Improving education requires positive thinking
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
Mel Riddile has recently written about a venture by a group of individuals to form The Fairfax Leadership Academy, a charter school in the affluent Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) system in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. I wholeheartedly agreed with his strong support of this endeavor. But not everyone is equally supportive. In a recent article in the Washington Post Jay Mathews’ response to the proposal is unnecessarily negative and dismissive. It undermines unfairly a plan that deserves serious consideration.
In the interest of full disclosure
Last spring Eric Welch asked me to serve as a member of the board of directors of the Fairfax Leadership Academy. Since I live 3,000 miles away and am retired as a teacher, my involvement is far more advisory than hands-on, day-to-day participation. My role has been limited to advice on the math program, bell schedules and the evaluation process. I will never teach at the school, profit from the school or perhaps even visit the school. But I do know the individuals involved in the planning and have been able to observe the steps they have taken to have their vision become a reality. Thus, I see myself as being in a uniquely knowledgeable and somewhat objective position to discuss the merits of the Academy.
Why so negative?
In his initial paragraph concerning the proposed charter school Mr. Mathews says:
“Welcome to Fantasyland. Eric Welch just sent me a detailed plan for a public charter school in Fairfax County. He and several other people on the board of what they call the Fairfax Leadership Academy say they want to help low-income families with a school unlike any that local students have had before.”
After describing the group as “deluded” Mr. Mathews assesses their approach to gaining approval as:
“Organizers are trying to win School Board approval by groveling. Their written materials remind me of my graduate school days, reading 14th-century appeals to the Chinese emperor. ‘We recognize the merits of the current public schools in Fairfax County and do not enter this venture with any notion of trying to undermine the success of a great school system,’ they say. ‘Rather, our intention is to provide an educational program with a unique structure that will enhance the system’s ability to serve all of its students.’”
He offers their efforts a “Nice try” and a warning.
“There have never been any public charter schools in Fairfax County. There are no public charter schools anywhere in Northern Virginia. Every attempt to create one of those independently run public schools has died. Virginia law gives local school boards the power to veto charters in their territory.”
A very different perspective
It is historically accurate to say there has never been a charter school in FCPS. Of course, it would have been equally correct to say on December 16, 1903 that no man had ever flown and on July 19, 1969 no one had ever landed on the moon. While the Fairfax Leadership Academy is hardly in the category of flight or space exploration, the fact that it would be the first school of its kind in FCPS is hardly a reason to dismiss it with words like “Fantasy Land”, “deluded” and “grovel”.
This charter school is a legitimate and reasonable possibility. The people spearheading this proposal have the perfect combination of talent, experience, confidence, work ethic, wisdom and realism to create not only the first charter school in that district, but a successful one. They have worked with at-risk populations and know what methods will translate into academic success. Their commitment is enormous. Most have maintained full-time jobs while being on call virtually 24/7 to do whatever is necessary to push this Academy forward. As Mel Riddile has stated, the underpinnings of their vision of a school for underserved students is the perfect confluence of realism and idealism. They want to provide more time for students by expanding the school day and the length of the year. They will incorporate the best practices of AVID (Advancement through Individual Determination) and the International Baccalaureate Program. For the teaching staff there will be an improved collaborative evaluation process that will not only assess the talents of the faculty but improve them as well.
Eric Welch and his fellow board members have not taken any shortcuts in the pursuit of their school. They have spoken to members of the School Board, community, political leaders and colleagues. When they have been given suggestions for improvement they have made the necessary adjustments.
More than a single new school
The importance of this conversation is not the specific proposed charter school. It is a discussion of what needs to be done to improve education. People like Eric Welch and his colleagues who possess a clear vision for the steps required to improve learning should be encouraged - not dismissed or ridiculed. There is certainly no guarantee that the concept of the Fairfax Leadership Academy will attain its stated goals. Such an evaluation can only be made after a significant period of time. What is undeniable is that progress toward creating better schools will only occur when new ideas are fully explored.
Improving academic achievement is similar to refining a scientific theory. It should be a slow, methodical process whereby every step is measured, evaluated and refined. The Fairfax Leadership Academy and other innovative schools offer the opportunity for this kind of research. Negative and derogatory comments are of no value in this critical dialogue.