April 19, 2013

Moving to a new community can be tough. In the old days, a Welcome Wagon hostess used to show up at your door, offering coupons, an armload of coat hangers and advice on finding a dentist or enrolling the kids in school.

Today, sadly, the official Welcome Wagon is no more. But with Karen Garza slated to take over as superintendent of the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), I thought I’d offer my own Welcome Wagon basket: three tips that might ease her transition.

“Public schools” mean, well, public schools. Several years ago, a downstate candidate for governor was talking to a Northern Virginia business leader. He kept saying things that denigrated public education. Finally, the business leader said, “You know, we actually send our kids to public schools here.”

People who come to Fairfax County from other parts of the country sometimes find that surprising. But over the years, our schools have remained the reason people put up with the terrible traffic.

Fairfax County residents seem genuinely excited to welcome the new superintendent. “It’s a girl!” one neighbor said to me. So Garza should know that she can draw on a deep well of expertise and enthusiasm. And she should also remember that somewhere in the county lives the world’s leading expert on nearly anything.

Mind the achievement gap. When we say students do well in FCPS, we are not always talking about every student. Achievement gaps exist.

Last fall, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology admitted 480 students to its class of 2017. But the breakdown of student demographics is depressing. Last school year, the school offered admission to seven African American students, but this year, the number dropped to five. That means that African Americans, who make up 10 percent of the overall student population in FCPS, will account for just 1 percent of the freshman class at Thomas Jefferson.

Enrollment for Latino students increased slightly at the school — from 13 to 15. But even with that small increase, Latino students will represent just 3 percent of the freshman class, while they make up 22 percent of the overall student population.

Admission to Jefferson is important not only because it’s a terrific school but also because it’s a symbol of high achievement in Fairfax County. There is plenty of other evidence that there is a significant achievement gap for African American and Latino students in Fairfax County. Fortunately, Garza comes to Fairfax with a reputation for addressing achievement gaps and narrowing them. She can expect a warm welcome for making the same effort here.

Forget NIH. No, not the National Institutes of Health. Inside FCPS, “NIH” stands for “not invented here.”

Fairfax County has a very good school system. But it’s not the only good school system in the country. And, frankly, we could benefit from learning a few lessons from outside our borders.

The Arlington schools, right next door, offer a great example of how to respond to today’s suburban parents. It has a wide variety of choices inside the public school system. From Arlington Traditional School to a Montessori program at Drew Model Elementary School to language-immersion schools to a science-focused school, Arlington parents have a wealth of options.

When I served on the school board in the 1990s, Fairfax was headed down that path. But for a variety of reasons — including, let’s be honest, declining budgets — the system has backed away from creating schools with specializations. If Garza wants to keep welcoming parents to the public schools, I hope she’ll know that revisiting this policy would be welcome indeed.

Fairfax citizens want our new superintendent to be successful. We want her to make our good schools even better. Because ensuring that our schools remain world-class institutions is something we will always welcome.

Finally, Dr. Garza, about the traffic: It’s really bad. The Transportation Institute from your home state of Texas ranks our area’s traffic as the worst in the country. So when you’re going to a board meeting, visiting a school or heading out to a community meeting, leave early — leave really early.

The writer, senior vice president for the think tank Education Sector, was a member of the Fairfax County School Board from 1991 to 2000 and chairman of the board from 1996 to 1998.