In Rush to Innovate, FCPS Dropped the Ball

Poor Outreach on Online Textbooks and AAP Centers a Self-Inflicted Wound

Last week, Mason District representative Sandy Evans and I had the opportunity to sit down with high school student leaders from the Falls Church, Annandale, Stuart and Thomas Jefferson communities, and we had barely begun our conversation before hands shot up to protest the new online mathematics textbooks. I was not surprised by their vociferousness — after all, change is always difficult. 

However, the ongoing shift to online textbooks continues to expose new problems, some foreseen and some unforeseen. As the students reiterated, publisher technical glitches, a shortage of hardback books and a lack of education in how to use the textbooks have left many students, parents and teachers in despair. Some parents have even had to resort to buying copies of the expensive hardback textbooks. To complicate matters, student computer and internet access remains a concern, as many students lack the necessary computer hardware and infrastructure at home. For example, the power outages accompanying Hurricane Sandy prevented students from completing their homework since their books required an internet connection and, of course, electricity. As the School Board was undergoing a massive turnover last year while textbook talks progressed, half of the Board had little knowledge of the looming changes. 

Around the same time I heard the first rumblings about the textbook situation at back-to-school nights in September, staff had begun to discuss potential changes to our AAP (Advanced Academic Placement) Centers by 2013 with the AAP Advisory Committee (AAPAC). The intentions of staff were good — to gain advance feedback from a highly knowledgeable group of community stakeholders. Yet as news of the potential changes spread, it appeared to the broader community that staff had made a decision without its feedback or input from the School Board. 

Both the online textbook and AAP Center changes are forward-looking steps for FCPS. There is little doubt that online textbooks, like their cousins Kindle and Nook, are the way of the future, and we must adapt to embrace them. Similarly, our current AAP Centers are bursting at the seams, and being able to teach our gifted children in their base pyramids with Center-like academic rigor is a significant aspirational goal. But asking our teachers and community to adapt to these changes during the same year they are facing state-mandated teacher evaluations, SOL changes, new elementary-level grading standards and multitudinous other initiatives, is unsustainable. Being in the midst of hiring a new Superintendent only adds to the concern that FCPS has rushed the implementation of these initiatives.

As a school system, we must acknowledge these mistakes so we can correct them as quickly as possible and avoid repeating them. FCPS took shortcuts by failing to implement a mathematics textbook pilot and failing to acknowledge that community engagement on potential AAP changes should come before releasing extensive plans. In a county with many diverse issues and complexities, there are bound to be problems stemming from county-wide initiatives, but these shortcuts in outreach have gouged a self-inflicted wound in the system.

On the other hand, these past few months have provided an important learning experience for FCPS, offering insight in how to better engage and educate the community. Since issues began to arise, staff has worked nonstop negotiating with online textbook publishers and laying out a schedule for AAP Center public engagement. The School Board is fully committed to working through these issues with the community in the coming months. Meanwhile, we will continue to prioritize narrowing the digital divide. We will continue to work toward building strong community schools. And we will continue to maintain our high-quality AAP program. The missteps over the past few months will not cause us to lose sight of the bigger picture: helping all of our children succeed.

Community meetings to discuss potential AAP Center changes have been announced for 7 p.m. Nov. 27 at Westfield High School, Nov. 28 Lee High School, and Nov. 29 and Kilmer Middle School. In addition, the School Board will be discussing both the online textbooks and AAP Centers at our work-session on December 10. Moving forward, please let us know your opinions.


Ryan McElveen is an At-large Member of the Fairfax County School Board. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the School Board. He can be reached at ryan.mcelveen@fcps.edu

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

John Farrell November 19, 2012 at 12:45 PM
The problems outlined here have been standard operating procedure for FCPS over the last 7 years. Community engagement is an afterthought and a paste on. "After all, all wisdom is to be found exclusively in Gatehouse!" This pathology can be traced back to the very hiring process where Dale Fail didn't have to engage FCPS's various communities before he was given the job. Let's not repeat that mistake as we choose his successor. Make sure that HYA's contract has the finalists interact with the FCPS' communities before a final choice is made by the School Board.
Louise Epstein November 19, 2012 at 12:56 PM
Ryan, thank you for writing this op ed. I am beginning to think the FCPS public engagement problems became much more severe when the current Department of Communications was created. Before then, FCPS did not have an Assistant Superintendent of Communications & Community Outreach, but there seemed to be less one-way communication and more dialogue.
Kathy Keith November 19, 2012 at 01:38 PM
Wouldn't an outside auditor look at these kinds of things? I just don't understand how an "inside auditor" can look at things the same way as an outside auditor. Mr. McElveen, I hope that you start looking at Gatehouse with a little more skepticsm. Our School Board has rubber stamped Dale and followed Gatehouse's wishes for far too long. Anyone who watches the School Board meetings understands this. It is time for the School Board to challenge the administration--that is your elected responsibility. Make the administration defend its decisions. Question them.
Karen November 19, 2012 at 01:58 PM
"FCPS took shortcuts by failing to implement a mathematics textbook pilot and failing to acknowledge that community engagement on potential AAP changes should come before releasing extensive plans. In a county with many diverse issues and complexities, there are bound to be problems stemming from county-wide initiatives, but these shortcuts in outreach have gouged a self-inflicted wound in the system." I concur with Mr. McElveen's statement above. The community is not even aware of what the "problem" is that FCPS staff is trying to address. No information has been provided to the public and parents have not been involved from the start. FCPS staff should start a series of community dialogue sessions with parents of ALL students (and not simply just students currently receiving AAP services). Let's define the problem, discuss possible alternatives, develop pro and con lists for each of the alternatives, and work together to arrive at some possible solutions.
KH November 19, 2012 at 02:00 PM
Thank you for looking more into these problems. The online textbooks and lack of enough hard copies as an option are big problems and can't believe more research wasn't done on this decision.
AAP Parent November 19, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Thanks for bringing these issues to light. I agree the AAP center arrangement by pyramid needs to be slowed or stopped -- and I have faith the school board is savvy enough to see that. I am aware, though, that there are three AAP centers that are overcrowded and the families in those schools are urging the board to push current students out instead of phasing in new centers. Just as the overall decision should not be rushed, our children at Haycock, Louise Archer and Hunters Mill should not be sacrificial lambs. They should NOT be pushed out of their current schools. They should be grandfathered just the same as other AAP students. Certainly if grandfathering is the right approach for every other AAP student, it's right for our children as well. Moving the rising third graders would provide enough relief for the overcrowded schools to stem the tide of their rising enrollment. This improvement would only increase over the following two years. I urge you to do what's best for all of the children at Haycock, Louise Archer and Hunters Woods, including the current AAP students who live in boundaries that are set to be changed. Treat them fairly!!!!
janet otersen November 19, 2012 at 04:42 PM
Can someone please remind the School Board who is at the top of the decision making food chain?? Why does the School Board allow Dale to bully them into these decisions? Inexcusable. Time for The SB to step up and remind Dale who is in charge of POLICY CHANGES. Dale runs the schools on a day-to day basis with DIRECTION from The SB. Enough is enough. Why are all these decisions being made in a hurry befor Dale exits? Why leave all this mess for a new Sup. Someone please stop the madness and show some leadership.
Kathy Keith November 19, 2012 at 04:52 PM
I agree with you, Karen. Unfortunately, we already are supposed to have "community involvement" as a result of the election of school board members from each district and the three at-large candidates. Some of the newer members are trying to listen to the community. Unfortunately, others are still following the Pied Piper--Jack Dale. Sadly, though Mr. McElveen wrote a good article here, he did not support an outside auditor. He went along with the Old Guard. Maybe, now, he will rethink that decision. Unless the School Board starts seriously questioning and challenging the administration (and voting accordingly), it doesn't matter what the community thinks.
Sandra November 19, 2012 at 05:19 PM
Nobody I know likes the electronic texts, and I don't see why they have to be "the wave of the future". Teachers, students, and parents hate the electronic texts because of their limitations (you can't use them in locations without internet access or electricity, and they are hard to page through to find things, plus you apparently can't even print out the pages to take with you). The textbooks are and have been a fine option. Why do we need to switch just because electronics are the "in" thing? If the e-texts don't operate as needed, then we shouldn't switch until they come up with something that meets all of our students' needs.
Steven Greenburg November 19, 2012 at 05:28 PM
Ryan McElveen is to be complimented on submitting this letter. A true leader acknowledges when something is not being done correctly, focusing then on how to resolve the issue (and prevent it from occurring again), versus 'saving face'. It is only through the recognition and acceptance of the problem that it can then start to be addressed and resolved. 'FCPS took shortcuts by failing to implement a mathematics textbook pilot and failing to acknowledge that community engagement on potential AAP changes should come before releasing extensive plans.' Correct. Agreed. '...we must acknowledge these mistakes so we can correct them as quickly as possible and avoid repeating them.' The true test here will be the 'avoid repeating them' section. Mr. McElveen has correctly identified what 'went wrong', but (more importantly) is leading to find solutions to avoid 'history repeating itself'. I hope others on the School Board and FCPS administration will support his position and work with the community and your educators to find solutions for the issues identified in his letter (and any future ones). Steven L. Greenburg President, Fairfax County Federation of Teachers AFT /AFL-CIO #2401
Lisa Haas November 20, 2012 at 02:04 AM
I want to respond to the comment above. I am a parent at one of these 3 SEVERELY over-crowded schools -Haycock. Haycock is know for it's longstanding reputation of being inclusive and welcoming kids from all feeders schools and working very hard to be ONE community. I am truly sorry we are in this situation. Parents are not "pushing kids" out of Haycock. FCPS put us in this divisive situation. Haycock is 69% over-capacity right now-962 kids in a school built for 579 with 23 classrooms outside the building, including using 2 teachers lounges. Kids from the base school community have NO choice but to go there. So now that we are forced to take sides about what to do to relieve the overcrowding, what are we supposed to do? My kids spent more of their years outside the school than then inside and this is the ONLY school they get a choice to go to. For these 140 Cluster 2 families, they want to choose to take a bus to a severely overcrowded school that is about to be a construction zone and learn in a trailer rather than support a center in a nice newly-renovated building ready for them, that is under-crowded and full of students that they will also go to middle and high school with. In addition, the county pledges to put experienced teachers in this new center and with all grades there would be a stronger center with more resources and staff as a team not solo. Let's think about treating all the kids from the base-school community neighborhoods fairly as well.
Linda Greer November 20, 2012 at 03:39 AM
I would like to shine the light on all the children at the overcrowded schools. It's easy for the AAP families being reassigned to an AAP center in their pyramid to garner sympathy.They claim they're being pushed out. But what about the children who have been attending school in their very overcrowded neighborhood school for years. They are being pushed in or better put,"crammed in". FC chose to ignore the overcrowding until the situation became acute. The neighborhood families are put in a position of having to advocate for relief from the overcrowding in order for their children to have PE more than once a week, or library more than once every two weeks. The children are eating lunch almost as soon as they arrive at school and finish shortly before school is dismissed. Band and orchestra can't be taught as a group because there is no space. Children are forced to walk on lines taped to the hall floors in an attempt to control the chaos at arrival and dismissal.Teachers and specialists are stretched too thin. Is there sympathy for the children that have no choice but to learn in this situation? Is this the FCPS standard? AAP centers are not a new program in FC. New centers have been set up and are performing well across the county. The wheel is not being reinvented. FCPS isn't rushing.The statement that moving the rising 3rd graders into the new center would provide enough relief is incorrect. Define enough? 3 schools are grossly overcrowded and need significant relief.
Sheree Brown-Kaplan November 20, 2012 at 02:55 PM
Ryan -- Thank you for your honest assessment of what happened and why: "Yet as news of the potential changes spread, it appeared to the broader community that staff had made a decision without its feedback or input from the School Board." What safeguards can be put into place to ensure the Board is consulted before major initiatives are developed and acted upon? Obviously, the Board should be consulted early on in any planning stage, but how would it effect that? Some formal procedures can be put into place, yet much depends on the ability of the superintendent and his staff to actively include the Board in substantive decision-making. It appears an insular culture currently exists at the upper levels of administration that excludes the very people the electorate entrusted to govern our school system. A paradigm shift is needed and the Board has an opportunity to achieve that with the selection of a new superintendent. The Board must take the reins of this wagon if it really intends to steer it in another direction. Hiring a more forthcoming superintendent who is dedicated to an open process is a first step in that effort.
Scott B November 20, 2012 at 03:05 PM
As I would expect from elected officials who think they always know best and talk in absolutes....." There is little doubt that online textbooks, like their cousins Kindle and Nook, are the way of the future, and we must adapt to embrace them." Actually there is PLENTY of doubt, in reference to your absolutism quote above. Some children and adult learn better from a hard copy book they can touch, feel and read. Not to mention the issues you refer to about elwctricity, lack of knowledge....But books are dont help help enrich someones friends for IT contracts probably :o(
John Farrell November 21, 2012 at 10:24 AM
Too bad Ryan just voted to conduct the Superintendent search in secret using the same headhunter and the same process that brought us the failed practices of Dale Fail. Einstein said something about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It's insanity. The identities of the finalists for the 'Superintendents job must be disclosed before a final hiring decision is made. We won't be fooled again.
Mozart November 21, 2012 at 11:36 PM
How common is it to publicly disclose the names of potential candidates for such positions? I can see the potential benefits, but doing so might also discourage some very good candidates from expressing interest, since their current employers and communities would then be on notice of their interest in a position that, all things considered, they likely would not be hired to fill.
John Farrell November 22, 2012 at 12:35 AM
When Dan Domenech was hired, he and the two other finalists were introduced to the community and answered questions before the School Board made its final choice. Localities throughout the country disclose the finalists' names before making a hiring decision. The Fairfax School Board doesn't respect their electorate enough to share the information with them.
Mozart November 22, 2012 at 02:11 AM
Montgomery County didn't publicly identify the other leading contenders before announcing Joshua Starr's appointment in 2011. Doing so might drive away some good candidates for the reasons previously noted. Perhaps a middle ground would be to appoint parent representatives from different clusters to a search committee, or an advisory committee, but require them to sign NDAs, if something like that is not currently being done.
John Farrell November 22, 2012 at 02:29 AM
The Broad Foundation is behind this secrecy strategy to try to eliminate accountability of public school superintendents to the public. Any candidate too fearful to encounter the public for whom s/he seeks to work before getting the job is far too cowardly to be worthy to lead the country's 11th largest school division in a county with the 3rd highest rate of graduate education in that country. Any superintendent hired in secret will believe, as Dale Fail does, that the public be damned and the School Board are his lackeys. Secrecy is antithetical to democracy. Especially in a local government.
Mozart November 22, 2012 at 02:46 PM
Some positions in government are elected. Others are appointed. The Superintendant's position falls in the latter category. I would hope the School Board would ask its executive recruiting consultants what impact the vetting of the names of finalists with the public prior to a final selection might make on the willingness of strong candidates to apply for the position. I doubt they will advise the School Board that modeling the selection on "American Idol" will elicit the strongest candidates. However, if enough people are dissatisfied with the appointee, they could seek to have the post turned into an elected position; ask the School Board to terminate the individual's contract; and/or replace the School Board members who appointed him or her.
John Farrell November 22, 2012 at 03:11 PM
Anonymous Mozart (your preference for secrecy is obvious) HYA doesn't want to be accountable to the public that pays it bills so, no surprise, it advocates for a secret process. A public process brought Dan Domenech who had been the leader of the NYC schools. His predecessor, Bob Spillane, had been the leader of Boston's schools. Dale Fail came from Frederick, MD - that secret process resulted in a big upgrade, huh? And they were happy to be rid of him! The Fairfax job is a prestigious career capstone for any superintendent. The reward far exceeds the risk of disclosure. Any candidate who is too cowardly to allow their identity to be revealed if they are among the finalists is unworthy of the Fairfax students, parents, teachers and taxpayers. Any candidate who refuses to interact with the Fairfax public may well have something to hide. The remedies suggested for a repeat of the Dale Fail process are illusory. The successful candidate will sign a 4+ year contract carrying beyond the next School Board election in 2015. Get it right, in the sunshine.
cmkg November 27, 2012 at 08:10 PM
I voiced my concerns and the difficulites my child was having with the electronic textbooks. Other classmates had similar problems also. The web site would not open, would freeze, or even after successfully logging on, the pages wouldn't turn. Teacher was notified, but exams were still given despite the techical difficulties students were having.


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