm is hired, we will start a public engagement process to ask parents, teachers, students and community members to weigh in on the characteristics they want to see in the next Superintendent. That leadership profile will help guide our search.

One of the key questions for this Board will be how public the selection process will be. Some experts advise that confidentiality of candidates is important to drawing in top people to the job. Others say that jurisdictions that have publicized all candidate applications have not suffered for this openness. Another approach is to make public the names of the finalists so the community can have an active part in the final selection. Yet another hybrid approach used elsewhere involves choosing representative members of the community to be part of the final selection process, able to interview finalists while maintaining their confidentiality. I'm happy to hear your views on this issue.

Budget: Our budget experts are again warning us that the next fiscal year will be a difficult one. We continue to see an increase in students, having reached an all-time high of more than 180,000 this school year, and expect another 2,250 next year. This plus new requirements from the state on employee benefits means we will have significant added expenses just to keep programs at current levels. The Board will start discussing how to prioritize our budget at this Monday's work session, and I will be leading that discussion as this year's Budget Chair. To see budget documents we'll be working with, here's a link:

If you'd like to see and hear how the discussion went, now you can because....

Videotaping of Work Sessions: On Sept. 10, we had our test run of videotaping our work sessions, and had our first officially videotaped work session on Sept. 24. I had advocated for videotaping these work sessions for some time, and the Board agreed earlier this year to do so. Why is this important? Much of the Board's deliberations are done at these work sessions (see above on prioritizing the budget), but until now the only way members of the public could see and hear them was to be physically present during the day on Mondays. Recording the work sessions makes them accessible to the public and is important to transparency and community engagement. Our regular Board meetings two Thursday nights a month are shown live on Channel 21 and have been videotaped for awhile.  

You can access the video archive of regular Board meetings and now work sessions by going to this link:

Opt-Out of First Period with Online Courses: Early this year, the Board approved policy changes to allow students to replace their first-period courses with an online course or dual enrollment at local colleges. The rollout of this change has been slow, in part because it came after many students had made course selections. We need to make sure that students and parents are aware of this option, and Dr. Dale assures me that it will be included in the next course catalog as well as communicated to school principals and counselors. While online courses aren't for everyone, and students must provide their own transportation to school if they take advantage of this option, it can help some students get more sleep and better balance their lives.

Ombudsman Proposal: I continue to advocate for an Ombudsman for the school system to help parents and others navigate our very large system and have a clear place to go when they have concerns to deal with. The Board set aside funds for this position and has supported the concept, but at our last work session Board members asked that we look for ways to pull this position together from current resources. I will keep you posted.

Student Discipline/SR&R Committee: The Board last night approved appointees to a 40-member committee to do a comprehensive review of Student Rights and Responsibilities, the document that contains our discipline policies, and it will report back to the Board next March. The committee includes parents, students, school administrators, teachers, and other youth specialists.

The committee will look at several issues the Board voted to postpone, such as stronger and earlier parent notification procedures when a student is in serious trouble and how to handle suspended students during appeals to keep them from missing class time. I was one of five Board members who voted against postponement of action. Nonetheless, I look forward to the conclusions of this committee in March, after which the Board will again consider student discipline issues.

Charter School/Fairfax Leadership Academy: A group of FCPS educators has brought us a proposal for what would be Fairfax County's first charter school, called the Fairfax Leadership Academy, with the goal of serving at-risk students in grades 7-12. The charter would offer a longer (and later) day, year-round classes and a variety of supports. This is an issue of interest to our area particularly, because the FLA is targeting at-risk students in the Stuart, Annandale and Falls Church High School pyramids. The FLA proposal has become controversial at Falls Church High School, because many parents there fear that the proposed location of the school, at the old Graham Road Elementary School building at Graham Rd. and Rte. 50, would draw primarily FCHS students who are already succeeding at that school.

An FCPS Review Committee has recommended that the Board "not accept" the application unless FLA meets a fairly extensive set of requirements by Dec. 1. The Board is supposed to vote on this recommendation on Oct. 25. My own view is that we are not ready to vote on this proposal. There are still too many outstanding questions. I also believe the Board needs to make the final decision on this, yes or no, not leave it to interpretation whether the FLA has met certain requirements. We had a hearing on the FLA application earlier this week that drew more than 40 speakers, and the Board will be discussing the charter school proposal at our Oct. 15 work session. To see the documents on this:

Math Textbooks: We're hearing concerns about how the rollout of the new online math textbooks is going. The Board has heard from parents, students and teachers about difficulties they're having, and I hope we will be addressing this at an upcoming work session. If you have a perspective you'd like to share, please contact me.

Education Summit: Please join me and other FCPS leaders for this year's Education Summit, focused on "Keys to Student Success: What Parents, Educators and Leaders Need to Know." It will be held from 8 am to noon on Saturday, Oct. 20, at Woodson High School. Harvard professor Dr. Ronald Ferguson will share his latest research on parent involvement. Three breakout sessions will address how to motivate your student, structuring your home for school success, and family involvement strategies for busy parents.I'll hope to see you there!

Congratulations to....
Mason Crest Elementary School and Principal Brian Butler for a smooth opening of our new school and a beautiful ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 18. Congressman Gerry Connolly presented the school with a U.S. flag flown over the Capitol on July 4, and the occasion was commemorated by Del. Kaye Kory, Mason DistrictSupervisor Penny Gross and Cluster III Assistant SuperintendentDan Parris

Congratulations, Mason Crest Students and Families!