Q & A With the Fairfax County Schools Chief
Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2000
Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech was named the head of the Washington area's largest school system in 1997.
Since his last live online appearance, Domenech has helped Dogwood Elementary School students and staff relocate after a fire.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Thanks for joining us today, Supt. Domenech. In a recent Washington Post article, your plan for county road and school needs, to be funded by a sales tax increase, was detailed. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Daniel A. Domenech: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to again answer questions on line. The sales tax increase proposal advanced by Supervisor McConnell and me does give us some hope for meeting our extensive needs. Later this month we will be publishing our new Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). It will outline $1.7 billion in building projects over a ten-year period. We are currently funded for $500 million in bond revenue with little hope of other revenue sources. A penny increase on the local sales tax would generate over $2 billion in a ten-year period. Half of that would be dedicated to our facilities' needs. It seems to us the most viable option for ensuring that the needs of our students and community's investment in our schools will be protected.
Why can't Fairfax County build enough schools fast enough to meet the needs of our growing student population?
My children attend Lane Elementary School. The school, only six years old, has been over capacity since we moved here 3 1/2 years ago. The student population continues to increase by over 100 students every year, and this year, two full grades are in trailers. My son, a sixth grader, eats lunch at 10:30, in a scheduling process necessary to get all students fed before 1 p.m. There is a new townhouse development going in adjacent to the school property that will further increase the school's student body. We are told that the Island Creek elementary school project should be complete within four years, but by that time, students at Lane will likely be eating lunch at 9 a.m. and four grades will be in trailers.
Daniel A. Domenech: You offer a perfect example to support our need for a sales tax increase to generate additional dollars to build, expand, and renovate schools.
Thank you for making yourself available to the public in this forum.
What is your assessment of the AP and IB
programs in Fairfax County Public Schools?
Have you any changes, reforms in the offing?
Daniel A. Domenech: We're very satisfied with the progress we have made in the implementation of the AP and IB programs in our high schools. Almost 50% of our juniors and seniors take either AP or IB, a phenomenal rate of participation. Thanks to this, our high schools score very well on Jay Mathews' Challenge Index in the Washington Post. In essence, we have urged all of our students to take the most challenging curriculum offered in our schools and they have responded. Our teachers have also benefited from the training for these programs.
What are the biggest challenges of your job?
Daniel A. Domenech: I am very proud of our school system. We have great staff and a very supportive community. Unfortunately, our schools are severely underfunded. Next year we face the prospect of cutting programs and services because state and local revenue will not keep up with our expenses which are primarily due to student population growth. There is much that we can and, in some cases, must do for our students. It's frustrating that the richest county in the country can't afford to meet the needs of our students.
You can find information about Jay Mathews's challenge index here.
If your sales tax plan isn't approved, what alternatives are there for reaching your goals of reducing crowding?
Daniel A. Domenech: The County Board of Supervisors currently approves spending $100 million a year on our facility needs. At that rate, it will take 17 years to deal with current problems. If the state and the county don't increase funding levels, there is little that we will be able to do to reduce overcrowded schools or build new school buildings where they are needed.
My fiancÚ (an elementary school teacher in the state of NY) will be moving down to Fairfax County over the summer.
What are your elementary school hiring projections for the next school year?
With the increasing population cited in an earlier question, is Fairfax County struggling to find qualified teachers?
Daniel A. Domenech: We have been hiring at the rate of 2000 teachers a year to keep up with student growth (over 4000 students per year) and retirements. I would be delighted to have a fellow New Yorker working in our Fairfax schools. The number to call is 703-750-8545. Employment information is also available on our web site www.fcps.edu
Can you comment on the state of the school bus driver shortage? As a working parent, it is very troublesome that our middle schoolers cannot go home with another student unless we transport them, since the buses are so full.
Daniel A. Domenech: We continue to experience a bus driver shortage, even though we offer a competitive salary and benefits. Interested people should call 703-714-5660.
Hi there. I just read that fifth graders at Woodley Hills have been given laptops to use for the year. The laptops have wireless internet access and the kids take them home every evening. This seems like a disaster waiting to happen: surely some of the kids will drop or spill something on the computers. I don't understand why this is being done. It seems like a waste of money. Plus: wireless Internet access for 11-year olds? -I- don't even have wireless access!
Daniel A. Domenech: You should know that all of the equipment at Woodley Hills was donated by our business partners. The students are having a wonderful time. The teacher reports almost perfect attendance and marked improvements in writing skills. Wireless is the future. Allowing students to take the laptops home enables them to spend time at home learning.
Just a brief question -- didn't there use to be a Dogwood Elementary in the Tyson Corner area? Around 1970? Did the Dogwood Elementary in Reston replace that school?
With regards to the current Dogwood Elementary, what is the prognosis for the building, the students and the teachers after the fire?
Daniel A. Domenech: We have been delighted with our community's response to the Dogwood fire. Thousands of dollars have been donated by businesses and residents, and the students have been well cared for and equipped. After the holidays, all of the students will be housed in the Westmore and Green Acres schools in Fairfax City. Our thanks to the City of Fairfax for allowing us use of the two buildings.
We plan to approve a bid for the construction of the new Dogwood at the same site at the December 21st Board meeting and expect completion by the Spring of 2002.
The nature and quantity of homework seems to be a very hot issue in elementary schools these days. What are your feelings on the role of homework in an elementary schooler's education?
Daniel A. Domenech: Homework is an important component in a child's education. It allows the child to independently apply the knowledge and skills that he or she learned in school. The amount of time spent on homework will depend on program and ability, but should not exceed much more than an hour at the elementary level. If you have a question about your own child's homework, you should talk to the teacher.
Several states are moving away from ESL instruction. Even California with its diverse population is getting better results without ESL. Does Fairfax/VA have any plans to consider this? It might help with the resource problem.
Daniel A. Domenech: I believe you are confusing English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction with Bilingual Education programs. California and other states have abandoned bilingual education, where children learn in their native language while they learn English. In ESL programs, children are taught only in English, but receive additional instruction in learning the language. No state has abandoned ESL, and we certainly have no plans to do so.
We do, however, have language immersion schools where children learn in English and their choice of another language (Spanish, French, German, Japanese). This program has been very popular and successful in our county.
My daughter is in 7th grade and I want her to have the opportunity to go to Thomas Jefferson High. I know TJ used to take out-of-county students.... is that still the case?
Daniel A. Domenech: We currently admit students from other counties into Jefferson, a Governor's School. Not all counties participate in the program. You need to check with your child's guidance counselor about the application process.
Why is my child forced to get up early and to endure a 45-minute bus ride to Fairfax High when Centreville High School is 1.5 miles from my front door? I have measured it. I live in the Hayden Village subdivision on Braddock Rd. I have not received a good answer from your staff or from my school board rep.
This is not the most efficient use of my tax dollars and school resources.
Daniel A. Domenech: We have instituted a process for establishing school boundaries that allows for greater community involvement. There are many factors involved, including balanced enrollment in all of our schools. I encourage you to participate the next time a boundary process includes your school. It might be possible to remedy your situation.
Thanks, Supt. Domenech, for joining us today. Your district is probably gearing up for the holiday break, but what is there to look ahead to in 2001?
Daniel A. Domenech:
We look forward to the improved achievement of all of our students and the continued support of our parents and residents. Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year!
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