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 firstname.lastname@example.org.