School office doesn’t always have the answers

Jay Mathews
Columnist August 22, 2012

The beginning of the school year is full of misunderstandings between the parents of newly arrived students and the people in charge. Take, for instance, the case of Donna C. Reid, whose son soon will start ninth grade at Chantilly High School in Fairfax County.

Chantilly is an exceptional school, with a passing rate on Advanced Placement exams that is three times the national average. But like all schools, it sometimes fails to communicate well with parents and students, as Reid discovered when she tried to get her son’s new class schedule.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Reid and her family have been looking forward to the Chantilly High chapter of their lives. She wanted to make sure everything went right. Rocky Run Middle School always mailed home the course schedule for the year so her son could study it before the first day of school. “Naturally, it alleviated the anxiety of trying to figure out where to go on the first day of school, which is already chaotic enough,” Reid said.

She was unpleasantly surprised, then, when she found out Chantilly does not mail out class schedules. If students want the schedule early they must pick it up in person the week before school starts. If the student is out of town that week, he is out of luck. To Reid that meant “increasing the anxiety level for a rising ninth grader and risking the possibility of being late to all classes that first day.” It is easy to get lost in a school with 2,600 students.

The week before school is the traditional time for the Reid family summer vacation at the beach. Like many families, they prefer that week because rentals are often half the usual rate.

So, Reid said, she called and “asked if we could get his schedule before we left town.” The word she got from the person who answered the phone was that “they would not allow us to come pick it up, even though the office is open,” she said. “When I asked why we couldn’t just get it early, the answer was that they don’t make exceptions.”

This left Reid with many unanswered questions, which she passed on to me: “Why does the school require students to pick up their schedules? Why aren’t they sent in the mail just as they are in middle and elementary school?

It didn’t take much time to get the answers. That suggests that people like Reid and me who instinctively call the school office whenever we have a question should consider more modern means of communication. I e-mailed Reid’s message to Fairfax County schools spokesman John Torre. He forwarded it to Chantilly Principal Teresa Johnson and got back to me right away with the answers.

Reid’s son couldn’t pick up the master schedule before their vacation because it wouldn’t be ready by then, Johnson revealed. The school doesn’t mail the schedules because of the cost and because errors are detected and corrected more quickly if students pick them up and look them over at school.

The principal said the school would have been happy to e-mail the schedule to Reid if she notified a counselor or assistant principal, or they could have told the school in writing that a friend would pick it up.

I call many high schools each year when I compile my annual Challenge Index list. The people who answer are unfailingly polite, but often they don’t have the answers I need. Principals (or their secretaries) always do, so I have built a large collection of their e-mail addresses. Those of us who always want to call the office should know that principal e-mail addresses in this area are easy to find on the Web, except in Alexandria and Falls Church.

Will the principal quickly respond to your query? If not, let me know and I will ask why.

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