Red Apple Mom

October 12, 2011

FAIRGRADE Emails Prove Strauss Is Misleading Voters

Epstein Campaign Says School Board Chair Strauss is Misleading Public
– Emails Show Strauss Was Not Leading FAIRGRADE Effort As Claimed –
– Says Emails Also Show Brad Center Recently Misled Media for Strauss –

McLean, VA- Wednesday, October 12, 2011 – A dispute has emerged between Fairfax County School Board candidates Louise Epstein and Jane Strauss about Straussʼs level of involvement in the 2008-2009 FAIRGRADE initiative as a School Board member.

During the debate at McLean High School on 9.27.11, Strauss claimed she supported the FAIRGRADE initiative as early as 2007. Newly Released FAIRGRADE emails (click here)  from 2008-2009 clearly demonstrate that Strauss is misleading the public about her involvement.

Strauss is also misleading the public about the events that led up to the final January 22, 2009 vote on FAIRGRADEʼs grading reform proposals. Straussʼcampaign has gone so far as to publicly call Epstein a liar – a charge Strauss’ campaign has yet to substantiate.

In the debate, Strauss claimed she acted as the School Board whip to get the needed votes required for passage of FAIRGRADEʼs grading reform proposals.  In what appears to be a politically-motivated move, School Board member Brad Center submitted a letter to Patch.com, to support Straussʼ version of the events.

In his letter, Center claimed he only had “a couple of conversations” with Epstein regarding the final FAIRGRADE motion.    Newly released FAIRGRADE emails show 16 detailed information exchanges and email conversations between Center and Epstein – including a summary of one in-person dinner meeting, concerning Centerʼs strategy for getting FAIRGRADE passed.

These emails support Epsteinʼs version of events.

Clarification of the FACTS in this campaign issue is warranted for the following reasons:

1.  Strauss is engaging in dirty tricks campaigning. Strauss is maligning Epsteinʼs character and inflating her own level of alleged “involvement” with the FAIRGRADE initiative – not only at the beginning of the process, but also during the final push for passage of FAIRGRADE in Jan. 2009.

2.  Strauss is using School Board member Brad Center to cover up for exaggerating her alleged involvement with FAIRGRADE. In a recent letter to the editor printed on Patch.com, Center said he “had a couple of conversations” with Epstein.

In fact, the email record demonstrates a total of 16 detailed email exchanges sent from Brad Center to Louise Epstein about who would make the final FAIRGRADE motion, what the motion would say as well as on-going whip counts about which school board members were on board and which were not.

On January 16, 2009, Center advised FAIRGRADE “not to talk to Jane Strauss, Stu Gibson, Tessie Wilson or Kathy Smith.” As late as January 19, 2009, three days before the vote, Center stated that he “did not know either way if Janie is supportive of the motion or not.”

3.  Strauss is also using Sara Pacque-Margolis to cover up for Strauss’ exaggeration of her involvement with FAIRGRADE. Ms. Pacque-Margolis resigned from FAIRGRADEʼs leadership team eight months before the final School Board vote. Pacque-Margolis was not privy to conversations or emails concerning the final vote in January 2009.    She had no direct knowledge about which School Board members helped round up votes and which School Board members did not. Her recent comments in a letter to the editor are without merit and, like the letter from Brad    Center,    also    appear    politically    motivated.


4.  Straussʼ conduct is unbecoming of a School Board member. Strauss’ campaign has recklessly called a respected parent advocate a liar without adequately backing up this charge. Strauss has also failed to provide any documented proof that demonstrates that she personally advocated for and collaborated with the FAIRGRADE leadership team early in the process, and at the end, to get the motion supported by FAIRGRADE passed.

5.  If Strauss had been engaged as early on in the process as she claims, FAIRGRADE wouldn’t have taken 2 years to pass. It could have taken 6 months, like the Full-Day Kindergarten initiative, which Strauss quickly jumped on this election year. Instead, it took the efforts of FAIRGRADE leaders like Louise Epstein to secure grading policy reforms that put FCPS students on a level playing field with students from similarly competitive school districts.

6.  Epstein is known in the PTSA and parent advocacy communities for taking copious and accurate notes. Epstein is a former editor of the Harvard Law Review. As the emails demonstrate, Epstein carefully documented all conversations with FCPS officials – including Brad Center – to keep the other FAIRGRADE leaders fully informed about all
developments.

The following summaries from emails written during the FAIRGRADE process demonstrate Straussʼs failure to support FAIRGRADE until the very end, contrary to Centerʼs recent letter to the editor. The FAIRGRADE emails show that Strauss held back, tried to game the system for the school administration and then finally gave up only when she saw the votes were there for FAIRGRADEʼs proposal. The fact that Strauss arranged to make the critical motion on January 22, 2009 demonstrates that she is a crafty politician who knows how to claim credit for the hard work of others.

The full emails are attached in a separate PDF file –Click here for official FAIRGRADE emails

Here is a detailed timeline and summary of each email:

EMAIL SUMMARY of BRAD CENTER & LOUISE EPSTEIN CONTACT:

EMAIL 1: Date: 1.13.09 at 10:55:24pm – Louise Epstein summarizes her dinner meeting with Brad Center for the FAIRGRADE team.    Epstein writes that Center stated Janie never believed anything was wrong with FCPS grading policies and she is finally coming on board for political reasons.

EMAIL 2: Date: 1.14.09 at 8:01pm – Center informs Epstein that he will shop options and scenarios around to certain School Board members.

EMAIL 3: Date: 1.14.09 at 8:06 pm – Center advises FAIRGRADE to focus just on grading scale charts as the next step towards getting support for the motion.

EMAIL 4: Date: 1.15.09 at 06.55:16 pm – Center clarifies his level of support for grading scale options, in response to Epsteinʼs question.

EMAIL 5: Date: 1.15.09 at 10:41:42 pm – Center sends his personal email address to Louise Epstein.

EMAIL 6: Date: 1.16:09 at 14:37:04 pm – Center tells Louise to call him the next day and provides his home telephone number.

EMAIL 7: Date: 1.16.09 at 18:04:14 pm – Center asks Epstein for the FAIRGRADE 10-point scale. Says he’ll talk to Phil Neidzelski-Eichner, Dan Storck, Ilryong Moon, Kaye Kory and Liz Bradsher. He does not mention Jane Strauss.

EMAIL 8: Date: 1.16.09 at 18:07:17 – Louise Epstein sends the FAIRGRADE team a summary of her phone conversation with Center. In this call, Center
advised FAIRGRADE not to talk to Jane Strauss, Stu Gibson, Tessie Wilson or Kathy Smith.

EMAIL 9: Date: 1.16.09 at 18:43:47 pm – Center thanks Louise for providing info on FAIRGRADE positions.

EMAIL 10: Date: 1.16.09 at 18:45:50 pm – Center informs Louise that his personal email account is subject to FOIA and says “don’t put anything you don’t want to see in Washington Post.”

EMAIL 11: Date: 1.16.09 at 21:02:57 pm – Megan McLaughlin sends FAIRGRADE a summary of her phone conversation with Center. In this call, Center reiterated his concerns to Megan about Jane Strauss.

EMAIL 12: Date: 1.17.09 at 13:04:04 pm – Center informs Louise that Liz Bradsher emailed him info about D bracket.

EMAIL 13: Date: 1.17.09 at 14:54:46 pm – Center informs Louise he wants to secure commitments for a 10-point scale, and doesn’t want to get into debates about A+ or F ranges.

EMAIL 14: Date: 1.17.09 at 19:42:25 pm – Center informs Louise that Tina Hone’s father just died and she may not make the final vote.

EMAIL 15: Date: 1.18.10 at 1:26:16pm – Louise Epstein sends an email to FAIRGRADE team summarizing her phone call with Brad Center, where Brad stated that on the grading scale issue, FAIRGRADE could not count on Janie or Jim Raney but they both might ultimately vote for it.

EMAIL 16: Date: 1.18.09 at 6:51pm – Center informs Louise he is working with Dan Storck on a motion and says Ilyrong Moon is missing in action.

EMAIL 17: Date: 1.18.09 at 20:36:14 pm – Center says Moon is in agreement.

EMAIL 18: Date: 1.18.09 at 21:26:03 pm – Center asks FAIRGRADE to call School Board member Kaye Kory and states Dan Storck will make the main motion specifying a 10 point system with pluses and minuses.

EMAIL 19: Date: 1.19.09 at 15.24:08 pm – Center describes which School Board members are on board with the FAIRGRADE motion. Says in bullet 3 he does not know either way if Janie is supportive of the motion or not.

EMAIL 20: Date: 1.19.09 at 7:34:12 pm – Louise Epstein sends an email to FAIRGRADE team summarizing phone conversation with Brad. Email states that Ilryong Moon called Brad to say he would support the tweaked motion but that he wanted Janie to make the motion so she could get the credit.

EMAIL 21: Date: 1.21.09 at 9:28am – After days of emails and phone calls between Center and Epstein on the whip count and motion, Center informs Louise Epstein that Jane Strauss will propose the amendment changes on the night of the vote.

EMAIL    SUMMARY    REFUTING    STRAUSSʼ    CLAIMS    OF   “EARLY” INVOLVEMENT”

EMAIL 22:    9.9.08 AT 10:53PM – FAIRGRADE co-founder Sara Pacque-Margolis expresses frustration about Jane Struass’ lack of involvement in the issue. “I am on a singular mission within Dranesville for citizens to go on the offensive with Janie Strauss. She’s sugar and spice and making me ill – … has Janie Strauss ever attended a FAIRGRADE presentation? I don’t think she has.”

EMAIL 23: 9.16.08 at 9:12:02am – WUSA Channel 9 Reporter Peggy Fox is asked by FAIRGRADE to confirm if Strauss mentioned in a recent TV interview if she supported FAIRGRADE. Fox replies: “Jane said she is ‘not opposed’ to changing the grading policy. Not the same thing as saying she ‘supports.’”

EMAIL 23: 9.16.08 at 9:14:38am – WUSA Channel 9 Reporter Peggy Fox also states: “She and the other board members I spoke to, Jim Raney and Daniel Storck, said they wanted to wait for their own staff study before making decisions.”

EMAIL 24: 10.17.08 at 9:07pm – FAIRGRADE’s Director of Communications Catherine Lorenze sends an email to a Langley HS PTSA member thanking the LHS community for their support at a FAIRGRADE presentation and states, “I found it very interesting that in her remarks to Langley parents last night, Janie Strauss failed to mention where she personally stands on the issue. She had the perfect opportunity to demonstrate strong leadership on behalf of her constituents – tell us all where she stands – and she did not do so.”

###

For More Information:
Catherine Lorenze – Epstein for School Board Campaign Manager

FAIRGRADE & FCPS Discuss Grading Policies on WAMU-88.5 KOJO Nnamdi Show - July '08

Admissions Officers discuss FAIRGRADE - Aug. '08

Parent-made Poster to Support FAIRGRADE - Aug. '08

FAIRGRADE High School Presentation - Sept. '08

FAIRGRADE HS Presentation - Sept. '08

Business Alliance for FAIRGRADE Press Confernece - Oct. '08

Prepping FAIRGRADE Materials for Media - Oct. '08

Parents & Press Pack School Board Meeting for FAIRGRADE - Jan. '09

School Board Members Face a Packed Room for FAIRGRADE - Jan. '09

FAIRGRADE Team Addresses School Board & Hundreds of Supporters - Jan. '09

News Anchor Chris Core Interviews FAIRGRADE About Power of Parent Advocacy & FAIRGRADE's Success - Jan. '09

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September 27, 2011

Louise Epstein WON the Debate Big, Big, Big!

Louise Epstein CRUSHED School Board Chair Jane Strauss in their first debate held at McLean High School Monday night.

I know I’m biased as Louise’s campaign manager – but I have to say it – LOUISE ROCKED THE HOUSE – and that is not spin!

McLean Citizens Association Debate

Did Jane Strauss even bother to prepare?

All she offered were platitudes of the same old rhetoric we’ve been hearing for years.  zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Strauss kept saying we have to prepare for the classrooms of tomorrow.  Well it’s not like she hasn’t had THAT opportunity!  She’s been there for 18 years.  Why wasn’t she preparing her district (McLean, Great Falls and Herndon)  for that at least a decade ago?!

Oh that’s right – she was too busy diverting money from McLean, Great Falls and Herndon to the rest of the county while her own constituents suffered with the largest class sizes and fewest resources.  (And still do suffer!)

FAIRGRADE Leadership Team

Janie’s lowest point, however, was her shocking attempt to take credit for FAIRGRADE.  Janie was AWOL on this issue for nearly two years.   I know because as FAIRGRADE’s Director of Communications, I was there and so was Louise.  Here are the facts:   Janie and Ilyrong Moon coerced another School Board member, Brad Center – who did all the behind-the-scenes whip count for FAIRGRADE – to let them make the motion on FAIRGRADE  and save their political butts.

Moon, you may recall was running for Board of Supervisors at the time – a seat he lost.  Janie was so badly floundering on the FAIRGRADE issue that her constituents were turning on her big time.  So Brad threw Janie a lifeline and let her make the motion and a grandiose speech. Strauss can lie if she wants to but Louise and I – and the rest of the FAIRGRADE leadership team – were there.  The facts don’t lie.  Furthermore, if Janie was the leader she claims to be on this issue – why did it take two years to get FAIRGRADE passed?  Pathetic.

Just some of the FAIRGRADE's awesome parents!!!

During the debate Louise exhibited excitement, an extreme depth of the issues, and she provided fresh insight about her motivations to strengthen our public school system with new leadership.  Many in the audience were surprised to learn that Louise grew up poor in New York’s projects with her mom and disabled father.  She went to Harvard on financial aid.  Louise conveyed how those experiences gave her a compassion for all kids because she’s experienced both poverty and prosperity in her own life.

Want to learn more?  Here are my notes from the debate and a copy of Louise’s campaign spot.

The debate sponsors wouldn’t let us videotape the event.  While the attachment below is not an official transcript, it does provide additional content from the debate.  Please read it and share with others who are interested in the race for School Board.

Esptein-Strauss Debate Notes

If you have trouble viewing the embedded spot, click on this link and you will be directly routed to Epstein’s campaign spot: http://www.louiseepstein4schoolboard.com/adsvideos.html

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Louise Epstein “Who Are You Voting For School B…, posted with vodpod

September 1, 2011

Honors Curriculum Delivered “Max Headroom” Style?

FACTS:

  • Over 1000 people have signed FAIRGRADE’s iPetition calling on FCPS to bring back upper-level, high school Honors courses.
  • FAIRGRADE and the Restore Honors group have advocated for this issue since February 2011.
  • The School Board held a work session on this issue AND DIRECTED the superintendent and his staff to bring them more information so that THE SCHOOL BOARD could make some informed decisions.

Any reasonable parent, teacher and taxpayer would think the process would play out with our elected officials – School Board members – engaging the public and teachers right?

WRONG.

Last Friday, Superintendent Dale informed the School Board that HE was making the decision to put two courses on-line and call them HONORS even though these classes will utilize the AP curriculum.  Good solution?   No.  Here’s why:

1.  Dale’s solution is not an HONORS solution.  The HONORS curriculum already exists so why not put THAT online? HONORS courses are appropriate, high school level courses.  Instead, Dale is putting up college-level AP course material but not requiring participating students to take the AP exam.  Since the student won’t be required to take the AP exam, how will there be any measurement that they mastered the material? Furthermore, parents and students want the high school HONORS curriculum- not “AP-Lite.”  Students already have the more demanding AP option and have expressed the desire to combine AP with less rigorous but still demanding HONORS courses.

2. Dale’s solution to parents’ calls for more rigor in curriculum choices puts students in front of a computer screen without a teacher who could provide the critical student feedback and engagement required of an upper-level course.  According to the proposal, students will meet “virtually” with their teacher one night per week.  How is this “Max Headroom” delivery going to work and are teachers really okay with that?!

3.  Once again, our unelected Superintendent is making curriculum and policy decisions WITHOUT proper oversight and approval from our ELECTED School Board members.  Why do we even have a school board then?!

4.  Principals, to FAIRGRADE’s knowledge, have been given no implementation plan for this proposal.  At least one principal has told FAIRGRADE he was very surprised to have this sprung on him only a week before school officially begins. This principal was emailing other principal colleagues for their input about handling potential teacher reassignments.  How’s that for poor FCPS planning?!

Here is the real story on Dale’s solution.  In part, it’s all political.  School Board Chair Janie Strauss can now run around and tell parents, “Look we listened.  We’re offering the courses on-line.  And in the process we’re going high-tech for students.”  In doing so, she’s hoping the HONORS issue won’t be a drag on her re-election campaign.  She’ll tell parents the problem is now solved – except the issue is not solved, and I bet she won’t tell parents any of the drawbacks I just outlined above.

Dale’s solution is also a set-up for failure of upper-level, HONORS courses.  It is poorly designed and contains no implementation plan.  Students don’t even know this option exists yet because principals just found out about it themselves.  And if students don’t know about it, then they won’t take the classes.  And that’s when FCPS will deliver the final HONORS death blow by announcing that there is no longer student interest in upper-levels, HONORS courses.   Mission accomplished on FCPS’ part with ZERO benefit to our students.

It would be nice to know if other school districts are going online with these courses and if there are any published success rates.  How many FCPS parents want their child to be a guinea pig in FCPS’ expansion into the new “online frontier” without any data to examine first?  I don’t.

Unfortunately, there are no answers to these questions because our unelected superintendent and his staff have bypassed the School Board and did not get approval for this serious curriculum alteration. Parents upset with Dale’s solution ought to personally hold Jane Strauss accountable for permitting this to happen on her watch as School Board chair!  Her lack of leadership on this issue is astounding!

Final points to consider – these two proposed online courses are NOT honors material.  That much is clear.  Kudos that FCPS wants to go online but we should have a community-wide discussion about all aspects of this education delivery vehicle first.    If the goal is to go online, why not begin with foreign languages first?  Programs like Rosetta Stone can provide student feedback without a teacher.   Can FCPS say the same about advanced courses?  Without an engaged School Board to ask these questions, we don’t know.

Related News Articles:

Fairfax County Schools to Offer Honors Courses Online  (Washington Post – 9.1.11)

Online Honors Class Offerings Spark New Debate (Fairfax County Times – 9.2.11)

July 7, 2011

FCPS Flexing Its Muscle to Kill Upper-Level Honors Courses

Fairfax County Public Schools is exerting its muscle in trying to kill the effort by parents and teachers (and privately some principals) to re-institute upper-level, high school honors courses for 11th and 12th graders.

The most critical point now is this:

  • FCPS officials are misleading School Board members by telling them that 100% of FCPS high school principals across the county are on board with FCPS’ phase-out of these upper level, high school honors courses.  However, some high school principals are privately reaching out and telling FAIRGRADE they want to KEEP these classes.  They know these classes benefit our student population across the board.

I will not identify who these principals are because they justifiably fear the Superintendent’s powerful machine.  Dale and company hold the careers of these principals in their hands.  Last spring, we saw negative repercussions for teachers at West Potomac High School who publicly spoke out in support of keeping these Honors courses.  So who could blame these principals for wanting to remain anonymous?

It’s a sorry state of affairs that this fine school district conducts business this way.  School Board members can still get to the TRUTH  and bypass  Superintendent Jack Dale’s iron fist if they really want to.

One option for School Board members is this:  Reach out and speak privately and directly with as many FCPS high school principals as possible before the July 18th work session on this issue.  Solicit their views and assure these principals that their identities will remain private so as not to jeopardize their careers.

With hope,  enough School Board members will see FCPS’ attempts to whitewash the truth and rise to the moment – as they did when they agreed to change FCPS’ grading policies in 2009.  They told the Superintendent NO then – and they should do it again.

Right now, our great school district is on the edge of a curriculum cliff.  FCPS can offer fewer options that serve fewer students or they can offer a three-tiered curriculum, including Honors courses, that gives students a wider range of learning options.

In this case, more is better and FAIRGRADE has the facts to prove this point.

School Board members – please pick up the phone and reach out to our high school principals.  Don’t take this school district over the cliff without the facts.  FCPS’ all-out pursuit to close the achievement gap should not be done at the expense of FCPS’s reputation to deliver a quality education to ALL students.

June 3, 2011

School Board Partying That Goes too Far

Some of our School Board members and School Board candidates sure do LOVE to party.

School Board is a non-partisan position.

Kids don’t come with R’s and D’s on their foreheads and I don’t want my School Board members to either.

The sad reality is that running for School Board in Fairfax County does require a party endorsement in order to run a viable campaign.

The problem is, one party is taking “the party” too far.

The Fairfax County Democrats issued their endorsements last week. (See news coverage below)  Their selections are mostly the same old same old – based on who has served “the party” and who has been around the longest. 

Grandmother Janie Strauss is in her second decade on the School Board.  Snooooozzzzzzeeeeee.  Can’t she go do something else already?

Ilyrong Moon – the human weather vane who can’t cast a vote until he sees which way the political winds are blowing – was first elected in 1995.   Can’t he go do something else too?    School Board shouldn’t be a lifetime position!

Kathy Smith – the current School Board chair – is responsible for leading the school district right into Fairfax County Circuit Court over Open Meetings Law and FOIA violations and costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands in legal fees.  She really needs to go!  Taxpayers can’t afford her.

These incumbents don’t deliver results – unless of course it’s an election year and then they throw teachers a token 1% pay increase.   For the most part though, they’ve delivered nothing but higher administrative spending and rubber-stamping for the Superintendent’s proposals that are often in conflict with what the public wants.  They need to go.

The Democrats blew it on their At-Large School Board candidate selections too.  They chose a guy who is Kathy Smith’s protegé and who is on the record writing nasty letters to the editor about parent advocates.  He’s a smooth talker and apparently it was his political party connections that secured his nomination over more highly qualified parent advocates who were seeking the Democrats’ blessing.   The party also endorsed another At-Large candidate whose claim to fame is her relation to Mike Espy – former Secretary of the Department of  Agriculture.  How that candidate’s connection to a pseudo-celebrity is supposed to make her an effective School Board member is beyond me.   Smells like nothing more than political nepotism.

The Democrats did get it right with two of their endorsed nominees –  Sandy Evans and Megan McLaughlin.  Both rightly received their party’s endorsement because they are highly qualified to run and both have strong records working on behalf of taxpayers, teachers and parent advocates.  I’m proud to be assisting both of their campaigns.

I’m advising ten candidates running for School Board and personally serving as campaign manager for two races.  There is plenty of “reformer talent” in both parties to do the job.  I know because the candidates whose campaigns I’m assisting are from both parties.

FAIRGRADE's Megan McLaughlin

Sandy Evans - Mason District

Party regulars aren’t pleased though.  Some of my candidates have told me they have received calls from their party leaders saying, “You know your advisor (Red Apple Mom) is working for candidates from that ‘other’ party.  You shouldn’t be working with her.”

May I remind all party leaders out there – SCHOOL BOARD IS NON-PARTISAN.  There is a reason for that.  Kids don’t come with R’s and D’s on their foreheads.  THIS IS ABOUT EDUCATION – not politics.

I have worked extremely hard for the past three years to build up FAIRGRADE and the Fairfax Education Coalition – both bi-partisan groups – in the hope that endorsements from parent and teacher groups will as valuable, if not more valuable, to voters than political party endorsements.

Red Apple Mom readers are savvy.  You get it.  You understand that our School Board needs reform-minded candidates focused on education, not politics.  So when scrutinizing candidate websites and literature, ask yourself:  “Is this candidate more focused on politics than education?   Is their list of endorsements filled with political leaders or leaders from parent groups, teacher groups, taxpayer and community groups?” 

You want a candidate to represent YOU and YOUR child.  If a candidate is all about “the party”, who do you think will come first – the party or your child?  Choose carefully.

There are less than 23 weeks to the election on November 8th.  If you want real change, don’t sit on the sidelines.  Get involved now.  Find a reformer candidate.  Volunteer and donate.  Reformer candidates from both parties need our support.  Voters can vote for one district candidate and three At-Large candidates.  There are a total of 12 School Board members (9 district reps and 3 At-Large reps).

Here are some of the candidates I’m actively supporting and advising.  (Most of them are running with a Republican endorsement because a majority of the School Board is Democratic and many of the Democratic incumbents are running again.  I am supporting challenger candidates and open seat candidates who weren’t recruited by sitting School Board members since that is the only way we are going to get REAL CHANGE with new ideas and fresh leadership!)

Please check out their websites, share with others and get involved:

Lolita Mancheno-Smoak, At-Large – Open Seat:  www.Lolita4SchoolBoard.com

Louise Epstein, Dranesville District – Challenging Incumbent Janie Strauss:  www.LouiseEpstein4SchoolBoard.com

Megan McLaughlin, Braddock District – Open Seat:  www.McLaughlinforSchoolBoard.com

Patty Reed, Providence District:  www.ReedforSchoolBoard.com

Sandy Evans, Mason District: website under construction

Elizabeth Schultz, Springfield District – Open Seat:  www.ElizabethSchultzforSchoolBoard.com

Sheila Ratnam, Sully District – Challenging Incumbent Kathy Smith:  www.SheilaRatnam.org

Michelle Nellenbach, Mount Vernon District – Challenging Incumbent Dan Storck:  www.Nellenbach.com

Nancy Linton, Hunter Mills District, Open Seat:  www.NancyLintonforSchoolBoard.org

Sheree Brown-Kaplan, At-Large:   website coming soon

Related Articles:

Democrats Pick School Board Candidates Amid Controversy  (The Connection Newspaper, May 28, 2011)

Democrats Endorse Two School Board Candidates Without Majority  (Patch.com, May 25, 2011)

School Board Candidate Allen Calls Process “Pathetic” – Will Continue to Run (Patch.com, May 25, 2011)

Time For New Leadership (The Connection Newspaper, February 15, 2011)

Stick With Facts (The Connection Newspapers, August 5, 2010)

June 1, 2011

Hey Jay Mathews – No Need to Re-Invent the Wheel on Honors

The Washington Post

Image via Wikipedia

Jay Mathews’ column in Monday’s Washington Post asserts that Fairfax County parents who are fighting to bring back Honors courses should place their efforts on “reforming” what constitutes an Honors course.  As a member of FAIRGRADE’s leadership team, Jay contacted me last week while prepping material for his column.

Jay’s idea is that FAIRGRADE and other advocates should follow Alexandria public school system’s approach which mixes AP students and regular students in one class – giving the AP students more homework.  Jay says this approach has inspired Gen Ed students to switch to AP.

And that is all well and good – for Alexandria.

As I pointed out to Jay – Alexandria has one high school.  Fairfax County has 26.  It’s comparing apples to oranges.  What works for TC Williams HS in Alexandria is hardly applicable in Fairfax County when you consider our very large class sizes and varying student demographics.  I also asked Jay to survey our teacher unions for their opinions before advocating for this “combo class” approach in his nationally read column.  FCPS teachers tell me they are already overloaded with classroom responsibilities.

Jay asks at the end of his column, “The national trend is fewer tracks (gen.ed and AP – no honors). Why not show that Fairfax can do even better than other systems?”

I asked Jay, “Why not let Fairfax demonstrate that this national trend might be wrong in the first place?”

The data that parent groups like FAIRGRADE are bringing forth does raise serious questions.

My FAIRGRADE colleague Megan McLaughlin agreed to let me re-produce her message points she sent to Jay:

1.  Your column made NO mention of the fact that FCPS data shows that “on average” approximately 30% FCPS AP test-takers do NOT pass their exams in AP English and Social studies.  Why did you not cite this, and cite the fact this demonstrates students have NOT mastered the subject material? For those students, Honors courses could be a better fit.

2. Your column made NO mention that FCPS’ data shows 2-tier levels actually INHIBIT students’ pursuit of academic rigor.  (Approx 50% of Woodson’s Honors English students opt-out of AP English for 11th/12th grade and end up w/no option but Gen Ed. Furthermore, FCPS data on under-represented minority participation in AP courses has been virtually stagnant (FCPS Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee Report 2010)

2.  Your column stated that Montgomery County and Loudoun County are reducing their Upper-level Honors in English & Social Studies.  What evidence do you have of this, as it contradicts our research as well as the Washington Post’s article by Kevin Sieff printed on May 21st?

3.  Your column stated that Peter Noonan (FCPS Superintendent for Instructional Services) has “seen the research” that 3-tier levels can cause students to follow their friends and NOT take more rigorous courses.  PLEASE cite his research source. If you don’t have it, why would you include this in your column w/o verifying it?  I will re-send the ONLY research that Noonan provided the public, and ironically it does NOT support the removal of upper-level HONORS courses.

4.  While FCPS should encourage MORE students to pursue Upper-level college-prep/honors courses, they still need to provide Gen Ed for those who may need it (ie: ESL, Special Ed, etc).

5. In terms of ACADEMIC EQUITY, why does FCPS offer Upper-level HONORS in Math/Sciences but not for English & Social Studies? Why do the IB schools have 3-tiers (Gen Ed, Standard IB, Higher-level IB) but AP schools aren’t allowed to?

6. West Potomac/RHC parents have specific Honors/AP teachers who have been professionally punished for speaking out on this issue. That is a story that I hope Kevin Sieff, you or the Washington Post will write about.

My last thoughts for Jay Mathews…

Participating in your child’s education shouldn’t mean doing FCPS administrators jobs on data-gathering for them – and for free no less!

Jay wants Fairfax to “lead the nation” on this issue.  If FCPS administrators agree, then parents and teachers deserve a full review of all the data to determine what is best for our students before asking them to serve as “combo-class guinea pigs” for the nation.  I care more that our students in Fairfax County receive a well-rounded education and curriculum offerings that meet their needs – and Honors courses do that.  So let’s not re-invent the wheel.

Related Articles:

Why Not Honors Courses For All?  (Washington Post, May 30, 2011)

School districts Move Away from Honors Classes in Favor of AP Courses – (Washington Post, May 21)

A Questions of Honor – (The Connection Newspaper, May 18, 2011)

April 28, 2011

Restore the Honors Courses

I don’t know how many more questionable policy-making decisions I can take from FCPS.

The latest?  The gradual elimination that has taken place of most English & Social Studies Honors level courses for 10th, 11th and 12th graders when there is a corresponding AP course offered.  FCPS has been conducting this phase-out over a number of years.  No one really noticed it was happening. Only recently did the popular documentary, “Race to Nowhere” get a lot of people asking where all the Honors classes had gone.

These honors courses need to be restored.

Never mind that this decision to eliminate these courses appears to have been made without a definitive vote by the School Board.  Never mind that the “evidence” FCPS’ Department of Instructional Services has produced to “justify” this decision appears to be a misinterpretation of the data.

The bigger concerns here are the negative impact on FCPS student achievement and college admissions opportunities.

Elimination of these courses, which include English Honors 11, English Honors 12, World History Geography 2, US History Honors and Government Honors, means our high school students have limited curriculum choices.  They can take a Gen Ed course which many students find less challenging and not as rigorous as the Honors option –  or they can load up on AP classes – whether they are ready and capable or not.

Equally high performing and competitive school districts in our area  – including Montgomery, Howard and Loudoun counties offer their students a 3-tiered curriculum that includes these English and Social Studies Honors courses.

So why is FCPS making decisions that in effect make our students less competitive?

FCPS’ 2-tier curriculum is like a restaurant menu that offers only two choices –a plate of rice or a plate of meat.

Where are the vegetables?

You need the vegetables.

Students deserve the additional choice of Honors course options for the challenging educational value they provide.

FCPS School Board Chair Kathy Smith disagrees.

Yesterday, Smith told WAMU-88.5 public radio station reporter Jonathan Wilson “I think we are better served – when a kid has a choice and wants to take a more rigorous course – if we can put them in an AP class.  It’s been proven through studies that those kids are more successful in college.”

Smith doesn’t seem to grasp that not everyone is ready for an AP course.  Importantly, not every student is capable of taking 4-5 AP courses in one year either.  Even FCPS recommends that students take no more than 2-3 AP courses per year.

FAIRGRADE and another parent advocacy group called Restore Honors Courses (RHC) recently learned that at Woodson High School, the data demonstrates students who formerly were taking Honors courses are now choosing Gen Ed classes over AP when the Honors option is no longer available.

Does FCPS know if this is happening in the rest of our high schools too?   And why are parents and teachers doing the research and compiling the data that FCPS administrators should have done a long time ago?!

Here’s another aspect of this issue to consider:  Remember how hard the community fought alongside FAIRGRADE to gain the extra 0.50 GPA weight for Honors courses?  The removal of these Honors courses means that the student who doesn’t want to take the college level AP course only has the option for the Gen Ed version now – and Gen Ed classes don’t get extra GPA weighting.  That results in a less competitive kid when college admissions officers are looking for academic rigor on a student’s transcript and top GPAs for merit scholarships.

School Board – I hope you’ll reverse this decline of our curriculum offerings and restore these five Honors courses or we may see students submitting letters like this with their college applications:

“Dear College Admissions Officer,

FCPS doesn’t offer a three-tiered curriculum like equally competitive school districts.  My only choice was to stress out and take a full load of 4 or more AP courses, which FCPS by the way discourages, or taking Gen Ed courses. 

As I tried to balance my weekend job, school and sports schedule in order to be a sane, well-prepared student, I took FCPS’ recommendation of only taking 2-3 AP courses. 

Please do not be misled by the lack of rigor on my transcript.  If there had been an Honors course alternative, I could have and would have taken it.  Of course I would have had a higher GPA then too. 

I’m sure you understand.  After all, EVERYONE does know how great Fairfax County Public Schools are right?”

March 23, 2011

Political Jiu Jitsu for 2011 School Board Elections

It’s not even April yet, and some School Board members are already trying to frame the November elections for School Board.

That tells me one thing – they’re running scared about being replaced by voters.

Their apparent strategy, as outlined in a recent Fairfax Times article, is to falsely depict all challengers as “one-issue” candidates who won’t serve the “whole” community.

Their strategy is also to make “student achievement” the sole focus of any campaign.

Here’s the problem for sitting school board members – the public is generally motivated to vote because of hot-button issues.  And FCPS has served up plenty of hot-button issues the past four years.  (See several outlined below.)

School Board Member Liz Bradsher told the Fairfax Times, “It’s important for whoever runs for the School Board not to be a one-issue candidate because that’s bad for the school system.”

Hmmmm…actually what’s bad for the school system is School Board meetings that violate Virginia’s Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Act – violations that have recently led to expensive court action over the Clifton ES closure.

What’s also bad for the school system is School Board members who are out of touch and fail to be ahead of the curve on issues like FAIRGRADE, discipline reform and administrative spending priorities.

The current crop of School Board challengers aren’t one-issue candidates.  They have proven to be effective parent advocates who use data and evidence to validate their positions.  They use the law (like FOIA), to substantiate their concerns.  They advocate for accountability and transparent decision-making.  Most importantly, the issues they advocate for have all been directly or indirectly related to ‘student achievement.” 

My favorite part of this article is at the end when At-Large School Board member Jim Raney states that having new people on the board with new views can also be a good thing. I’ll second that statement!

Too many School Board members want this job for life. Ilyrong Moon has been on the board since 1995.  Jane Strauss is going on her second DECADE of service.  We need school board members who have kids currently attending our public schools – board members who “get it” and can relate to today’s parents and taxpayers!

No one I speak to wants more super-sized classes, administrators buying plush new buildings for themselves and senseless policies that lead to low teacher and student morale.

New views are good and needed.  That means electing new talent that will help reform-minded board members like Patty Reed.  Running a campaign for School Board is a demanding and expensive commitment.  At the very least, all challenger candidates deserve fair consideration.  If you like what they stand for and what they have accomplished, please give them your help and your vote.  With your support, the public may finally get the School Board we deserve in Fairfax County!

GATEHOUSE II:  In 2007, the School Board voted for a second, new administration building that would have cost $130 million.  Known as the “Gatehouse II” debacle, parent advocates got the project killed by demonstrating the huge holes in FCPS’ business case.

FAIRGRADE:  In 2009, thousands of parents engaged in a year long campaign to convince Dr. Dale and the School Board that previous grading policies were harming college-bound graduates.  The leaders of FAIRGRADE devoted thousands of volunteer hours compiling the research and organizing the effort that finally led to an overhaul of the grading policy – despite the many obstacles thrown out by FCPS officials.

INCREASED CLASS SIZE:  In 2010, the School Board voted to increase class size.  Red Apple Mom readers know class size is a particular sore point for me as my son’s fifth grade class at Spring Hill ES now has 35 students (one student recently went home to Korea), and we have a third grade class with 33 students!   It’s unfair to the kids and the teachers!

INCREASED FEES: Public school became increasingly more expensive in 2010 with new athletic fees, higher parking fees and AP/IB testing fees (now rescinded due to a ruling  by Virginia’s attorney general.) 

PUNITIVE DISCIPLINARY POLICIES: We learned that FCPS’ discipline policies recently contributed to the suicide of a Woodson HS student. The public also learned just how excessively harsh these policies are –“involuntary school transfers”, lack of due process, lack of parent notification and a draconian and aggressive FCPS hearings process that treats Tylenol-takers the same as a drug dealer.  Thanks to the parent advocacy group Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform (FZTR) these policies may finally get reformed.

FULL-DAY KINDERGARTEN: Until FDK advocates forced the School Board to address the inequity at 37 of FCPS elementary schools, this issue wasn’t even on FCPS’ agenda this year.

TEACHER CONCERNS: From compensation issues to working conditions, FCPS’ teacher workforce has had it.  The ever-increasing demands of assessments and standardized tests and professional development requirements have taken a big toll.  FCPS’ teacher workforce is demoralized with many teachers saying they don’t have time to teach.

Related Articles:

© Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom, 2001. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

March 11, 2011

“Race To Nowhere” Documentary Spurring Debate & Solution Possibilities

If you haven’t yet seen the documentary “Race to Nowhere”, please do so as soon as possible.  This critically acclaimed documentary about America’s stressed out teens has a strong and growing grassroots following.  It’s a subject  many students and parents here in uber-performing Fairfax County can relate to and it demonstrates the extreme level of pressure on students of all ages to perform at the top of their game.

When I saw the film last month, I was left with this thought, “When did high school become college?”

My eldest child heads to high school next year.  My parenting approach is way more “Dolphin Mom” than “Tiger Mom”, so I’m not so concerned that I’ll be placing undue pressure on my child to be the best and brightest in school.  Like most parents, I only want my children to be their best and brightest.  But as the film pointed out, stress isn’t always parent-induced.  Kids today are placing huge amounts of stress upon themselves and the kids are primarily blaming school as the source of their stress.

As one of the leaders of FAIRGRADE, I am in contact with thousands of parents and kids.  So often, when I ask students how they like high school, their reply is, “I’m surviving.” I rarely hear, “Oh I really like it,” or “You know, it’s really challenging but I like it.” I never hear, “It’s fun.” Most often, the reply is, “I’m surviving,” followed by a heavy sigh.

I find that really disheartening.  The teen years are such a special time in life and high school should be fun – challenging and rigorous, but fun too.  High school is part of the great American experience.  My european and asian friends envy our American high school system that offers sports, prom, community engagement, great curriculums AND school spirit.

According to this documentary, it appears today’s educational demands are crushing some spirits rather than raising them.

I have yet to meet anyone in Fairfax County who thinks they had it tougher in high school than today’s kids attending FCPS high schools.  It was easier to get into a good college back then.  School budgets were more plentiful so sports and other after-school activities were more readily available.  Economic pressures to pay for college weren’t as intense.  Whacked out zero-tolerance policies didn’t exist.  There wasn’t a constant stream of standardized testing.  Today, however, the high school landscape is drastically different.  So it’s a good thing that the “Race to Nowhere” film is spurring debate about the new dynamic facing today’s school-aged children.

Here in Fairfax County, several advocacy groups and teachers are looking to provide solutions and lessen the stress on school-aged kids – particularly teens.

1. SLEEP has long been advocating for changes to the bell schedule so that teens in Fairfax County can have healthier school start times.  Because Fairfax County is so large, some of our high school students are catching buses well before 6:00am.  Compounding the problem are long bus rides to and from school which results in less free time, less time for completing homework and loss of critical REM sleep for growing teens.  Sleep-deprived teens are far more prone to stress than rested teens.

2. FAIRGRADE has joined another group of parents and teachers in asking FCPS to provide “evidence based research” that justifies the removal of HONORS ALTERNATIVE courses to AP CORE classes (English, Math, Science, Social Studies).  As it stands, most FCPS high schools only offer a two-tiered curriculum – Gen. Ed or AP – even though other equally competitive school districts in the nation offer their students a three-tiered curriculum – Gen. Ed, Honors Alternative to AP and AP.  Students may want the option of taking an Honors alternative AP course or mixing in some Honors courses with just a couple of AP courses rather than a full course load of demanding college-level courses.

3. Lessen Teacher Workload: Teachers in Fairfax County that I work closely with on advocacy issues report that teacher workload expectations ultimately trickle down to a greater workload on students.  The amount of standardized testing and practice testing is extreme.  It has become such a pressure cooker that cluster superintendents repeatedly check to see how much each teacher uses e-cart (Electronic Curriculum Assessment Resource Tool) – FCPS’ web-based learning assessment tool.  If a teacher isn’t using e-cart enough, they reportedly get a call from their cluster superintendent to increase student usage.

This whole thing reminds me of The Lucy Show where Lucy and Ethel get completely overwhelmed boxing chocolates on an ever faster moving assembly line.  The demands of standardized testing may be turning schools into standardized testing factories at the expense of critical learning!  Sure life “ain’t a box of chocolates” but the misery index in Fairfax County seems to be creeping up higher and higher.  Students and teachers clearly need relief.

We parents know it. Students know it.  Teachers know it.  Does our School Board and Superintendent know it?

Several school board members and FCPS administrators have attended screenings of this documentary at area FCPS high schools, so perhaps a real dialogue on these possible solutions is coming.  In the end, we all want successful students and teachers – not stressed out students and teachers.  In the end, we all want a creative and better work and learning environment in our schools.  Change can take a while in big bureaucracies like FCPS.  Students and teachers can’t afford a long wait.

© Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom, 2001. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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