Northern Virginia schools open year with changes ahead


Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza. (Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax County Times)
September 1, 2014

Nearly 400,000 Virginia students in the Washington area are scheduled to return to classes Tuesday morning for the start of the 2014-2015 school year, one that brings with it a number of changes across the region’s school districts.

In Alexandria, T.C. Williams students will begin the year with new city-issued computer tablets; students in Arlington high schools will be able to take American Sign Language courses for the first time; a new superintendent takes the helm for his first school year in Loudoun; and more than 600 teachers joined the Prince William school district’s faculty during the summer.

In Fairfax County, the administration started the year with a new school building, a five-story brick facility that until nine months ago was an office complex.

The conversion will serve as a second campus for Bailey’s Elementary, which in recent years had been known as the county’s most crowded school, with 1,250 children, rivaling the size of some high schools.

The surge in growth at Bailey’s is representative of the school system’s expanding student body. Fairfax expects to enroll 186,785 students this academic year, making it the largest school division in the commonwealth and the 10th biggest in the country.

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As the school system grows, the administration plans to review how it prepares children for the future and could vote on a series of changes that would affect students in the lower grades, particularly the kindergartners of the Class of 2027.

Superintendent Karen Garza, who will begin her second school year leading the district, initiated an overview of the administration’s strategic plan during the fall.

A key element Garza promoted was what she calls the ideal “portrait of a graduate,” a set of skills and attributes that Fairfax graduates should have when they leave the school system for colleges or careers.

In community meetings with parents, teachers and staff last year, Garza said school administrators would like to use the model “portrait” to work backward to help students achieve the best possible outcomes.

The county School Board is scheduled to hear a presentation from Garza on the proposed “portrait of a graduate” Thursday during the first week of school, and members could vote on the matter later in September.

“We developed ‘portrait of a graduate’ to serve as a foundation on which to build a long-range strategic plan for the school system that will lessen the focus on standardized, high-stakes testing,” Garza said.

In a county-produced video promoting the plan, Garza said it will help the school system ensure that students leave with “the skills necessary for success” in a rapidly changing world.

The ideal Fairfax graduate will “engage in the lifelong pursuit of academic knowledge,” according to the school system’s promotional materials.

The desired attributes for students include effective written and oral communication skills and open-minded collaboration with peers to examine “a full range of viewpoints.” They also call for graduates to be “global citizens” who acknowledge “diverse perspectives and cultures” and promote “environmental stewardship.”

Graduates should be creative and critical thinkers who demonstrate “divergent and ingenious thought to enhance the design/build process” and “express thought, ideas, and emotions meaningfully through the arts.” They also should become resilient individuals who persist “to accomplish difficult tasks and to overcome academic and personal barriers to meet goals.”

The “portrait” concept developed under the guidance of a 70-member task force of parents, teachers, principals and local corporate executives. Ken Kay, chief executive of Ed Leader 21, an educational consulting group, was paid $13,494 by the school board to lead the project.

School Board member Janie Strauss (Dranesville), who was one of two board members to serve on the task force, said the review will help the administration better prepare students.

“These are the skills our young people need if they are going to be competitive and lead full and happy lives in this century,” Strauss said.

Fairfax School Board Chairwoman Tammy Derenak Kaufax (Lee) served on the task force and said the “portrait” will help the administration chart a path for the school system’s future.

“It will allow our board to help set priorities,” Derenak Kaufax said. “It will also help our budget process. By having the ‘portrait of a graduate’ as the centerpiece of our plan, it will tell us where we are going. It will tell us what we need to get there.”

Craig V. Mehall, a Fairfax resident and lawyer who served on the task force, said the goal of the review was to determine “what we should be doing to prepare our young folks for life and what tools they need to be successful.”

Mehall, who does not have children in the school system, said the common practice of judging students based on their test scores is “a very narrow view of the individual.”

Strauss said the review is about de-emphasizing the focus on tests that force students to regurgitate information onto bubble sheets.

“We know we are in an era where it’s not what you know but what you can do with what you know,” Strauss said. “We need to get beyond that, because if we are only stuck with factual information, we are wasting energy and time. The content part of curriculum remains important, but if we stop there, we’ve shortchanged our children.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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