FCPS’ STEM Initiatives: What–and Whom–are They Leaving Out?


         A recent press release from the Office of the Governor announced the awarding of five $50,000 grants to selected school systems across Virginia, including Fairfax County Public Schools. According to the statement, the funding will “allow local school divisions […] to enact their own specifically-designed program, free from the usual regulations imposed on school divisions.” This continuing cooperation between state and county is, as always, encouraging. It is also especially promising that, despite the source of the grants, the funding does not appear to be tied to the fulfillment of any statewide mandate-to some degree, then, it appears tailored to the County’s students.

        Indeed, the grant application for FCPS, signed by the Superintendent and School Board Chairman, proposes a program specific not just to the County but to a school: the Global STEM Challenges Program is “a three-year, interdisciplinary program at Edison High [School] in which students […] prepare for college and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” More specialized and forward-looking curricula like this should always be welcome. Furthermore, given the demographics of Edison’s student body-which is 21% African-American and 31% Hispanic, according to the grant application-the new program seems to take a step towards addressing the consistent underrepresentation of certain communities in admissions-based programs and schools across FCPS. Enrollment in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Advanced Academic Programs courses often fails to reflect the diversity of the County; at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school just a few miles from Edison and an institution repeatedly ranked among the best secondary schools in the country, African-American and Hispanic students continually account for less than 5% of the populace. This is despite the fact that those groups represent roughly a quarter of the County’s students overall.

        Such underrepresentation is not, and cannot possibly be, linked to potential or performance alone. In my time as an Academic Advisor at Northern Virginia Community College, I met countless students who expressed that they were never even informed of the option to apply to Thomas Jefferson; it should come as no surprise that the school’s enrollment and admissions process was subject to a 2012 investigation by Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Our school system cannot, as a matter of practice or policy, limit opportunities for students on the basis of ethnic background. The proposed Global STEM Challenges Program is, if nothing else, a promising counter-measure.

        With that being said, as important (and successful) as such STEM-focused initiatives are, it’s worth considering whether they serve a need that the County already exceeds-and whether this is occurring at the expense of others. If the recently announced educational grants are a demonstration of the Governor’s goal of “building a 21st Century education and workforce development system,” as the press release states, perhaps future investments in our schools and in our increasingly diversified economy should point to a substantively diversified curriculum-one that would leverage the County’s diversity and size. That would entail not just expanded STEM programs, but greater support for art and extracurricular classes; more (and earlier) language instruction, which is particularly important for the County’s large population of non-native English speakers; and trade and technical schooling opportunities, among other offerings. Only this sort of tailoring can accommodate both the full range of our students and our diversifying economy both. The individualization of FCPS’ curricula should go beyond the level of County or school, in other words, and cater even more specifically to the strengths, interests, and-most pressingly-to the needs of individual communities and individual students across the County.

        For these reasons, among others, a one-size fits all model for educating students is wholly inadequate-especially when that model is based around testing and money. The Governor’s press release suggests an interest in the economy that is perhaps too narrow in scope. Of course, given that the recent grants are “the brainchild of the Standards of Learning Innovation Committee,” they are likely to strengthen the industry of standardized testing-an already huge industry of questionable value. They will also serve a role in attracting lucrative science and technology businesses to the area. But even if the bottom line were money-which it is not-we would still be wise to consider how much is wasted with each course a student takes needlessly and indifferently, and with every opportunity that is lost or delayed due to our school system’s shortsightedness. And since our first priority should not be money, to begin with, the sort of waste we should be thinking even harder about is that of our students’ potential. It might not be as lucrative as some other options, but it’s our obligation.

    Omar Fateh, a lifelong Fairfax County resident and a former Academic Advisor at Northern Virginia Community College, is running for Fairfax County School Board (At-Large).