Like other Northern Virginia public schools, Falls Church schools rank among the best in the country, characterized by small classes, tough courses and high test scores.
But like other schools here and nationwide, Falls Church struggles with the problem of the pupil who consistently does not work up to his or her potential. Last year the Falls Church School Board asked its staff to try to find out what causes underachievement.
In a recent report to the School Board, school psychologist Jerry Bruns found that underachievers fall into two groups. The first consists of pupils who have certain deficiencies in basic skills because of problems such as dyslexia. Bruns said teachers are equipped to handle these pupils.
It is the second group Bruns identified that causes serious frustration to teachers, a group he calls "work-inhibited." These are the pupils who possess the skills to excel in the classroom but consistently receive low marks or do not perform academically as well as they are able.
Bruns studied this problem among fourth through 12th graders and found that it applies to a significant number, 140 out of about 800 pupils or about 18 percent.
"These are the kids that don't give effort," Bruns said. "Everyone's angry about it. Teachers don't know what to do. Parents don't know what to do."
Although Bruns found that some of these pupils have suffered major emotional upsets such as the loss of a parent, abuse or neglect, most come from stable homes, are popular and often do well in activities outside the classroom.
These are the pupils, Bruns said, who will not do class assignments unless teachers are standing right next to them, have trouble completing written work and often say they have lost their homework.
"You usually don't hear many complaints until the fourth grade," Bruns said. This is when assignments start getting longer and harder and underachievers with high potential begin to stand out, he said.
According to Bruns, the problem can peak around seventh or eighth grade. "They begin to run with each other," he said. "This is the sad and difficult thing."
Bruns concedes that there is a variety of possible causes for this kind of behavior, but he said that at least one thing seems clear: "We know underachievers tend to have low self-esteem."
By talking to teachers, parents and pupils themselves, Bruns found that many work-inhibited pupils have parents who are overly anxious about their academic success and generally overly involved in their lives. He believes parental anxiety can interfere with a child's chance of success by prohibiting him or her from developing autonomy and self-confidence.
"How do you develop self-esteem? You develop self-esteem by being your own person," he said.
Bruns believes that it is more difficult to be a work-inhibited pupil today than before, and particularly difficult for pupils living in a community like Falls Church. Unlike 10 or 15 years ago when antiestablishment feeling made it acceptable and even fashionable to be a rebellious pupil, Bruns believes, it is a different story in today's highly success-oriented world.
"I don't think it's cool today to be a poor student," Bruns said. "I think being a good student is valued by the students."
Furthermore, in an affluent and progressive area such as Falls Church, where education is a clear priority, not being able to handle academic assignments can be "devastating" for pupils and their families, Bruns said.
As psychologist for the school system, Bruns believes that the first step toward a solution is awareness of the problem.
"I want to be able to develop a better system of identifying students who have these characteristics," Bruns said.
He said he wants to encourage the school staff and parents to talk about the problem. And he wants to help others on the staff develop programs to assist pupils in overcoming obstacles to written classroom work and homework assignments.
"The hope is that these students will discover their own competence," Bruns said, "that they'll find something they do well at."