Thursday, February 25, 2021
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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).

Hungry Stomachs Can’t Be Hungry Minds: Meeting Our Students’ Most Pressing Needs First

In a recent press release, Fairfax County Public Schools announced its participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program. The school system's embrace of the initiative, which provides nutritious food over the summer to students who qualify for free and reduced-cost meals, marks another commendable move in a positive direction for the County.

For one thing, the ongoing success of the program demonstrates FCPS's encouraging ability to cooperate with federal, state, and local bodies to undertake what amounts to very challenging (and necessary) work. Other than the USDA, which runs the program, the Virginia Department of Health acts as a sponsor, and local agencies like Fairfax County's Department of Neighborhood and Community Services aid in administering the service. In working to keep upwards of 50,000 eligible students nourished, FCPS has also attracted the help of community centers, housing developments, and numerous volunteers, all of whom have given freely of their time and resources to serve. Such public-private partnerships remind us how willing individuals and institutions are to lend a hand when given the opportunity, and how much transformative work can be done at little to no cost; FCPS should seek to expand this sort of multi-level cooperation and these sorts of public-private partnerships in as many other contexts as possible.

More than anything else, though, FCPS's participation in the program is an important acknowledgement of the obligation to meet our students' most pressing needs at all costs-even as the number of students receiving free and reduced-price meals continues to increase. Rather than think of this as a budgetary strain, we should consider the fact that more students have been able to register-and have their needs addressed-a glowing success.

The fulfillment of such basic needs as food and shelter, after all, is prerequisite to FCPS's other ambitions for its students-better grades, higher test scores, improved graduation rates, and so on. Academic aspirations like these are secondary, in both practical and moral terms: according to the USDA, children who miss meals are "more likely to be sick, absent or tardy, disruptive in class, and inattentive," and County records repeatedly show how much more students who qualify for free and reduced-cost meals struggle than their peers, academically and otherwise.

Hopefully, FCPS's participation in the USDA Summer Food Service Program is a step towards further initiatives aimed at addressing more specific groups and their unique needs, even beyond the classroom. The continually changing nature of our County, along with its size and diversity, calls for a school system focused on the wellness of the student as a whole and, moreover, of the community as a whole. FCPS should strive, then, to become a school system with expanded health services and extracurricular programs, among other things. More than one-size-fits-all initiatives and minor adjustments-from the push for marginally later school start times to nominal modifications to graduation requirements-we need programs, and an entire school system, that will reach out to our most vulnerable students and address their most fundamental needs first. A good meal is a good start.

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).

Fairfax County Public Schools: On redistricting in Springfield and what it tells us

Much of the conversation on boundary changes throughout Fairfax County Public Schools focuses on overcrowding. But the reassignment of Springfield's Daventry subdivision, which The Springfield Connection reported on earlier this month, demonstrates how vast and diverse our County really is--how vastly circumstances vary between districts and how diverse the County's needs are.

Starting next year, students from Daventry, who attend West Springfield Elementary, will continue through Irving Middle and West Springfield High Schools with their peers. Before the change, Daventry residents attended Lee High School; the reassignment spares students grief in an already difficult transition.

But it's worth noting that the reassignment was only possible due to declining enrollment at West Springfield High. A decade ago, with the school at capacity, the initiative failed. So while the Superintendent and School Board should be commended for their decision--and, more importantly, for consulting residents and FCPS personnel--the Daventry case should motivate them to act more proactively.

Rather than wait for circumstances to change, the School Board might consider the root causes of enrollment instability. Board members can continue working around overcrowding and under-enrollment, but a serious inquiry into residential and commercial development is necessary for more effective action to be weighed earlier. Although it has no decision-making power in such development cases, the School Board has an obligation to hear and make heard the voices of those they represent. This requires engagement with students and staff, but also with decision-making bodies--the Board of Supervisors, namely.

It would only be appropriate: after their budget battle in May, both Boards vowed to improve their relationship for the County's good. What better way to hold them accountable than to elect candidates with proven collaborative drive and public service experience? With both Boards up for election in November, there's no need to wait another decade.

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).

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