Judy Connally says it was coincidence that provided her first experience in the field of education about 20 years ago when, as coordinator of the Office of Economic Opportunity, she helped some central Virginia communities set up Head Start programs.
Later, when her oldest son entered elementary school in Arlington, Connally volunteered as a reading tutor. That was the beginning of 11 years of helping in the public schools that has made her a frequent figure behind the podium at School Board meetings.
At the board's first meeting for the 1985-86 school year, Connally will take her place on the other side of the lectern. She was appointed by the Arlington County Board last month to replace Republican Simone J. Pace, whose four-year term expires June 30.
Connally's appointment gives the five-member School Board four Democrats.
After years of attending PTA meetings, chairing school task forces and serving on committees for everything from fiscal affairs to gifted students, Connally, 46, said she is looking forward to being on the other side of policy decisions.
"I have been a volunteer and activist in the schools since 1974. I've done just about as much as I can do participating on advisory committees," Connally said. "It's a great thrill to be able to be in a policy-making position on a board you're really interested in."
Connally said her work last fall chairing a committee that developed criteria for selecting a new superintendent brought home to her the influence that School Board members wield.
"You're picking the person who's going to run the day-to-day operations of the school system. It is a great responsibility for the community. You're affecting the lives of 15,000 people," she said.
Connally, who has a master's degree in regional planning from the University of North Carolina and currently does free-lance transportation planning, was praised by county board members for her thorough work and varied involvement in the schools.
"Everything I have seen Judy do -- and I have been observing her for 10 years, at least -- has been done excellently," said board member Mary Margaret Whipple, a former School Board member. "Her experience with the school system is of such long standing that she is familiar in a broad sense with all Arlington school programs."
"She has certainly demonstrated commitment to working in the schools, for the schools," said board member Ellen Bozman. "She has wide community background and a lot of savvy about how to get something done. She recognizes diversity in the school system and honors that diversity."
Connally said that diversity -- one of the assets of Arlington schools -- also can create divisiveness, and that School Board members must work harder to reach those who are less active in school affairs.
"I think we have a real responsibility to try to be a liaison . . . to the community, to try to encourage more participation from parents of minority children," she said. "Personally, you have to be willing to get to know and understand and participate in activities in the schools that draw people together. People are different -- that does separate them more than it should."
Connally said her recent work as chairwoman of a task force on homework showed her that encouraging broad participation from parents is not an easy job. While Connally was stressing the importance of parental involvement in children's homework, a teacher reminded her that many parents of refugee children work at more than one job, speak little English and are unfamiliar with the ways of American schools.
"We realize this and are concerned about it," Connally said. "It's hard to ask somebody who's working and whose language isn't so good to be active in school groups that may be hard to enter. In many ways, they find the schools a little off-putting."
In addition to broadening parent participation, Connally said she hopes the board will conduct a serious review of teacher salaries and look thoroughly at the instructional program.
"Teachers need continuing attention," she said. "The whole status of the teaching profession needs enhancing. In the next five years, there will be a whole turnover of teachers in Arlington," as many teachers hired in the late 1950s reach retirement age. "To replace them," she said, "we need to attract people with incentives, opportunities for continued professional growth."
Connally also said the board should look closely at the curriculum, examining whether it educates students sufficiently to live in an increasingly technological world.
"We need to evaluate where we are and if we are serving as well as we can. Are we doing the right things to prepare a student for living in the 1990s?" Connally said she bristles at reports that jobs for today's students will be primarily in the fields of computer programming or fast-food service. "I hope we can give these kids a few more creative alternatives," she said.
Connally, who has three children in Arlington schools, stressed that even the county-wide influence of the School Board is insufficient without high interest and participation in each school. "You can make general policy," she said, "but it's that individual school that makes a difference."