By Asra Q. Nomani
Last week, Joanna Valencia, a Herndon, attorney and mother, drove her black Honda Odyssey minivan through northern Virginia traffic to pull onto Gatehouse Drive in Falls Church.
Five children piled out for an important mission at the headquarters for Fairfax County Public Schools: to stand up for their futures, specifically, in the Advanced Academic Program, the county's "gifted" education program.
Valencia's oldest son Diego, my son Shibli, and a handful of other children marched inside Room 1600 carrying lime-green signs emblazoned with a simple message for their elders on the Fairfax County School Board: "Stop and Think." With their parents, they wore red splashed on their clothes to symbolize the red in stop signs.
Above the young students, an important message hung on the wall: "We Believe in Our Children." But, while the Fairfax County school board had an opportunity to teach the children an important civics lesson in good governance and transparency, students instead witnessed political maneuvering that set the stage for back-room dealmaking, set to be revealed Thursday night (DEC 20) at another meeting of the school board. Tonight, again, parents and students will ask the school board to "stop and think" before putting in place immediate changes county school officials are seeking.
The current controversy over the gifted program began this fall when county school officials sprang on parents an "expansion" plan that would, among other things, require gifted students to go to advanced academic classes—many of them startups—in their neighorhood middle school, rather than at established gifted centers at certain middle schools. The speed of the proposed changes caused an appropriate uproar at public meetings with parents, with one school official dismissing the parent response as "pretty sad."
One goal was to increase the enrollment of Hispanic and black children, whom officials say are suffering from an "achievement gap," or "gifted gap," in comparison to children who are white and Asian. The plan came in the wake of a complaint filed this summer by the NAACP and a local group, Coalition of the Silence, alleging that Fairfax County Public Schools discriminated in admitting students to Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, a premier gifted high school in the country.
But many parents, as well as minority rights advocates, including the NAACP, argue that the "expansion" actually represents a dumbing down of the county's gifted program. To me, as a parent who cares about the future of our children and our country, that's "pretty sad." At kitchen tables around the county, parents are pouring through facilities maps, enrollment figures, test scores and parent feedback forms, challenging school officials on many of the assertions they are putting forward and asserting, quite rightly, that Fairfax County Public Schools is railroading parents, ramming a plan through the school board.
At last week's board meeting, the twelve school board members had a wide-ranging discussion about gifted education, which affects the country's ability to compete internationally, particularly in the fields of math, science and technology. Board member Ted Velkoff, assigned the task of running the meeting, handed out poker chips that members could "cash" in for speaking time. Dr. Joyce Van Tassel-Baska, the former director of the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William & Mary, explained the research showing the benefits of ability grouping for all students, not just gifted students.
Several board members eloquently argued the need to have a thoughtful conversation on gifted education, deferring any countywide changes until the county had that deeper discussion with parents, educators and community members. Most board members seemed to agree with them. Two board members, however, argued for piecemeal adoption of the bureaucrats' plan starting in fall 2013 for certain schools in their districts, without first having a countywide discussion.
With parents of Colombian and Peruvian ethnicity, my son's friend, Diego, is part of the "underrepresented minority" that Fairfax County Public Schools is trying to reach with its "expansion" plan. During the meeting, he held his sign high: "Stop and Think."
As the meeting set to close, it seemed as if the deeper conversation would be had and the staff recommendation to break up successful centers would be rejected. School Board member Sandy Evans offered a wise motion that the board fix overcrowding at three elementary schools but defer widespread action until the board could have a meaningful discussion about the county's program. Before a vote could be taken, the lame-duck superintendent, Jack Dale, pulled a fast one. He quietly and casually shot up on the projector a carefully-crafted document with a four-point summary of his "sense" of the board. It included a proposal – No. 2 - to let his staff implement new centers starting in fall 2013. Dale conceded the board would have to decide if the recommendation was too "aggressive."
Deadpan but with brow arched, Evans protested: "Number 2 just doesn't capture it all." Dale smiled. By evening's end, the board had agreed to let the board chair, Ilryong Moon, and Dale set the agenda for the next school board meeting on the issue.
"What just happened?" asked a perplexed middle-schooler, witnessing the sleight of hand.
The meeting ended, poker chips collected, and the children of the county had learned an unfortunate but important civics lesson about the fast and loose world of politics. Indeed, this week, Fairfax County Public Schools officials put forward a new plan, again to implement centers starting in fall 2013, although parents and many board members have clearly sent them a message that they were moving way too fast.
At the meeting this week, and in the weeks ahead, I hope that the board will set a better example for the children of the county—and the country—and reject any quick moves, allowing first for a thoughtful conversation about how to help our children compete in the world of the 21st century. That's the least that our "stop and think kids" deserve.
Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, living in Great Falls.
For more information: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=vb.456206724436745&type=2
To sign a petition asking the School Board to "stop and think" please go to:http://www.change.org/petitions/fcps-school-board-postpone-the-proposed-restructuring-of-county-middle-school-aap-centers