Staying Ahead of the Class

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale, center, visits a Chinese class at Marshall High School with Ian Adams, left, and Max Liu.
Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale, center, visits a Chinese class at Marshall High School with Ian Adams, left, and Max Liu. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

The leader of the region's largest school system marshaled educators across Virginia to challenge a federal testing mandate for immigrant students that he calls unfair. He persuaded Fairfax County officials to move toward full-day kindergarten in all schools. And he launched initiatives to expand the teacher work year and boost the caliber of instruction in classrooms that need it most.

All the while, Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale has forgone the fiery rhetoric of his predecessor in favor of teamwork and consensus. The former math teacher, who is an imposing 6 feet 5 inches tall, has studiously cultivated a low public profile in one of the most demanding education jobs in the nation.

But the spotlight is moving toward Dale midway into his third year, whether he likes it or not, and it might intensify. On Thursday, the School Board is expected to extend his contract, currently set to expire in 2008, for two years.

Parents, educators and public officials say they are watching closely as Dale faces major decisions at the helm of a system with 164,000 students, 187 schools and a $2.1 billion annual budget.

As county supervisors predict the smallest school budget growth in a generation, it is up to Dale to get schools the resources they need. He hopes to make it possible to achieve lofty goals such as having every high school graduate speak a second language and understand connections between world cultures.

He also faces a possible showdown with the federal government over a testing rule for students learning English as a second language that he thinks sets them up for failure. On Monday, Virginia educators lobbied the U.S. Department of Education for more time to develop an alternative English reading test. If federal officials don't relent, Dale said, he's willing to risk sanctions for the school system under the No Child Left Behind law.

Daniel L. Duke, a University of Virginia education professor and author of a history of Fairfax schools, said Dale's quiet approach in his first two years has made him a good fit for the highly regarded system. Rather than splashy overhauls, he said, Fairfax schools need targeted efforts to help struggling students and fresh ways to push the brightest children.

The affluent county has SAT scores and a graduation rate among the highest in the nation for large school systems. Under Dale, participation in Advanced Placement classes has risen overall and among black and Hispanic students.

Enrollment growth has stalled, but there are continual demographic shifts in schools serving immigrant families. State test scores show that many black and Hispanic students lag behind their white and Asian peers, as is the case elsewhere, but gaps are narrowing in some grades.

"Jack is the right person for the time," Duke said. "The major issues are the achievement gap and maintaining success, and those are not issues where his visibility is going to be an issue."

But School Board member Kaye Kory (Mason) predicts that Dale will begin taking stronger public positions. "Fairfax schools could look very different in a year or two," Kory said, "and a lot of it depends on how Jack moves forward."

Creating Space for Learning

Dale, 57, who makes $266,292 a year, came to Fairfax in 2004 after serving eight years as superintendent of a smaller and less diverse system in Frederick County, Md. The Fairfax School Board was tired of squabbling with county supervisors and picked someone who advocated "the carrot approach instead of the stick approach," said board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill).

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