On the surface, the public schools in two small Northern Virginia cities share much in common.
Manassas and Manassas Park draw many students who speak limited English or come from poor families. Both are intimate school systems, with fewer than 10,000 students, overshadowed by the second-largest school system in the state in surrounding Prince William County.
Despite the similarities, the city known as “the Park” holds an edge over Manassas in student achievement.
About 85 percent of Manassas Park students pass state English tests, and 84 percent pass in math. The Park’s on-time high school graduation rate is 85 percent. In Manassas, the test pass rates are 78 percent for English and 79 percent for math, and the graduation rate is 77 percent.
Among Hispanic students — a group that gets particular emphasis in both cities — the Manassas Park pass rate in English was 11 percentage points higher last year than in Manassas.
These disparities have drawn notice as Manassas prepares for City Council and School Board elections on May 1. Many parents and officials wonder why Manassas Park gets better results even with Manassas spending about $1,590 more per student, according to a Washington Area Boards of Education report.
“A lot of people are scratching their heads,” said Rick Bookwalter of Manassas, who has had nine children in city schools over the years. Manassas Park, he said, is “dealing with all the same kinds of problems that we’re dealing with here.”
Educators say there is no simple answer to the question of what separates Manassas Park, the smaller of the two, from Manassas.
Demographics could be a factor. About 45 percent of Manassas Park’s 3,019 students come from families poor enough to qualify for meal subsidies, but the rate is 54 percent among the 7,154 students in Manassas. Manassas Park has a high share of students with limited English proficiency — 36 percent. But the rate in Manassas is even higher — 41 percent.
School officials in the Park also credit a uniform curriculum from elementary to high school, a focus on small-group instruction in reading and math, and the use of test data to identify each student’s weaknesses and then address those problems.
Manassas Park faces plenty of challenges, too. Students in Prince William and Fairfax counties generally post higher achievement on various academic measures.
Manassas Superintendent Gail E. Pope, who is retiring in June, was previously an associate superintendent in Manassas Park. She said the small size of Manassas Park and its shared campuses help educators maintain a uniform curriculum. Pope also said the higher percentage in Manassas of students with limited English proficiency is significant.
“We have inner-city demographics without having the problem of having a . . . Washington, D.C., size,” said Scott Albrecht, the Manassas School Board chairman. “We can honestly make a difference for every child. That’s what everybody in Manassas wants.”
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In Manassas Park, a 2.5-square-mile community divided by Route 28, educators often cite the “family” feel in the four public schools. The superintendent is typically a phone call away. Schools have aggressive outreach to parents, especially newcomers. Teachers and administrators say innovation is encouraged so good ideas can turn into reality in a short amount of time.
Superintendent Bruce McDade said quality teachers are vital. As he walked into a classroom at Cougar Elementary School one recent day, he said: “This is why we get it done.”
Second-grade teacher Kelly Patullo was sitting on a blanket on the floor, a colorful book propped open. A handful of students sat near her while another teacher worked with a small group across the room.
“What do you think this entire section is going to be about?” Patullo asked the children.
One floor below, most of the class was in physical education or getting another large-group lesson in another subject.
The class structure is called parallel block scheduling. That means each student gets attention in language arts and math in a small group every day. Teachers give extra help to those who are struggling.
“If they’re behind leaving this building, they will struggle for the rest of their educational experience,” McDade said.
City and school officials have teamed up to spend $98.4 million since 1999 on building new schools or upgrading old ones. New buildings don’t improve test scores, but they do help retain teachers and represent a public vote of confidence, educators said.
McDade is proud of some unusual design touches in the schools. There are no mirrors in the restrooms. Instead, the mirrors are in the hallway. McDade said it makes for less mischief in the restrooms and builds community.
At the pre-kindergarten attached to Cougar Elementary, next to the big door for adults there’s a tiny door, built especially for the youngest students. Inside, colorful nooks with windows are inviting places for children to take a book.
School Board member Rachel Kirkland said Manassas Park makes no excuses for performance based on poverty or other challenges. “They’re kids, and you educate them,” she said.
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In Manassas, a 10-square-mile city that draws shoppers and diners to its historic Old Town, teachers say test scores don’t tell the full story across nine schools. Top students, they say, go on to military academies and selective colleges.
Sarah Weaver, a fine-arts teacher at Osbourn High School, said educators recognize that some students have extra burdens: holding jobs, raising younger siblings or taking care of their home.
“A lot of them come to school because this is a warm, safe place,” she said.
John Werner, a veteran educator from Fairfax and Clarke counties, began this school year as Osbourn principal. He sought a quick impact with changes that were cosmetic and academic. Dirt paths were covered with grass; many walls were painted with the school’s Eagle mascot.
Now, a “rescue” team meets once a week to assess troubled students’ progress.
One recent day, students were heading to class, some needing some prodding.
“Where do you need to go?” Mike Dufrene, a basketball coach and mentor, asked a passing student. Dufrene, an imposing, lanky presence, keeps an eye on ninth-graders as head of what Werner calls the Freshman Academy. He constantly checks grades and scores and buttonholes students when he spots a problem. The afternoon class period is called “rewards and remediation,” which Werner created to give students more time in subjects that cause them difficulty. Those who are doing well have more leeway in how to use the time.
Jorge Gonzalez, a sophomore at Osbourn, said he has fared well since moving to the area in 2010 from El Salvador. He is now mostly fluent in English and doing well in school, but he said many of his classmates get into trouble or ignore schoolwork. Many parents can’t pay attention if they’re working multiple jobs, he said.
“There’s just no time to spend with their kids,” Gonzalez said.
Werner sought out Latino parents one recent Sunday at the city’s All Saints Catholic Church for a meeting. About 20 families showed up, he said.
“My main message was ‘Mi casa es su casa — we need to work together,’ ” Werner said. The next day, two people from the meeting came to his office to follow up.
“It’s a start,” he said.