Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza, who’s only been on the job since July, is in the midst of a “listening tour” at area schools to hear from the community about their issues and concerns.
At the most recent session, at JEB Stuart High School Nov. 6, parents and teachers called upon Garza to take into account the demographics and needs of schools in Mason District.
One parent asked Garza to address the lack of capacity in Mason schools, noting that Bailey’s Elementary School is way over capacity and other schools in the area are overcrowded, too. Garza acknowledged the problem. She said FCPS needs 134 classrooms a year but is only adding 74 annually.
“We have a solution for Bailey’s that is within reach and imminent,” Garza said. That solution is the conversion of an office building at 6245 Leesburg Pike into a five-story school, she explained later. The school board had been considering acquiring that building through eminent domain, but probably won’t have to do that route now because “the owners are cooperating with us.”
“Cluster 3 [which encompasses the Annandale, Stuart, and Woodson pyramids] is not like the rest of Fairfax County. Our challenges are very different,” said Kathy Ryan, president of the Annandale High School PTSA. AHS students come from more than 70 countries and speak more than 50 languages.
FCPS policies need to be adjusted to meet the needs of families in the Annandale/Mason area, and FCPS needs to have greater awareness of the digital divide, she said. For example, many Annandale High School families don’t have email accounts, so messages from teachers go unread.
People who choose to stay in this area want to preserve the sense of community we have, said Emily Slough, the former AHS PTSA president, who feels the community’s needs were neglected in the past, such as during the boundary change approved by the school board in 2011.
Lyn Petrazzuolo, a Falls Church High School parent, said schools inside the beltway are neglected when it comes to facility improvements. Our schools have been left to deteriorate for 50 years, while FCPS is building “taj mahals” in more affluent areas, she said. “Our students deserve the same as everyone else.”
Falls Church PTSA President Joan Daly urged Garza to revise the criteria for determining when schools get renovated to take “academic equity” into account. She said the science labs at Falls Church are so obsolete and inadequate that students can’t do the required lab work.
“I do appreciate the needs of diverse schools,” Garza said. “Equity doesn’t mean equal; sometimes it means more.”
“We are so fortunate to have the quality of schools we have here,” said Garza, who came to Fairfax County after serving as an elementary school teacher, principal, administrator and superintendent in Texas.
But, she said, the system is facing “daunting challenges” as it figures out how deal with a $140.7 million budget shortfall.
The deficit results from several uncontrollable factors, she said: enrollment growth of 2,500 to 3,000 students a year, the need to bid on a new health insurance contract which will cost an additional $27 million, a $21 million reduction in state funding due to adjustments in the local composite index, and a state mandate requiring the school system to cover the full cost of the Virginia Retirement System, which will increase the FCPS contribution from $37 million to $80 million next year.
Garza will seek a larger share of the Fairfax County budget from the Board of Supervisors, but the system will still need to make significant budget cuts. Meanwhile, she would like to see the county support a long-term solution so FCPS won’t need to have annual discussions about budget cuts.
As part of that effort, Garza has assembled a committee of 70 citizens to design “a portrait of a Fairfax County Public Schools graduate.” The group will identify the skills students need to succeed and how schools can be designed to ensure that students will have these skills. That proposal will be submitted to the school board in January. The board will refine it as part of a strategic planning exercise.
The community's priorities
When members of the public were given a chance to raise their concerns at the Stuart meeting, both Garza and Mason School Board member Sandy Evans paid attention, often promising to look into the issue. Here are some of the other comments brought up by parents, teachers, community members, and in a couple of cases, students:
- Start high school later in the day because youths who are sleepy in class are less productive. Evans said the school board is committed to addressing this issue. A consultant hired by the board to study how to implement later start times will submit recommendations in January.
- When addressing the budget cuts, don’t raise class sizes for special education students. FCPS might have to look at class size, Garza said, but should deal with it in a more nuanced way, rather than across the board. There shouldn’t be any elementary school classes with more than 30 students, she said.
- Several people had concerns with the International Baccalaurate (IB) program. IB students at Stuart have to take classes after-school or in the summer to meet the requirements for an IB diploma, and can’t take the electives they want.
- A teacher at Poe Middle School said teachers should be treated with more respect and any budget cuts should not affect teacher raises. “We are professionals,” he said, and “the public doesn’t understand what we do and how hard we work.” Garza said the Board of Supervisors recognizes the need to raise teacher salaries and the school board is committed to that. “My budget will have step increases. You can count on that,” she said.
- The school calendar should include Muslim holidays.
- The school system should provide more options for online learning.
- The school system should take action to close the achievement gap.
- Parents weren’t informed about a new fence surrounding Glen Forest Elementary School. The fence blocks pedestrian access and forced a school bus stop to be moved to a dangerous intersection.
- There is too much emphasis on math and science and not enough on the humanities and the arts.
- Don’t cut the language immersion program, because it helps balance the population at schools like Bailey’s. The immersion program is not being considered for cuts, Garza said. The Foreign Language for Elementary Schools (FLES) program could be cut but might resurface in another form, she said, adding, FCPS is committed to foreign language instruction.
- A teacher at Stuart urged Garza not to cut the AVID program because it gives students the motivation to consider college and the skills to succeed in high school.
- Students in the middle—who are not high achievers nor eligible for special services—are neglected. All high school students should be assigned a mentor to look out for their interests.
- To ensure equity, teachers should be paid more if they work at a school with large numbers of disadvantaged students.
- The temporary library in an office building on Leesburg Pike—which is being used until the Wilson Library renovation is completed—is hard to get to safely. Crossing Leesburg Pike is dangerous.
- Requiring students to use an online textbook is unfair. A lot of families don’t have a computer in the house or have only one that several people share.
- Consider the needs of special education students in the portrait of a graduate.
- Students need to be taught responsibility, ethics, and values, as well as academic subjects.
- Students who get straight As for four quarters should get some sort of recognition, a middle school student suggested.
- Don’t cut Head Start or other preschool programs.
- Put more of an emphasis on career and technical programs in high schools and also dual enrollment programs, which allow high school students to earn college credits.