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At-Large Candidate McElveen Focuses on Equity, Discipline

Vienna resident answers questions about his campaign for the Fairfax County School Board

Ryan McElveen -- 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 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.

So where does that leave you in

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 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.

J J Madden April 08, 2011 at 11:06 AM
Thank you for giving this candidate an opportunity to speak. It was very interesting to hear his perspective and positions on the issues. Very novel to have someone running who was so recently in the school system. That you could give him so long to express himself and establish his credibility demonstrates the power of micro news.
J Anderson April 08, 2011 at 02:47 PM
Ryan....any thoughts on school lunch?
Ryan McElveen April 08, 2011 at 05:15 PM
Hi Jeff! You've inspired today's blog post on my website, http://www.ryanforschoolboard.com/blog.html, entitled "Chocolate Milk and its Discontents." I'd love to hear your thoughts. Ryan
Jeff Farr April 09, 2011 at 12:02 AM
Ryan - you will get my vote if you lay out a clear vision for changing the food served in FCPS cafeterias. It is a core issue for so many of us. Check out the RFFK Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/RealFood4Kids/173608012660637) and the RFFK Google Group (realfoodforkids@googlegroups.com). I'll be happy to send you the letter I recently mailed to FCPS's CFO, but need your email address. This issue is huge locally and nationally. FCPS is the 12th largest school district in the nation and its food services office is nothing more than an appendage of the food processing and manufacturing industries.
Ryan McElveen April 09, 2011 at 12:49 AM
Hi Jeff, I couldn't agree more. I'd be interested to see your group's proposals. My email is voteryanmc@gmail.com. Ryan
Graham April 09, 2011 at 09:48 PM
Mr. McElveen: I am puzzled that you have so many opinions on issues that advocacy groups have been working on for years, yet I have yet to hear that you have contacted any of them as a candidate. Where have you been? Do you truly understand how FCPS functions, what it's fundamental flaws are, how to correct them -- and how SERIOUS a budget of $2.2B is? One of the most notorious problems is FCPS's arrogance and dismissal of advocates, experts, and research-based solutions to problems. Yet you have not exhibited one of the most needed qualities of any SB member -- engaging stakeholders who know a helluva lot more about any single issue than any single board member ever could. I applaud your initiative. But the 11th largest school district in the country that eats up 53% of its county budget needs people with deep experience and proven ability to engage with stakeholders and collaborate with them to fix those serious flaws and make necessary improvements. Any candidate must give citizens, taxpayers, parents, and children confidence they're right for the job, heavy on experience along with theory. I may be completely wrong about you. I'm ready to be corrected. Please see our website for a little background on at least ONE issue. And I look forward to seeing you at upcoming events. -- Caroline Hemenway, director and co-founder, FairfaxZeroToleranceReform.org
Emily April 10, 2011 at 02:15 AM
Caroline - I see you have been busy attacking people on the Reston Patch and Vienna Patch, yet you have failed to find time to address the questions I posed to you in your Letter to the Editor. I will try again: Ms. Hemenway - I am confused by your Objective #2. You want to give Principals discretion for "ALL" offenses. Yet you want safe and secure schools and practices that keep drugs and weapons out of them. Under this Objective #2, a principal could give short term suspension for a child who bring a gun or heroin to school. Do you or do you not believe in zero tolerance for illegal drugs and guns? If a student brings an illegal drug such as pot into the school, what discipline would you suggest? Assume it is his first offense and he is an average student with no medical or psychological issues. Then thirdly, please answer whether it would be fair to our students that the Principal at another school chooses to do the opposite of what you do in the same situation.

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