That it was a tough year for Northern Virginia public schools is clear. Budgets, in most areas, were slashed. Enrollment continued its decade-long decline and more than a hundred teachers in Arlington County leave their classrooms at the end of the school year next week not knowing if they will have jobs in the fall.
That next year could be even worse also is plain. Proposed federal budget cuts could cost area schools $8.5 million in federal impact aid alone. Vouchers and tuition tax credits for private schools look precariously close to winning approval in Congress -- a move that many public school advocates insist could criple an educational system that took its first steps in 1642 when Massachusetts required every town of more than 50 families to establish an elementary school.
Despite these soundings of bad news, end-of-year interviews with area educators reveal a voice that is as strong and as hopeful as any heard in recent years. It is a vigorous voice ready to cut through a decade worth of attacks.
And it is a voice that challenges, as Alexandria Superintendent Robert W. Peebles did last week:
"Come into our schools. Visit them.
"After the difficulties of the past decade . . .I sense that we have passed the proverbial corner. The schools are more orderly. Test scores are improving. Learning is taking place.
"I think there is a great lag between where we are and the public's perception of where we are. And that is understandable. But if you want to see what we've done and where we're going, come into our classrooms."
And that we did.
From Fairfax to Arlington, from Falls Church to Alexandria, Washington Post reporters visited area classrooms during the past year looking for programs that worked. We found a back-to-basics program in Arlington where parents were camping out overnight to ensure a chance at getting their children in the school.We found a sex education program in Falls Church, where more than 90 percent of the freshman were enrolled and where parents not only supported the program but asked for their own instruction. We found an academically talented program at Charles Barrett Elementary School in Alexandria where the students were producing their own version of A Midsummer's Night Dream. And when we found -- and reported about -- the string orchestra at Fairfax County's Fort Hunt High School, which received a prestigious invitation to an international music festival in Austria, the phone rang consistently for two weeks telling us about other award-winning bands.
And it didn't stop with programs. Among individuals, we fondly remember Maureen O'Donnell, a Latin teacher at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax ycounty whom students affectionately refer to as Mother O'Donnell and Mrs. O. Then there was George Weber, an American government instructor at T.C. Williams in Alexandria, retiring -- reluctantly -- this year after more than 30 years of teaching.
Last week, we again returned to Northern Virginia classrooms. What we found was exciting: from a second-grade classroom at Charles Barrett Elementary in Alexandria, where reading scores jumped from the 39th percentile in national rankings two years ago to the 70th percentile last year, to HLB. Woodlawn, an alternative secondary school in Arlington where students help devise the curriculum and where students' achievements on national tests rank among the highest in the county.
We discovered something else, too. We found that while there is plenty to write home about, from team-teaching in Fairfax ycounty to an old-fashioned, one-teacher classroom in Arlington, there are as many ways of teaching as there are of learning. In short, no educational elixir exists. oIf it did, school administrators could go to bed at night, content not only that Johnny could read but that tomorrow he might write better and brighter books.
Still, there are a few common factors that most educators agree are usually found in successful programs: a principal actively involved in daily instruction; a disciplined environment; small classes; frequent use of standardized tests to monitor students' progress; strong community and parental support, and an emphasis on basic skills. And one of the most important components of a successful program, we heard again and again, is a teacher who expects all students to excel.
"One of the major problems in most schools is that teachers do not have high enough expectations of all students," said Larry Bowen, dean of professional studies, which includes the department of educations, at George Mason University. ". . .we might think (the subject of racial influence on performance has) been resolved, but a lot of teachers still have lower expectations for minority kids. They think: 'He can't learn he's black, he's chicano . . .' If a child, and a program, is going to succeed, then the teacher must expect excellence from everyone."
One school that seems to have most of the ingredients for success is Charles Barrett Elementary School in Alexandria. One of the smallest schools in Alexandria, with 300 students and a racial makeup divided almost evenly between black and white students, Barrett last year ranked second among the city's 12 elementary schools. Its first graders scored in the 80th percentile nationally in reading. And much of the school's success, its backers say, can be attributed to principal James P. Akin, who came to Charles Barrett two years ago.
Most days Akin is tough to track. If he hasn't taken over a math class on binary numbers, he can be found squatting on child-sized plastic seats in a first grade class, enunciating vowels or reading reports describing how it feels to try to do things without the use of the thumb. The rest of the time, Akin usually can be found evaluating test scores and storing them in a computer. Each student's progress is directly monitored by Akin; if a student has finished one unit of work, he cannot advance until Akin reviews the student's previous test score.
It's principals like Akin, education dean Bown says, that separate good programs from great programs. It is imperative, says Bowen, that a principal be the instructional leader.Bowen also recommends that school systems begin to alleviate some of the increasing paper work expected of its top personnel, such as principals.
"Principals have got to get into the classroom and observe," Bowen says. "They must demonstrate that they are first of all teachers and interested in the development of children."
If money were the answer to successful programs, area educators say that this year's budget debacles would force the closing of all but a few. During this year's budget fight, local governing bodies slashed $1.4 million from Arlington's school budget and $3.7 million from Fairfax County's. Only Alexandria escaped massive cuts, with its budget being reduced $300,000 from the original request of $44.5 million. And educators agree that what happened this year barely lifted the curtain on future fights.
Although money is essential, the voices in modern education say, it is not the only thing that can determine the future of public education. Instead, educators like Bowen say, the real battle for the public education of today's and tomorrow's youth must be fought by the public itself.
"Schools reflect society and it is never more important than now to remember that. If we have a society disenchanted with our public schools, then we have a society disenchanted with itself," Bowen says.
"Public education is essential to democracy . . .it is here where society tries to solve its problems . . . .
"There is room for reform in the public schools. And, maybe with all the debate about public schools versus private schools and Reagan cutbacks in public school budgets, we will examine what we want and deal with the issues openly.
"Our public schools are ready for reform, yes. But collapse, no."