Ryan McElveen is the sixth Democratic candidate to join the at-large race for the Fairfax County School Board -- but the only one to go through the system recently as a student.
The 25-year-old graduate of the University of Virginia attended Westbriar Elementary School and Kilmer Middle School before graduating from Marshall High School in 2004.
Now, McElveen wants to use his recent experience in Fairfax County classrooms to help fix what he calls a disconnect between the realities of school curriculum and environment and the policies that are often "out of sync" with them.
McElveen currently works in educational programming at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and as a Mandarin Chinese tutor to local students. He will complete a Master’s of International Affairs from Columbia University in May. He has also worked for The Clinton Foundation and The Clinton Global Initiative; in the international operations and policy at The Boeing Company; and as assistant director of the Chinese language program at the UVA Center in Shanghai, China.
Patch talked with McElveen after his announcement about his campaign, his experience and the issues that inspired him to run.
Why did you decide to run for School Board?
I guess I first got interested in politics when I was a Fairfax County Student about a decade ago. At that time at Marshall High School, the bathrooms didn’t have stall doors on them. The policy had grown out of the movement to cut down on students doing drugs. At the time, it inspired me and made me realize, well, maybe county policies are out of sync with students’ daily lives, with teachers’ daily lives. It’s analogous with Fairfax County’s current draconian drug policy -- at that time I thought it was wrong for the county to take away basic rights just to satisfy a bureaucratic initiative, and now we’re seeing the same thing. Perhaps the county is out of touch with student and teacher interests.
First of all, I think the county's Zero Tolerance Policy is draconian and it doesn’t take into account the diversity of drug cases that Fairfax County sees. I think discipline should be a learning experience instead of a traumatizing event in students’ lives. I think it’s important to humanize discipline in the sense that when you look at individual cases from the outside it seems small, but in the life of an individual student it means the world to them. I think, for example, one of the current problems is that students are transferred away from their home school. When you take students away from their close friends and activities, you take away what’s most important to them. It’s not surprising that kids react strongly when that happens to them.
Do you think Superintendent Jack Dale’s recommendations take care of some of the issues you have with the system?
Dr. Dale’s recommendations are a good start. First of all, I think de-centralizing some of the punishments is a good idea. I think principals much better understand the circumstances of their schools and of their students and they should have more discretion. If someone brings Tylenol to school it shouldn’t go to a board. I think the principal should be able to handle that. I think also he’s proposed a mental health assessment after people have been suspended for five days and I think that’s a good start. I think limiting the use of school transfers is important.
Finally I think though you don’t allow elementary and middle school students to bring prescriptions or over the counter drugs to school, that high school students should be trusted to handle Tylenol and that kind of mediation on their own. After all, we trust them behind a the wheel of a car.
What other issues are important to you?
I’m the only candidate that has come through the Fairfax County School System in the past decade, so I think that gives me a special position or a special lens through which I can view issues. You know, in 2009 when President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor for The Supreme Court, he emphasized empathy as an important characteristic. As a school board member I think you also have to have empathy for students and teachers. I have that … My dad is a teacher in the school district and I was student.
For my campaign specifically I’m kind of campaigning around equity. I believe that a lot of things the school board has done in county policies have treated different populations in the county inequitably. First and foremost that’s seen in full day kindergarten. Dr. Dale has put this in [his proposed] budget for 2012 but its going to be up to school board to make sure that teachers are hired and school space is allocated so it can be expanded to the remaining 37 schools.
Secondly--this is a perennial issue – teachers in Fairfax County are not compensated as highly as those in Montgomery County, for example. The average pay in Montgomery County is about $10,000 a year more than that of Fairfax teachers. And I am glad to see that Dr. Dale has proposed a pay increase for them next year. Like I said it’s a perennial issue. School board members are going to have to push for it in the budget cycle
Equity was another problem in the athletic fees that were instituted last year. That was a big blow to a lot of people because parents who have active students have to budget an extra $1,000 to pay athletic fees alone. What those fees do is punish students who are most active and discourage students who are inactive from participating.
Finally, another thing my campaign is about is restoring the promise for the future, which involves putting more focus on languages, arts, sports, activities and internationalizing the curriculum. A lot of my experience has been in international studies. I’ve worked in China and at UVA on internationalizing curriculum. In order for Fairfax students to succeed, that has to be done.
You’re a resident of the Hunter Mill District. Why did you decide to run for an at-large seat, instead of the seat for your district?
The issues I’m interested in are important to the county at large. I’m not running on Hunter Mill specific issues. I’m running on issues that appeal to all teachers, all students. Being an at large member allows you to take a much broader view of issues and that’s certainly my goal.
You’re 25 years old – some people might say that’s too young to run for a school board position.
Well, to that I’d say I’m the only fully bald candidate so clearly I have the most experience [laughs]. But really, on a school board you need a variety of experiences. You need people that have empathy for students and someone who has gone through the school system recently – that probably has a much different and more recent perspective on issues . Not only students would appreciate that but I think teachers would appreciate it too, because I’m much more familiar with their classroom environment, and also with what goes on in college and how you can apply what you’ve learned in the school district. I haven’t been a PTA president. I haven’t been on any big council. But I have been a student and I think that’s the most important thing.