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Q&A With the Fairfax County Schools Chief

Thursday, Feb. 17, 2000, 1 p.m. EST
Daniel A. Domenech
Daniel A. Domenech

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech was named the head of the Washington area's largest school system in 1997.

Domenech, a former Long Island, N.Y., educator, recently proposed that students meet specific benchmarks to be promoted to the next grade. He also announced his $1.39 billion spending plan and is arguing for more state money to meet demands that schools perform better on state tests.

He was online Thursday, Feb. 17, talking about his FY 2001 budget proposals, SOL testing and other issues.

washingtonpost.com: We'd like to welcome Superintendent Domenech back for his second Live Online discussion with us. Today, the superintendent will discuss his budget proposals and possible cutbacks he will make if the county or state refuses his budget request.

Fairfax, Virginia: Do teachers and staff have the opportunity to review their principals?

Daniel A. Domenech: As part of the current principal evaluation process, parents have the opportunity to rate the principals. However, staff does not. The process is now under review and that might be a consideration.

Burke, Virginia: Superintendent,
I think that teachers, especially in our elementary schools, are increasingly faced
with problem kids that force teachers to devote their time and energy to deal with distractions, at the expense of teaching
the majority of students.
What are you, and the county school administrators, doing to help relieve the burden on teachers from children with discipline and behavior problems that dirupt a class, and the physically and mentally handicapped ones, who require a teacher's attention to deal with hygiene and medical issues?

Daniel A. Domenech: Our school system has established "time out rooms" in most of our schools. Teachers can send any student there if the student is being disruptive. We also have a number of alternative programs that are available for students that have gone through suspension or expulsion hearings and whose behavior is such that it warrants special attention.
It is our intent to ensure that all of our classrooms are safe and conducive to learning.

Falls Church, VA: My son has yet to pass an SOL test and is scheduled to take another one -5th grade- this year. His reports cards are fairly good and he has passed to each next grade. I have repeatedly asked the school why he cannot pass the SOL. ANSWER: Many elementary grade students do not do multiple answer questions very good; many elementary grade students have problems concentrating for long periods of time. So my question is: if this is true then why are the test done this way. It seems to me you are deliberately setting these children up for failure. If they are being tested on what is being taught for their grade level, make passing grades on regular test and bring home decent report cards, then there is either something wrong with the test or something wrong with what they are being taught during their regular class. My son attended the extended school progam that ran from Nov thru Jan. as recommended by his teacher. As a result, it was required that he remain in school until 5:00 three days a week and take a special bus home that took more than one hour. My son spent more time at school and commuting than I do on my full time job. [Edited for Space]

Daniel A. Domenech: We have expressed a number of concerns with the current structure of the SOL tests. In fairness, the state Board of Education has been very receptive to the changes that have been suggested. Nevertheless, multiple choice tests are not the best way to assess student performance. We are hoping that the state will allow us to incorporate other measures of performance as well. We are now working with the state on these options.

Falls Church, VA: My Supervisor tells me he gets 3 or 4 calls urging him not to raise taxes to every one like mine - urging him to support the school budget. One thing most Supervisors can do is count voters. What can we do to overcome the numbers that seems to be working against us?

Daniel A. Domenech: As many of you know, our proposed budget is $84 million short of what we need to operate our schools next year. At a time when the state has a $4 billion surplus and our county is enjoying unprecedented prosperity, we might be forced to increase class sizes and cut back on other programs. People need to understand that real estate values and economic growth are very much dependent on the quality of the school system. Whether or not you have children in school, the value of your property will depend on the quality of the schools. It is an investment in our children and our community. Thanks for calling your supervisor.

Fairfax, Virginia: First, Dr. Domenech, I would like to congratulate you on setting high, quantifiable goals for accountability. My budget question has to do with the use of technology funds. You have proposed that each school receive at least 1-2 a technology position, which is admirable. Will each school be able to decide whether a teacher or a technology specialist is hired with these funds?

Daniel A. Domenech: Many schools have reallocated funds to provide for a technology position. In many cases, these positions are filled by teachers. The position proposed in the budget is a technology position on the unified scale at level 23. Principals can certainly decide to keep the position they currently have and add what is being offered. In most of our schools with less than 1500 students, only a .5 position is being offered.

McLean, VA: I hear the Commonwealth may be looking at a surplus of $4 billion while we try to educate thousands of students in temporary trailers. Is Fairfax receiving its fair share of revenue from the Commonwealth? Presumably, my Delegate and Senator are aware if there is some inequity. If not, they should be made aware.

Daniel A. Domenech: We are certainly not receiving our fair share. For example, although 1/3 of the student population growth comes from Fairfax county, we are slated to receive only 4% of the construction money allocation. We generally get about 10% on the dollar that is distributed by Richmond. Now we are facing the possiblity of program cuts, but the northern Virginia delegation cannot overcome the voting block from southern and western Virginia. It is frustrating, but there does not appear to be any solution in sight.

springfield, va: Early closing on Mondays for Fairfax County Elementary Schools is a day care nightmare for parents. Why can't you find an alternative solution and end this practice?

Daniel A. Domenech: We have. At our 20 Excel elementary schools, Monday is now a full day of school. We are closely evaluating this project to see if it should spread to all of our other schools as well.

Centerville, VA: Sir,

$84 million is small percentage of the total budget. I can not believe that it will have the dire consequences both you and the teacher's union claim.

Daniel A. Domenech: Regardless of the percentage of the budget, $84 million is a lot of money. This is a labot intensive organization. Salary makes up 85% of the budget. $84 million can fund 1680 positions.

washingtonpost.com: An additional note from Daniel Domenech on the previous technology position question. A level 23 on the unified scale is a 12-month position with a salary range of approximately $43,000 to $73,000. Most of the schools would receive half a position.

Laurie: Dr. Domenech,

What is being done to improve the Kindergarten through 2nd grade cirriculum across the entire system? There is a growing consensus that the FCPS's Kindergarten program is nothing more than daycare. There are clusters of first graders who are far more prepared than their peers, but they are not getting the level of attention that they need to ensure that they continue learning at their faster pace. The level of learning in K-2 is key to later success -- i.e. SOL's.

Daniel A. Domenech: We have a number of projects in place designed to strengthen primary instruction. Our Excel and Success by 8 schools now offer full day kindergarten. A strong academic program is very much a part of the kindergarten curriculum in those schools. We have also provided the kindergarten and first grades with computers and phonics software to strengthen the reading program. We agree that a successful start is critical to later success.

Redmond, Washington: We are moving to the area soon and are getting ready to go out with a real estate agent. I want my kids to attend an elementary school that has a high pass rate for the SOL? tests, now, this year, are there any in your jurisdiction, and which are they, please, and thank you?

Daniel A. Domenech: We are pleased to report that Fairfax has the highest number of schools in the state passing the SOLs. You can browse though our web site and get information on our schools, including test scores, at http://www.fcps.k12.va.us
We hope you settle here and call us if you have additional questions.

Fairfax, VA: We recently moved here from Texas, and I have to tell you how impressed I am with the schools. My children are being challenged in the classroom, and both our principals -elementary and middle- seem so responsive and caring towards the parents. I understand your budget provides raises for the staff - I support that - we NEED to keep them!!

Daniel A. Domenech: Thank you. We have included raises for our teachers of 7.6% and in our 20 Excel schools, teachers will be eligible to receive bonuses of $2000 at the end of the year, based on student achievement. We are in a highly competitive market and we need to both retain existing staff and recruit new ones.

VA: I recently got a hold of a copy of the American History portion of the SOLs, and was very disturbed by this portion of the test. I majored in history in college, and will be attending grad school in the fall, and I can tell you plainly that many of these questions were completely invalid. Many times, the correct answer was simply not listed. Many other questions were just far too detailed for the average high school student. Keep in mind that the SOLs are not a college admissions test, they simply allow you to graduate from high school! I predict that private school enrollment is going to skyrocket if these tests are made a part of the curriculum. What do you think can be done to get rid of them?

Daniel A. Domenech: How did you get a copy of the American History SOL? That's part of the problem. We don't have access to previous tests so it is impossible to review with our students their performance on the tests. I know that the state is aware of the many problems with the history test and that they are attempting to correct them, including moving away from the facts only orientation and more towards problem solving and analysis.

Fairfax, VA: My son attends a school where every 5th and 6th grader receives a laptop computer on which to do all kinds of schoolwork. From what I've seen, the students have benefited considerably from this use of technology. If rigorous evaluation confirms this, would you plan to extend this approach to other schools?

Daniel A. Domenech: Your son must be at Mantua elementary. That school was the fortunate recipient of a large grant from an oil company (consequence of an oil spill). They have become one of our model technology schools. We would love to replicate this model throughout the county, but short of spilling oil in every one of our school yards, the money is the primary issue. Our current budget has $22 million dedicated to new technology resources and we spend over $100 million in our baseline budget. We have a strong commitment to technology for all of our schools.

Arlington, VA: Any plans to report test scores by disadvantaged status and-or race to determine what, if any achievement gaps exist at schools all over the county? Will new accountability incentives be tied in any way to closing achievement gaps?

Daniel A. Domenech: Our new accountability model does report scores by poverty and English language proficiency, two factors known to greatly affect achievement scores on standardized tests. We have identified closing the achievement gap between majority and minority students as part of the school division's strategic targets. The bonus money now available to the Excel schools depends on the schools achieving the prescribed achievement targets.

Springfield: Along the same lines as the early Mondays...Will we ever see full-day Kindergarten in Fairfax County? This practice seems so antiquated. Most children who start Kindergarten have already been attending all day pre-school or daycare. It's taking a step backwards for most children.

Daniel A. Domenech: We definitely agree with you that full day kindergarten needs to be in all of our schools. For us, it is a money and space issue. We're working on it.

Herndon, VA: Mr. Domenech: Music programs - to me they are essential. The fact I have a son in the Herndon High School Band might have something to do with it. My wife and I are able to pay the fees that come with a high school band program, but I'm sure it's a hardship for others. The band's parent association often helps out with such items as the purchasing of musical instruments. Is there any way to increase county funding in this area, or would it be robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Daniel A. Domenech: We agree with you that we could use more money to support our music and art program. We are fortunate to have excellent programs in both areas. I very much enjoy watching our students perform. They are excellent. Additional funding will be tough given the lack of resources we currently face.

Alexandria, VA: Seems like a big case of haves and have-nots. My elem school has an entire grade in trailers, can't have full-day kindergarden -not enough trailers or teachers- and not enough money for those, yet we have excel schools far ahead. Why such a discrepancy? Why can't we lift all schools at the same rate?

Daniel A. Domenech: It comes down to limited resources. There isn't enough funding to provide these programs to everyone. Therefore, we prioritize based on needs. The needier students get the limited resources and we continue to press the state to fund all of our schools at the appropriate level.

Fairfax, Virginia: As a matter of clarification, at least in the past, teachers AND communities HAVE evaluated their principals by use of questionnaire. Results are provided to the principal and his-her evaluator.

Daniel A. Domenech: Thanks for the clarification. You're right.

washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have for today. We'd like to thank Superintendent Domenech for joining us and thank all of you who submitted questions.

washingtonpost.com: A additional note from Daniel Domenech: Thanks for your questions. I enjoyed answering them.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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