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School Board Matters: Blue Skies and Smiles Shining So Bright

November 9, 2023

School Board meetings have become ground zero for the culture wars, so 4 Public Education is introducing a new blog called “School Board Matters” for 2023-24. It will include analysis and links to video, agenda, and votes that affect you and your student(s), including links to primary source documents to support involvement in your student’s experience and education. We hope this will provide better access to and understanding of the Fairfax County School Board, including their powers and duties, as governed by the Code of Virginia.

Although this blog will primarily focus on Fairfax County, we will share school board meeting reports from around the state, when possible.

 

The 11/9/23 Fairfax County School Board (FCSB) meeting began with a performance by Kilmer Middle School singers of the National Anthem, after which the FCSB certified the closed meeting and voted to approve assistant superintendent contracts discussed during the closed session.

The FCSB recognized two newly elected school board members in the audience: Sandy Anderson of Springfield and Matteo Dunne of Mt. Vernon. Newly elected at-large FCSB member Ilryung Moon joined the meeting later. The FCSB also recognized the Garrison Commander from Ft. Belvoir, Colonel Jones, who was attending in honor of the Purple Star school recognitions.

I don’t know if it was just me, but the feeling in the room was lighter and brighter than it has been for years. The FCSB seemed relaxed and happy to be seated together and ready to get business done.

Honestly, the feeling in the room was electric after the election of 12 FCSB members on Tuesday, November 7th. All 8 new and 4 incumbent school board members support our schools, students, and educators, and they wish to make our schools more equitable, inclusive, and successful during their four-year term that begins in 2024. I am lucky enough to have personally met each of these individuals and I look forward to covering them in the new year.

The FCSB shared three proclamations:

  • Renaming the gymnasium at Cedar Lane School, “The Tom Lundy Gym,” in honor of Mr. Lundy, an “inspirational leader, colleague, and friend. Mr. Lundy’s legacy at Cedar Lane School spanned over 20 years, starting as an intern and returning to lead the school through the pandemic as its principal.

  • A celebration of School Counselors, Social Workers, Nurses and Psychologists Month honors those who ensure the physical and mental health needs of our students. I agree with Ms. Cohen’s statement that many of us have kids who might not have survived school without school counseling.

  • “Veterans Day is observed annually on November 11th in the United States in honor of all those, living and deceased, who served with the U.S. armed forces to protect the freedoms that are so important to our nation’s democracy….Fairfax County Public Schools has strong ties to our Veterans, as our division serves over 14,000 military-connected students and their families. FCPS also proudly employs many Veterans who now serve as teachers, administrators and support staff for our schools and division departments.”

In honor of the recognition of the 18 Purple Star schools from across Fairfax county, Colonel Garrison Commander Messina highlighted the importance of this program and shared the experience of students who move so regularly for their parents' job. The photographs for all of the schools recognized took close to 10 minutes; however, this is insignificant in relation to the need to support students of military families.

Public Input

There were fewer speakers than normal during public input; however, all of them raised important issues and none of them yelled or said demeaning things, which was a nice change from the last couple of years:

  • An FCPS employee detailed concerns about warehouse supplies of toilet paper and paper towels and a complicated purchasing process that seems to have failed since schools are suffering shortages.

  • Rick Clayton of 4 Public Education spoke about the impact of three years of attacks on our schools and the FCSB. He thanked the school board members for their work in the face of personal attacks. He stated that the recent election was a referendum on the culture wars and book bans, and requested that public school opponents, who champion “parents rights”, listen to parents, because parents have spoken at the polls. He echoed the oft repeated statement, “Make school board meetings boring again.”

  • A South Lakes dad declared that it was a great week to be a progressive parent in Virginia. He thanked them for their service to the schools and celebrated their wins. He described in detail the culture wars and their awful impact in comparison to the successes of FCPS. He also advocated for boys volleyball, which is very popular.

  • A South Lakes Spartans mom asked for support for boys volleyball as a varsity sport. She shared the personal impact on her son: friendships, team building, leadership, skills growth. She said that 20 of 25 schools have signed interest forms so far.

  • Robert Rigby speaking on behalf of FCPS Pride asked that we all be allowed time to heal after so much divisive rhetoric. The voters rejected the politics of excluding and banning those less powerful. The election showed that transphobia, racism and disrespect of disabled people are not Fairfax values. He asked that the FCSB heal, listen and continue to do work, but cautions them against appeasing bigotry.

  • An elementary school mom shared that kids and our communities need to feel safe before they can heal from trauma. Mental health care is necessary and respect is something every single student deserves. FCPS must foster safe connections for all children and insist that every child access a safe, diverse, and inclusive environment.

  • A speaker thanked Dr. Reid for being the first Superintendent to support middle schools sports, which are related to equity, mental health, and school climate. He asked that FCPS expand basketball in middle school.

School Board Business

Academic Matters: Dr. Reid covered attendance and absenteeism. She shared how chronic absenteeism is directly related to poor performance and low academic progress. As much as missing two school days a month can be considered chronic absenteeism (i.e., missing 10% or more of school).

Prior to the pandemic, FCPS’s absentee rate was less than 10%, but since the pandemic, there has been a spike up to 17% in 2023; however, some of this is due to illness. She shared that the impact of absenteeism can be huge, especially for younger kids, which can increase drop out rates. FCPS has created a multi-tiered support plan, and are involving families in these efforts. Check out the full presentation for more information. Dr. Reid shared that the absentee rate is lower this year for the first quarter so far. FCSB members discussion points included:

  • Medically fragile children: Dr. Anderson discussed pressure on medically fragile children, and how outreach from the school can feel like pressure for families that are already under too much pressure.

  • State Accreditation: Ms. Keys-Gamarra asked about state efforts to tie accreditation with chronic absenteeism. Dr. Reid shared that the calculation evaluates the percentage of students that miss 10% or more (e.g. 2 days/month)

  • State guidance and funding: Dr. Reid shared that the Commonwealth of Virginia has not provided any funding to improve chronic absenteeism, despite it being a state-wide issue. Additionally, she shared that state guidance included sending kids into school even if they were sick. (Oh, hell no!)

  • Other Challenges: Dr. Reid and the FCSB discussed other challenges for kids, including caring for ill parents and food insecurity. Ms. McLaughlin noted that a one-size fits all obviously doesn't work, and that we need to speak to the families and to kids to find out why a student is chronically absent. Ms. McLaughlin reminded Dr. Reid that there is a negative impact related to scolding letters sent to families who are struggling. Dr. Reid agreed with this assessment.

Student Representative Matters: Ms. Karim gave updates on student efforts:

  • She reported on the Portrait of a Graduate program at Woodson that occurred on November 10th.vShe asked that Career Day be expanded beyond Woodson High School. (Note: My own kids are uninterested in this program. I have yet to figure out why.)

  • The Student Advisory Council is continuing to focus on food waste and inconsistency in grading policies.

  • TYE, a 501(c)(3) program run by the SEALS, has expanded to include camps focusing on expanding STEM in Title 1 schools.

  • Overwhelmingly, students support renaming Woodson High School to “Carter G. Woodson High School.”

Superintendent Matters: Dr. Reid outlined her school visits around the county during November, Family Engagement month, since families are an integral part of our schools. She discussed Purple Star school efforts, the passing of the School Bond, and the commended scholars announcement (628 Commended Scholars in FCPS).

A quick aside on the Commended Scholars. Many of you may not remember the 2023 hullabaloo from far right media about delayed notification of National Merit Commended Scholars. It took over the national news cycle until the media discovered that it was a non-issue to most FCPS parents and after FCPS released a summary report of findings. Unfortunately, Virginia’s Attorney General pursued a costly lawsuit against the FCSB on this subject–fortunately, he lost his case. I plan to examine this more thoroughly, as we are approaching the anniversary of the first far right media reports on the subject, and because I sat through hours of hearings on two politically-motivated cases related to it, which increased the legal bills of our school district.

Board Matters

Many thanks to the FCSB who moved the vote on renaming Woodson High School after the audience patiently waited for two-and-a-half hours. Dr. Reid presented the two months of community input results, including two surveys and two community meetings which found that there was overwhelming support for renaming W.T. Woodson to Carter G. Woodson. There was some giggling (and maybe a snort from me) when Dr. Reid mentioned that Phase II feedback included “82 responses that did not pertain to the question”--I can only imagine those responses. School board members shared their own experiences with Woodson constituents who overwhelmingly supported changing the name to Carter G. Woodson.

Ms. McLaughlin introduced the motion to rename Woodson to Carter G. Woodson High School. She gave a beautiful speech highlighting her own family’s two generations at Woodson and the connection of the community with the school. She shared that although Massive Resistance forced segregation, W.T. Woodson's papers show that he personally supported segregation, and that many current Woodson parents cited this as a reason to change the name because Superintendent W.T. Woodson wouldn’t have allowed their kids to attend school. Ms. McLaughlin listened to parents, alumni, boosters, and students who felt a deep sense of pride in the school, but had difficulty reconciling this pride with our segregationist past. She noted that 2024 will be the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, which is the perfect time to change.

The FCSB unanimously voted to change the name to Carter G. Woodson! In my own view, we cannot right the wrongs of our past, but we can learn from them and celebrate Carter G. Woodson who preserved Black History for our nation. This is especially important in a time when some are trying to remove that history from our classrooms and libraries.

Many thanks to Ms. McLaughlin, the rest of the FCSB, Dr. Reid, the principals, and staff for their efforts on this renaming process. This was a smoother process than previous renaming efforts, and also worked to be inclusive of many voices across the generations and county. If you would like to learn more, please read 4 Public Education’s blog “A Tale of Two Woodsons.”

The FCSB took a brief recess after the name change. Most of the audience (including me) left the room. Here are the rest of the agenda items discussed:

  • Superintendent’s Relationship with the Board (EE-8) Monitoring Report

  • Consent Agenda and votes

  • New Business: School bonds, Legislative Program, Strategic Goal Baseline Report.

Due to the late hour, board members chose not to give board reports. The meeting ended around 11:30 pm.

Additionally, there was a 11/14/23 FCSB Work Session that lasted nearly 6 hours, focusing on Strategic Plan Goal 3 (Academic Growth and Excellence) and FY 2025 Fiscal Forecast (agenda).

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