|Stuart High School|
The school got low rankings compared to other Fairfax County high schools on a recent survey of working conditions. In particular, Stuart ranked dead last on many questions in the section on school leadership.
Only 25 percent of Stuart educators agreed that the school leadership is effective, only 23 percent agreed “there is an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect,” 26 percent believe the school leadership consistently supports teachers, and 37 percent agreed that “overall, my school is a good place to work and learn.”
Members of the Stuart community report that large numbers of teachers have left Stuart in recent months. In addition, people who live near Stuart have complained that Calhoun was slow to address vandalism problems in the area caused by students.
There have been several meetings within the school community in recent weeks to discuss the future of Stuart.
“Parents believe Stuart needs new and strong leadership,” says Del. Kaye Kory, who attended an informal community gathering last week. “At this point, it doesn’t matter how good [Calhoun] is, she has lost the confidence of the staff and parents.”
Participants at that meeting agreed to write letters to Superintendent Karen Garza and Mason school board member Sandy Evans urging immediate intervention by FCPS to ensure a fully qualified and complete staff is in place for next fall. They call for more resources to serve the needs of at-risk students, a long-term plan for meaningful improvement, and frequent monitoring and visible support from FCPS.
One letter from a parent to Garza expresses “deep dismay and utter frustration with what is happening at Stuart” and says she is trying to decide whether her child, a rising ninth-grader, should stay at FCPS “in light of the crisis at Stuart.”
The letter asks Garza to “ensure public accountability by establishing a robust plan for ongoing communication about the steps being taken to address the problems at Stuart, especially as they relate to leadership, student discipline, the achievement gap, and teacher morale.”
The officers of the Ravenwood Park Citizens Association sent a letter to Garza and Evans June 4 requesting “a significant commitment from FCPS” to address the situation at Stuart.
“We believe that strong schools are a key part of a healthy community,” the letter states. RPCA expresses concerns that declining SOL scores and graduation rates at Stuart mean many students are not prepared for college or careers and urges the FCPS administration to address the school’s poor leadership.
The problems at Stuart are particularly galling since just a few years ago, the school got national attention for making gains in student achievement despite a student body with high percentages of low-income students. In 2005, then-principal Mel Riddile was named National High School Principal of the Year.
“For a school that received so much recognition just a few years ago, it is amazing how fast a school can fall with poor leadership,” one parent said. Calhoun was named principal in June 2012.
An education column in the Washington Post by Jay Matthews last month recounts how FCPS administrators under former Superintendent Jack Dale eliminated an innovative math program at Stuart that led to high student achievement because the district could no longer afford it.
Kory, a former member of the FCPS school board wrote in the Falls Church News-Press, “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.’” Kory calls for the General Assembly and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to provide more funding for education and urges the school board to direct more resources to the neediest schools.
The FCPS leadership finally responded to parents on June 9, when Cluster 3 Assistant Superintendent Douglas Tyson sent an email stating, “I remain committed to increasing collaboration between the school and the community to correct the specific areas of concern highlighted in the working conditions survey.”
“FCPS is fully committed, from the superintendent through the ranks, in support of the administrative team at Stuart High School,” Tyson says, noting that a retired principal, Bruce Butler, was brought in a few months ago to serve as mentor principal, and Shannon Tully was named a mentor director of student services.
“In addition,” he says in the email, “FCPS increased the security presence at the school, provided additional guidance to the school’s administrative team in developing next year’s master schedule, provided guidance and support in the recruitment and retention of teachers at the school, and offered flexibility to administrators to manage the school day, as needed for the advancement of student achievement.”
According to Tyson, the article in the Washington Post “unfortunately reinforced a number of negative stereotypes about the school which has caused a great deal of concern within the community.”
Tyson noted that Stuart “consistently ranks in the top 5 percent of schools in the country in the Post’s Challenge Index” developed by Matthews. Stuart students posted the highest gains on the 2013 SAT test among all FCPS schools, Stuart’s ACT scores increased in 2013, and Stuart awards the fourth-largest number of IB (International Baccalaureate) diplomas among FCPS schools.
Meanwhile, “Stuart’s demographics are changing dramatically,” Tyson says. Thirty percent of Stuart’s students are limited-English proficient and 62 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
“We do not view these changes as a challenge but, rather, an opportunity—an opportunity to ensure that each student reaches his or her full potential,” he continues. “I am proud of the manner in which Stuart teachers, staff, and administrators have redoubled their efforts to embrace the opportunities before them.”