Sunday, June 28, 2015

FCCPS and Technology – the June 23 School Board Work Session

In February, over 60 Falls Church City families wrote to Dr. Jones and the School Board expressing their concerns regarding the use of technology in our schools – in full disclosure, I was one of them.   We expressed our concern that technology was being used where it didn’t fit, that there were problems in implementation, and that an undue burden was being placed on teachers.  The point was not to end the program, it was to improve the program.

On Tuesday evening, June 23, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and Mt. Daniel discussed their technology programs with the School Board.  The program has certainly been valuable to students across the schools, and in places was implemented with considerable forethought and training for teachers, students, and parents.  But there were problems too, and the activities that have taken place since February, including the school-specific tech meetings at Mary Ellen Henderson (which I attended) and Thomas Jefferson, and Tuesday’s School Board meeting, have left me more concerned, not less, than I was in February when the letter was sent. To be clear, this is not about the teachers, who are doing a great job and adjusting to all the new things they can do with technology. 

Our kids need to be prepared for the 21st Century, and I, as many, believe that technology has the capacity to make school more personalized, engaging, and relevant.  I also think that the school administration recognizes there were problems in transparency and communication around the program, especially at MEH.  However, I am not sure that the administration recognizes that the problems were not ONLY about communication, but about some elements of the program itself.  We are not “cranky parents” who don’t know what is going on the at the schools, but parents who don’t know enough about what is going on, and of what we do know, disagree significantly on a few issues, such as applying the same level of filtering of Internet content to twelfth graders and kindergartners.

Certainly the schools have made adjustments.  Principal Byrd described how the Digital Learning Team was convinced a bar needed to be set to ensure technology was used in the classroom, and thus developed the goal that technology should be used 50% of the time.  He said the team quickly realized that goal led to situations where the use of technology was “crowbarred in,” and so the expectation was removed.  That’s a good thing, of course, but it took some time for the effect of that goal to dissipate.  Some parents also felt like technology was being “crowbarred in” well into the year, and a student representative to the School Board asked at the June 23 School Board meeting about what the requirements were to use technology, because certain students felt the use of technology was forced sometimes.  I believe that good, experienced teachers were concerned.  Communication could also have been better here, as the 50% goal was present on the website until recently. 

By all accounts, the rollout at GM was the best planned and most successful.  Yet even there, according the information provided by Mr. Byrd, over a quarter of the teachers surveyed at GM disagreed or strongly disagreed that technology increased student productivity.  I’d bet that a neutral survey of teachers at MEH would show that a higher percentage would say that student productivity had decreased due to technology.

While I can’t speak for others, I at least would like to see metrics to ensure that the clear benefits of technology do not lead to overuse by students, rather than just trying to prevent underuse.  No parent I know worries about encouraging a kid to use a computer – we worry about limiting screen time and ensuring exercise and face-to-face interaction.  And that isn’t to say I don’t want my kids to learn coding, I do.  The topic under discussion is improving the use technology.

Last, I’d suggest we try change the tone on this topic.  I, and other parents, have been told that we don’t understand the technology and how the schools are using it, that we are in the extreme minority, and that we need to trust our schools and let them make the right decisions.  We certainly trust our teachers and schools, but I also think parents don’t want just to be informed about the decisions that have been made for them, but to be more involved in those decisions.  Principal Harris’ announcement at the MEH tech forum that he would include parents on the school’s Digital Learning Team is a big step in the right direction. 

Next time I hope to talk more specifically about Internet Safety.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Last Night’s School Board Meeting, and Some Thoughts about the Path Forward

Last evening I attended the June 16 School Board meeting and work session – well, part of it anyway.  The first part was on “technology” and was closed because the Virginia open meetings statute allows non-public government meetings when, for example, discussing specific cybersecurity threat and vulnerability issues.  There was a long, closed discussion, but for details, if any, we will need to wait until the official minutes are released.  As many of you know, this is an issue I am passionate about.

Much of the rest of meeting, which ran from 7 till past 10 pm, was about the interlocking issues of development in Falls Church City, its effect on school enrollment and taxes, and the planned commercial and school development around the current George Mason High School campus.  This is a classic “hairball,” issue, with many intertwined strands that are difficult to unwind, understand and resolve.  These include the positive potential for a new high school funded by commercial development that limits tax consequences for city residents, and the negative risks of accelerating growth in the student population, aging and inadequate school facilities, higher taxes, and political deadlock.

I won’t recap the full discussion, nor the prior Visioning session held at Mary Ellen Henderson to discuss the ideas for development of the new high school campus and the surrounding area.  If you want to catch up quickly, this presentation by the League of Women Voters provides a great explanation of the proposals for high school campus development from the League’s own prior Visioning session.  More documents are here if you are a glutton for policy:  And there are also resources available on the effect of development on school population – please feel free to post the ones you have found the most helpful.  The Economic Development Authority has a detailed model it uses to advise the City Council on the fiscal effects of new development projects.

The discussion is complex for a number of reasons, including because: development both raises revenue in taxes and imposes costs for services and schools; different types of development have different value in the market – for example, if development that includes housing has a higher value, it might provide more funds for building a school, even though pure commercial development would not raise school enrollment; school buildings can only hold so many students, and exceeding that number means trailers, crowded classes, or an entirely new building; and Falls Church City taxes are already higher than some surrounding jurisdictions. 

Because I am running for the School Board, let me offer a few of my own views on the path forward.
  • First, I hope we can agree that Falls Church City needs to maintain superb public schools.  Our schools have been and remain one of the key parts of our community.   They also support the property values that help make Falls Church a desirable place to live and which support city services. 
  • Second, cost is a concern.  The tax rate has limits both for people and businesses, and excessive taxes will drive a cycle that encourages businesses, families, and individuals to leave.   We need both great schools and efficient schools, and intelligent decisions about development.
  • Third, we have to recognize that Falls Church City is at a crossroads, and decisions will be made in the next few years that will determine its character for the next half-century.  There will be differences, and strongly-held ones.  But we need a civil discussion, including because in the big scheme of things we are very few, and each of us will go to meetings, attend services, and dine with the other for long time.  I have kids in the school system, but Carole and I lived here before they were born, and we plan to live here after they leave for their own homes.  We love the community, which would not be the same without the schools.

For me, as I say above, the schools need to be SUPERB.  Making sure we can do that, while maintaining and enhancing our community for all its members, is a critical task for both the School Board and the City Council.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Field Day

Yesterday Carole and I had the chance to volunteer at MEH's field day.  I confess this was favorite event at TJ, and after one year it is my favorite at MEH as well.  It involves the things I like most about Falls Church City and its schools - involved citizens and parents, committed teachers and school staff, great kids, and a community of people working together to have fun and for a purpose.  Plus, Carole and I got to work the water battle station.  My compliments to Mr. Coffren and Ms. Johnson and the whole staff for the event, to Beth Langan and Beth West, and to all the teachers who took up water squirters, including Principal Harris.