On School Board Service: Tessie Wilson
After 12 years, Braddock District member says she hopes conversations about special education continue
As a parent in the early 1990s, Tessie Wilson navigated Fairfax County's special education system with her son, who had a learning disability — "a whole new game," for her family, she said.
"It's a whole different world out there … I really struggled to get him the services he needed and I struggled with my own feelings too about what was involved and how I could provide that for him," Wilson said.
Wilson wanted to take her experience a step further, advocating for a larger group of special education children in the county who hadn't often had a voice. Wilson ran when the school board first became an elected body in 1995, losing to current board member Ilryong Moon in the Braddock District seat race, a seat she took from him in 1999 and held through the 2003 and 2007 elections.
Twelve years later, Wilson, 62, is one of the longest-serving members on the board, one colleagues and parents say will take a "tremendous amount of knowledge and insight" with her when she steps down Dec. 31.
Wilson said one of the largest improvements since she first began on the board — other than abandoning what she called an extremely partisan decision-making process — is what the board has done in measuring and analyzing achievement. The gap between regular-track students and those in special education is larger than the minority student achievement gap, she said
"If you look overall, we're a phenomenal district. It's only when you slice and dice it and look at special education students, minority students, LEP students then you start to see that we're not doing as well as we could for some of those groups," Wilson said. "I think that's probably where the focus and the difference has been. … We're focusing more on those students who aren't achieving than we were before."
Aside from achievement, Wilson said she's tried hard to stay true to her mission of helping the county's special education population. She said she's raised awareness about those students needs, forced issues to the board in work sessions they wouldn't have otherwise discussed. The county now has an annual special education conference that attracts up to 800 people. And while Wilson says she can't take credit for hiring her, special education director Kim Dockery has improved the county's program "tremendously," Wilson said.
When the board first discussed special education students' performance on the Standard of Learning exams, Wilson said a former board member told her kids in special education are not cognitively able to complete standardized testing.
"It was all I could to not to fly across the table … that kind of reception is really quite disturbing," Wilson said. "My son has a degree in nursing from Johns Hopkins. Come on, give me a break. Those kind of perceptions, they bother me and I think they're still out there" both on the board and among some teachers.
For many members of the board and public, she said, special education issues are not an area of expertise, or even on the radar.
"We're reaching out more to that community than we did before but there are still huge issues," Wilson said. "Of all the populations I've worked with, that is sometimes the toughest population to work with. Many have huge obstacles to overcome, it's not easy. The frustration is there both on the part of the child and the parents."
Some of the other issues Wilson dealt with in the early parts of her tenure are things some recent Fairfax County residents wouldn't recognize: The battle over whether to teach phonics or whole language, and the work Wilson did with then-Braddock District Supervisor Sharon Bulova on gang prevention. They created a task force that cleaned up a nearby park that attracted much of the area's gang activity and also created after-school programs to give children a place to go instead of roaming the streets.
"It led to a countywide effort and we never really did have gang issues that a lot of other jurisdictions did that didn't wake up until the act they had a problem," she said.
Not all decisions have been easy. Wilson said the recent Annandale Boundary decision pitted two parent groups in her district against each other, "and that was pretty gut wrenching," she said.
"I know there are people that are not happy with that decision," Wilson said. "Any time you upset people at their core it's tough."
She said the board could have done a better job on discipline reforms, "although our hands were very tied because we were being criticized for individual cases and we couldn't respond" because of privacy issues, Wilson said. "We didn't do a good job explaining what we do and why."
But the characterization of some board members as "rubber stampers," a label that appeared during the 2011 election season, was unfair, she said.
"I, and other board members, do disagree with the superintendent. My style is not to do it out in public and scream and rant and rave," Wilson said.
She said the board has made some progress on community engagement, but it may need to more closely examine what it considers successful engagement.
"It depends on what it is you're trying to engage the public on. If people think you're cutting fourth-grade strings, [you get a big turnout]. If people think the budget is normal or nothing is on the chopping block, you only get a handful of people. "
She said this was most recently seen leading up to the board's Dec. 15 vote to authorize interior video surveillance cameras in high schools. Wilson said she "doesn't think she got even 10 emails about the issue, "because it didn't affect [the people in Braddock District] directly," she said.
"I think we have to continue our efforts to engage the community but I don't think it's a failure when you don't have hundreds or thousands of people that show up for something," she said. "You have to understand what it is you're tying to measure and sometimes I think that gets lost in all of this."
As Wilson steps down from the board, she has plans to travel the Far East for six to eight weeks. Of all of her work on the board, she said, she'll miss the work she's done behind the scenes; the decisions that haven't been made in big public meetings or gotten media attention are among those with which she says she's truly helped her constituents.
"There are individual kids and families I've helped and those are the things I'm proudest of. There are the things that people don't know about but for those people … it makes a difference."