Red Apple Mom

October 7, 2011

“Outside of the Box” Thinking for Needy Students That Works

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews posted an interesting column yesterday about a Charter School proposal in Fairfax County.   The premise of Mathews’ column is that charter schools and “rich” suburbs don’t mix.  (Washington Post online text – not mine.)   Mathews wrote about this topic because some former FCPS officials are proposing a public school charter to help low-income families.    Mathews doesn’t like the idea.  It’s not really clear why he holds this view exactly except that Mathews states, “Fairfax school officials have suggested to me that charters are just for struggling school systems.” 

I think it’s impressive former Fairfax County Public Schools officials are “thinking outside of the box” when it comes to our county’s needy students.    Why not?   Addressing poverty doesn’t have to be a one-size fits all model.

Here’s one option I know that works and that FCPS officials might examine.   A few years ago, my friend Terry introduced me to Mr. Tom Lewis – an impressive, retired DC police officer – who created The Fishing School in Washington, D.C.  Mr. Lewis provides after-school academic programs for at-risk youth.  The school is reliant on corporate and private donations as well as a major yearly fundraiser that my friend Terry organizes.

Fishing School Founder Tom Lewis with ABC's "Extreme Home Makeover" crew

After I heard Tom’s story, my husband and I became supporters of this terrific school.   Tom tells the heartbreaking story of his service in DC public schools as the on-site police officer.  Many of the children would ask “Officer Tom” if he would be their dad.   Tom learned that these children needed and craved personal attention.  He realized there was a critical time period each day – from 3pm to 11pm – when these poor kids really needed adult guidance and a place to stay off the streets until a parent or guardian returned home from work.

The Fishing School Pre-Renovation

When Tom retired, he took his policeman’s pension – bought a run-down crack house, fixed it up and opened The Fishing School to help needy children who wanted him to be “their dad.”  Two years ago, ABC’s “Extreme Home Make-Over” learned about Tom’s remarkable story.  Thanks to the ABC Network, that former crack house is now a shining new facility and some of the city’s most at-risk kids get tutoring help, a healthy meal and a safe place to play.

Tom was thinking outside of the box.   Tom didn’t wait for DC Schools to come up with a solution.  Tom didn’t wait for DC’s government to step in with funding.  Tom took it upon himself to help break the cycle of poverty in his neighborhood and in his own way. The results have been incredible.

I like the fact that these former FCPS officials are engaging in some similar “out of the box” thinking.  Maybe a charter school is one way and maybe it’s not.   But what’s the harm in trying?  If there are officials inside or outside of FCPS who can offer effective solutions that provide “wrap-around” services for poor families, then I for one want to hear more about it.

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)

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