The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette and The Mt. Vernon Voice in the week of October 2, 2014.
Annual School Accreditation Reports a Mixed BagThe Virginia Department of Education has issued accreditation reports on our public schools. For our area, the results are mixed.First, it is important to understand that the state instituted new math tests this year. Statewide, 32% of schools were not fully accredited, largely because of new math tests. In Fairfax County, 171 of 191 schools (11%) were not fully accredited - 7 of the 20 Fairfax County schools with accreditation challenges were in the U.S. 1 Corridor.Hybla Valley ES returned to full accreditation this year notwithstanding having the highest free and reduced lunch (90.3%) and limited- English proficient populations (66.96%) in Fairfax County. Hybla Valley shows that committed teachers, principals, students and families can meet accreditation’s steepest challenges. They deserve a round of applause.
While Mount Vernon High School remained accredited with warning, MVHS improved student test scores in all categories. MVHS appears to be on the right track and I am optimistic that the school will be fully accredited next year.
Additionally, my alma mater, West Potomac High School, missed full accreditation for the first time by less than 0.5% on its math scores. While this is a concern, I am confident WPHS will receive full accreditation next year.Unfortunately, six other schools are still accredited with warning. Walt Whitman Intermediate School was accredited with warning for the first time due to English and Mathematics scores. Four other elementary schools in our area were accredited with warning after failing Science for the second year in a row: Bucknell, Woodlawn, Mount Vernon Woods, and Washington Mill.Last week, Senator Toddy Puller, Mount Vernon School Board Representative Dan Storck and I met with county school Superintendent Karen Garza and other administrators to learn FCPS’ immediate plans to help these schools improve student performance. While they pledged several measures which will help, long-term, we need major changes.First, we need to invest in the U.S. 1 Corridor. The reconstruction of U.S. 1, including the extension of the Yellow Line Metro, is key to bringing revitalization --housing, retail and higher-paying jobs with shorter commutes -- so that area families can achieve the economic stability.Second, we must make preschool available to all children. It is unacceptable that there are 14 preschools east of U.S. 1 and only one on the west side. The old Mount Vernon High School site is a perfect facility for a Head Start/Preschool Center. Universal preschool for 2,000 youngsters will cost at least $20 million per year, but we must make this critical, long-term investment.Third, every child must have a computing device, especially children in low-income families. Virtually every job requires computer skills and today’s children learn electronically. While FCPS deployed an electronic textbook program, many children in low-income communities do not have a device or broadband to use it. This will cost FCPS only about $250 per child or about $50 million per year system-wide, but it must be done – especially in the U.S. 1 Corridor. Fairfax County now lags behind the Virginia counties of Henrico, Chesterfield, Arlington and Alexandria. If we want to have the best schools in Virginia, we need to commit the resources.Fourth, our area deserves equal facilities - the Carl Sandburg Planetarium must be reopened. If our elementary school children are to do well in science, they must be inspired in the same ways I was with fellow students by the Fort Hunt High School Planetarium in the early 1980’s and FCPS must make its planetaria available to all of its students and not just the students in the wealthiest areas of our County.Fifth, we need to pay our teachers competitive salaries. Mid-career FCPS teachers earn $7,000 a year less than Arlington teachers. We cannot turn these schools around unless we pay competitive wages.All of these long-term solutions depend on funding. While I am hopeful more funding can come from the state in the long-term, in the next few years, Virginia’s economy has flat-lined forcing $800 million of cuts in the last six months and another $200 million cut likely before December 31. Increase funding will only come at the local level and Fairfax County should follow Supervisor Gerry Hyland’s lead -- implement a meals tax and revisit our real estate tax rate which is currently 10-15% below Prince William and Loudoun Counties.Fairfax County has long been known for its excellent schools and its residents have been willing to pay for them. The future of our children, our property values and our quality of life depend on strong schools.Please contact me at email@example.com if you have feedback. It is an honor to serve as your state delegate.