Public schools must get away from the idea that their job is simply to provide every child with an equal educational opportunity and instead must do "whatever it takes" to guarantee that every student succeeds, Fairfax School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech said yesterday.

"It is no longer sufficient to just provide students with an opportunity to learn," Domenech told an audience of 1,300 Fairfax school principals, department heads and managers. "We have to go a step further. A system has to assume responsibility for ensuring all children learn."

In his annual back-to-school speech to the district's administrators, Domenech said the excuse that some students are incapable of understanding some lessons is no longer acceptable.

"It used to be that a teacher stood up in front of a class and taught a well-prepared lesson and students were expected to get it," Domenech said. "Under these circumstances, all students did not learn."

Domenech said that to prepare students for the 21st century, Fairfax educators must recognize that all children do not learn at the same pace and must provide individualized instruction. "When we have children with individual needs . . . to continue to proceed in lock-step fashion will not work," he said.

The district also must do away with the idea that the classroom teacher is a "Lone Ranger" with sole responsibility for a student's success, he said. "We need to have teachers and the other professionals in a building working as teams," he said.

Domenech said those ideas are incorporated in some of the programs he has launched since taking over as superintendent 18 months ago.

He cited a program called Success by 8, in which children in kindergarten through second grade are grouped by skill level and interest rather than by age, and in which school staff members such as librarians work in the classroom so that students receive more individual attention. The program will expand to 12 Fairfax schools this fall.

He also mentioned Project Excel, an initiative starting this fall in which students at 20 struggling elementary schools will get more time in class and extra resources.

Domenech also discussed results on the Virginia Standards of Learning exams given last spring. Although only 20 percent of Fairfax's 202 schools reached the state's benchmarks for performance on the tests, another 22 elementary schools in the county would have met the standards if their passing rate on the fifth grade history exam had been less than 10 percentage points higher, he said.

Domenech told staff members that while Virginia's standards are excellent, the testing program needs modification. And he said he does not want the district to narrow its focus to simply preparing students for the tests while sacrificing the enrichment and innovation that have become the school system's hallmarks.

He also cited an analysis done by Gerald W. Bracey, an Arlington-based educational researcher and writer, who questioned the reliability of the Standards of Leaning exams given the fact that Fairfax students consistently get very high scores on other achievement tests.

CAPTION: The school system "has to assume responsibility for ensuring all children learn," said Domenech.