I have no problem changing the name of JEB Stuart High School: my Alma mater, where 2/3 of my kids go, where I volunteer and even occasionally donate actual money. I think it’s great that this movement was started by students and that they are exercising their social consciousness and feeling of civic responsibility — in fact to the point at which this has become a national news item.
However, I must note (and I’m sure most students would agree with me) that there are other, more important concerns with the school, school system and county that makes this look like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I’ve listed eight items below that are much more worthy of discussion and — if addressed — should provide greater benefit to the school, its students, faculty and area as a whole.
- Realistically addressing income disparity in the immediate area. The Stuart pyramid threw a Back-to-School Resource Fair last week in which over 4,700 attendees with limited resources availed themselves of the generous donations of time, services and materials from 58 exhibitors, over 200 volunteers: 2,800 school supply kits, 259 sight/hearing tests, 284 haircuts, over 300 child I.D. kits, plus fun stuff for the younger ones. Despite this great event, supported largely on local volunteerism, it shows that there is an immediate and resounding need to help local kids and their families who cannot always provide basic materials and services to support a student outside of the classroom. The main indicator of poverty is free or reduced meals and 64% of the students in Stuart fit in that category. If you think that hunger should not be associated with student productivity, think about how productive you were the last time you were sitting at your desk or in a long-winded meeting thinking about an overdue lunch break. When you don’t have food security, it’s really hard to move on to other topics of concern.
- Stuart Teacher satisfaction and retention. In a 2014 survey, only 25% of Stuart teachers said that the leadership is effective and just 32% said the school is a good place to work. See the lonely orange circle at the bottom of this graph for perspective. The president of the largest teachers’ organization in the county said, “There’s a lack of respect for folks in the building, many of whom have been there a long time and who know the population, the parents and the culture and feel like their opinions don’t matter.” You simply cannot maintain a positive learning environment without good teachers, and they have been leaving in droves.
- Teacher pay. (Largely related to the above point, but worthy on its own.) The Fairfax Country Public School (FCPS) system also needs to look at teacher salaries for the system as a whole. “Data gathered by the Washington Area Boards of Education looked at teacher salaries for fiscal year 2015. It shows Fairfax County teachers, with a master’s degree and 10 years on the job, rank second from the bottom when compared to 10 other school systems in Northern Virginia and Maryland. Fairfax teachers, with bachelor’s degrees, rank fifth in pay.” The average pay for teachers in the area with a bachelor’s degree: Falls Church $48,500, Arlington $48,228, Loudoun $47,500, Alexandria $47,242, Fairfax $46,756.
- Willston Center Usage. Despite the poor condition of the Willston Multi-Cultural Center, it currently serves the surrounding neighborhood with sorely needed adult education. The district supervisor seems to be finally listening to her constituents’ desire to have this building be converted for use as an elementary school, as it was many years ago when I attended it for first grade. This building is in the heart of a largely immigrant area and is in a perfect situation to address English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) needs for children as well as adults. I am not an educator but perhaps this could serve as an ESOL center for those requiring the more English instruction, later allowing children more comfortable with the language to matriculate to the other feeder schools.
- Fixing the Stuart feeder schools. With an influx of ESOL students in some elementary schools, some students are leaving their home schools for magnets. The competition, the overcrowding at the magnet schools are becoming drains on the student education. There were two recent stories about children pretending to be accepted into Ivy League schools based on social pressure. We need to better serve all kids at the level of education they require at all schools.
- Stabilizing the administration. FCPS made some promising moves in hiring Penny Gros as the principal and Shawn DeRose as the principal for Glasgow. They need time, resources, authority and community support to build the programs, restore the faith and allow the students to prosper.
- Resolution on class size. The McLean Citizens Association passed a formal Resolution concerning class sizes in Fairfax County Public Schools in which they asked that teacher to student ratios be evened out throughout Fairfax County without regard to the specific needs of the students. While this would reduce class sizes overall, it would also forgo the current needs-based staffing model, removing special needs teachers from helping those who require more assistance — like those learning English as a second language, and others at risk due to poverty. A staggering 31% of Stuart students have limited English proficiency and, therefore, require more attention in order to learn English as they try to keep up with their other subjects.
- Budget shortfall. The Fairfax Board of Supervisors failed to pass a school budget fulfilling the projected needs of the school system, after long negotiations with the school board. The budget is expected to be $8 million short this year and $100 million next year. (These numbers are based on estimates and seem to change quite often.) A lot has been written about this so I’m not going to rehash the arguments except one. If you do not approve a sizable chunk of taxes spent to educate children, thus providing them a better opportunity to become a law-abiding, tax-paying, productive member of society then what would you like your taxes spent on? Do you know the return of investment of getting a kid through high school? The state of Minnesota determined that the 15,200 high school dropouts from 2010 alone will result in a loss of nearly “$4 billion in lost wages, taxes, and productivity over their lifetimes.” So what percentage of county taxes is acceptable to you? The amount Fairfax spends per student is on the low side, although not the lowest in the immediate area. DC-area school systems with the top spending per student for 2014-2015 are: Arlington $19,040, Alexandria $17,041, Falls Church $17,109, Montgomery $15,351, Fairfax $13,519.
Lastly, in case some are getting the impression that this Virginia school is some sort of bastion of the Southern establishment (based on the name of the school), then you really know nothing about the demographics of the people who live here. Stuart is one of the most racially diverse and (dare I say) tolerant schools in the country. I know you can’t really quantify the latter. But I was there and I’m still there. You should read this from Stuart’s 2015 Valedictorian and this from National Geographic magazine.
[edit 8/26: It was pointed out to me that the salary figures were for teachers with a bachelor’s degree and not the master’s degree with 10 years of experience, mentioned elsewhere in the linked article. This has been corrected. Thanks, Zach.]