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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Annandale stakeholders consider needs of local youths

Youths walk along Medford Drive in Annandale.
After several meetings, the Annandale Youth Engagement Community Planning Group has come up with lots of good ideas, but which ones should they focus limited resources on? What do young people really need? What assets already exist in the community? And should they develop a long-term or short-term project, or both? Those are some of the questions the group discussed at its April 24 meeting.

The planning group, facilitated by the Fairfax County Department of Community and Neighborhood Services, consists of people from various aspects of the Annandale community: students, the police department, nonprofits, religious organizations, businesses, neighborhood groups, and others.

For committee member Rev. Clarence Brown, senior pastor at the Annandale United Methodist Church, the key questions should be “what do young people want? And what would they be excited about?” He suggested the students members conduct an informal survey of their peers.

One short-term project proposed the group’s co-chair, Steve Lee, is a “taste of Annandale” event, organized with student input, that could not only bring the community together but help raise funds for a longer-term project. Committee members appeared to like that idea but also expressed an interest in doing something more long term.

Lee invited Fairfax County School Board Chair Ilryong Moon to the meeting to give his perspective on youth issues.

Moon said the recent suicide of a Woodson High School student underscores the need to “reach out to youth.” Ethan Griffith, 17, jumped to his death from a parking deck. The prevalence of youth suicide “saddens me,” Moon said, but there is no easy answer.

The school board had formed a committee to recommend changes to the FCPS discipline policies following complaints that the current policies are too harsh. An overly punitive response to another Woodson student’s behavior issue, in fact, was blamed on his suicide just over two years ago. That student’s father, Steve Stuban, chairs the Ad Hoc Community Committee on Student Rights and Responsibilities.

According to Moon, there is conflict within the committee between FCPS staff and parents around two key issues: whether parents should be notified before a student who violates the rules is questioned or asked to give a statement and whether the school system should take a more lenient approach to students involved with a first-time drug-related offense.

The committee is supposed to release its final recommendations in May. Lee, who is also a member of that committee, said he was disappointed that only a handful of parents showed up at public outreach meetings.

Moon said he’s been thinking about youth engagement for a long time. When his parents moved to Northern Virginia from Korea in 1974 when he was 17, he found it difficult making friends with non-Korean teens. Even though Annandale is much more diverse than it was back then, “that pattern still remains,” he said. Whether because of outside impediments or because people choose to stay within their own group, it’s still hard to form diverse social connections.

“I truly believe in the strength of diversity,” he said. “By bringing people together, we can make Annandale better.” He suggested a program to encourage retirees to serve as mentors to help families from other countries learn about American culture and help them improve their English language skills.

One of the students in the planning group, Lena Noor, an Annandale High School graduate now at George Mason University, said mentors are important, because young people are more likely to accept advice when it comes from someone other than a parent. Noor suggested young people be encouraged to take part in community service projects. AHS student Alex Lewis agreed that is a good idea but said it would be difficult to get teens to do it.

Moon expressed disappointment in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ decision to approve a budget for next year that provides $32 million less for FCPS than requested. Figuring out how to cut $32 million is going to be a “difficult challenge,” he said, noting that salaries will be frozen.

The school board voted unanimously April 18 to hire Karen Garza as the new superintendent. She will officially start work July 1, but Moon said she will begin meeting with staff and groups of constituents earlier.

According to Moon, there was some discussion among the board over whether Garza’s previous position, as superintendent of the 30,000-student Lubbock, Texas, school system, qualifies her to lead FCPS, the nation’s 11 largest district with 181,500 students. But Moon noted that before heading the Lubbock system, she was the number-two person at the Houston public schools, the nation’s seven largest district, with 200,000 students.

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