On the recommendation of a fellow educator, I recently read a small, thoughtful book, "The Art of Teaching" by Jay Parini, which addresses the rhythms of teaching and school years. Parini observes: "Despite the challenges of teaching, it is hard not to like having a job where you can start over every September. . . . One of the great lessons of teaching is the sense of self-development, of improving as one matures. It's always possible to do a better job the next time around."

These same opportunities to begin again and do an even better job than the previous year apply to all of us who work in elementary and secondary education, as well as to our students and their families. Whether we are attending first grade, beginning the senior year of high school, sending our fourth child to kindergarten or starting our 30th year of teaching, we all have the chance to build on our successes (and even failures) as the new school year commences.

Right now, new and returning teachers and administrators are working together to plan a better year of learning for our students. While our operations staff are putting the finishing touches on facilities in preparation for Tuesday's opening day, office staff and volunteers are assembling first-day packets to be sent home with each student, and teachers and other school staff are setting up and organizing classrooms to greet our more than 18,000 students.

New for the Coming Year

This fall marks the opening of the new Kenmore Middle School, where students will enter a spacious and beautiful new building.

Approximately 170 new teachers will greet students across the county. New principals will also greet students at three of our elementary schools: Corina Coronel (Carlin Springs), Jamie Borg (Glebe) and Edgar Miranda (Ashlawn). This summer, the School Board also appointed nine assistant principals and one instructional supervisor. Additionally, seven assistants, 10 bus drivers, six custodians and two secretaries will join our staff.

We begin school this year directed by a new, six-year strategic plan, developed after more than 18 months of work by hundreds of parents, staff and residents. On June 16, the School Board adopted the plan, which lays out four central goals. Every school plan, every department plan and every administrator's work plan will focus on working to achieve the plan's goals, described below.

Raising Achievement

The first two goals involve a strengthened focus on raising achievement for all Arlington public school students and redoubled efforts to close the achievement gap among identified groups (white, Asian, black, Hispanic, low-income students, students with disabilities and English-language learners). We have made considerable progress in these areas, yet have a long way to go.

For example, from 1998 through 2004, pass rates increased on the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests by 32 percent for all students, by 60 percent for Hispanic students and by 89 percent for black students. During the same time, the SOL test score gap for black and Hispanic students decreased by over 40 percent. While we see progress, we renew our commitment to building on these positive results and doing better.

Responsive Education

Our third goal illustrates the importance of providing a responsive education that focuses on each student's individual talents, interests and challenges. This goal includes a number of important ideas, including:

* Creating conditions to make student experiences at each grade level positive, as well as preparing them for the next grade and school level.

* Making certain that students who graduate will be able to make decisions allowing them to move toward a variety of options, ranging from immediately entering the workforce with marketable skills to entering four-year colleges or universities.

* Preparing students to operate successfully in an increasingly diverse environment.

As we implement the various objectives associated with the goal of responsive education, we will need your help. Parents, guardians and relatives of students can identify the unique needs of students and help teachers and principals as they craft differentiated instruction for their students.

Effective Relationships

Obviously, teachers are an important element in a student's education, but the role of the family and the entire community cannot be overestimated. The plan's fourth goal recognizes the need to expand our efforts to build effective relationships with parents and the community so they can actively support the education of our students.

If you have children attending our schools, become a volunteer in their schools and a participating member of the PTA. Whether you are a parent of a public school student, a young professional with no school-aged children, or a long-time resident or retiree, we need your participation and support. I urge you to contact your neighborhood school, call our Volunteer and Partnership Office at 703-228-6003, or join one of our many parent and citizen advisory groups (for more information, go to www.arlington.k12.va.us/advisory_groups.)

Your help can make a difference in the lives of our students.

September truly is a wonderful time of the year, because it marks the continuation of our students' journey on the pathway of knowledge and growth. I encourage you to join us as we improve upon last year's gains.