“How administrators killed a Fairfax school’s math success.” This was the headline over Jay Matthew’s Education column in Monday’s Washington Post. The column was particularly painful for me to read because J.E.B. Stuart is my high school. The essence of the story is that administrators under former Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Dale eliminated innovative and successful math programs that had enabled Stuart students to dramatically improve math SOL test scores. Why? The School Board was told that FCPS could no longer afford it. I was a member of the FCPS School Board at that time. I protested then and still agree with the characterization by former Stuart teacher, Stu Singer, that this was “education malpractice that can only be described as unconscionable.” Certainly there are other of versions of the story. But the fact remains, math scores went up while the innovative curriculum was in place and dropped when that initiative was terminated. The current Principal says scores are going back up. I hope so… but my point is broader.
My three children graduated from Stuart. [Full disclosure: two were taught math by Stu Singer] I became a Stuart parent in 1989 and graduated along with my youngest child in 2005. In 1991 I accompanied my son to Fairfax High School to participate in his new driver’s license award ceremony. As we walked into the spacious atrium my son asked “ Is this a private school? It’s so nice!” When I replied that it was a public school, just like Stuart, he responded, “Why is our school so run-down? Well, I guess they just don’t think we are worth it.” Good question and very sad conclusion highlighting the lack of support and attention from the ‘powers that be’.
This exchange and others with families at Sleepy Hollow and Baileys Elementary Schools and Glasgow Middle School had a tremendous impact on me. Too many kids were spending too much time going to school in trailers and dilapidated schools with leaking roofs, sewer back-ups and cafeterias so small that lunch periods started almost at first bell. Worried parents’ initial contacts with the FCPS staff and School Board were less than helpful. Our frustration sent us on a collision course with the FCPS superintendent and the School Board. Our “demand” was for immediate redress of the documented gross historical funding inequities for schools in our part of the county—most obvious in the shameful state of school buildings. Propelled by this injustice, I ran for the School Board in 1999 and spent the next 10 years fighting this fight, with other School Board Members, with FCPS staff and with the Board of Supervisors. Unfortunately, these inequities persist to this day. Baileys is so overcrowded that it is the largest elementary school in Virginia and three generations of school children have been taught in the same trailers. The FCPS/Fx County response? No agreement could be reached to renovate and expand existing publicly-owned facilities, leaving the current solution to purchase and rebuild an office building across Route 7 from Seven Corners shopping center to house part of that student body.
Of course, facilities funding is just the beginning of the list of needs for schools with more than 50% of students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch. During the 90’s some of the older parts of our County (such as the 38th) saw dramatically increasing student populations of low income, minority and limited English-speakers. Success with these students requires significant additional funding for extra time and support in the classroom, and creative academic approaches like the Stuart Math program; as well as principals who are comfortable making tough but fair demands on students, teachers and administrators, especially their own administrators, up to and including the School Board.
Success for our students is really all about performance. If we demand the necessary resources and demand the student success the resources make possible, we know that student performance improves.
Performance—at least in education– is all about measurement. Virginia was ahead of the curve with its investment in the Virginia Standards of Learning in the 90’s. The Commonwealth attempted to establish consistent standards that could be linked to funding. Unfortunately, the “No Child Left Behind” agenda was an injection of steroids into an initially modest effort. We have now come almost full circle from imposing too many high-stakes standardized tests to such strong negative grassroots outcry that the General Assembly quickly realized the political value of cutting the number of mandated tests. I too voted to lighten the heavy load.
But, we are still ignoring public education’s most critical problem –not enough money. The General Assembly made the good decision to eliminate some required tests, but did not allocate the necessary resources for student success. The Fx BOS made the good decision to scrutinize education funding, but did not allocate the dollars needed to keep pace with our burgeoning student population. The School Board has decided to provide the high quality education that every child deserves, but shrinks from allocating dollars where they are most lacking.
We have also come full circle with the story of JEB Stuart High School. Many people worked incredibly hard to build a high-performing school in a state-of-the-art building. Many children performed higher than was commonly expected of them. Subsequently resources were taken away and talented staff lost. Performance has dramatically declined and the building is now over-crowded.
It will be a long hard climb before Stuart is again on high-performing academic ground. We have all failed JEB Stuart. Maybe ‘they’ really don’t think Stuart students are ‘worth it’. Maybe Jay Matthews is right that “..no school is safe from what happened to Stuart High.”