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C H A P T E R 2 ————— A Ten-Year Trial For a large suburban school system like Fairfax, no year passes without its share of challenges. Between 1976 and 1985, however, Fairfax County Public Schools, along with school systems across the nation, faced a series of extraordinarily difficult circumstances , including enrollment decline, a stalled economy, and mounting pressures to address students with special needs. As if these problems were not daunting enough, Fairfax struggled to find the right leader to guide it through troubled waters. The mark of a great school system, however, is not only how it handles expansion, ample resources, and generally favorable conditions, but also how it weathers periods of retrenchment, turmoil, and uncertainty. That Fairfax emerged from its 10-year trial with a fine reputation largely intact and poised to press forward toward even greater accomplishments was a credit to the school system and its community. The chapter begins by examining enrollment decline and its consequences for FCPS. This discussion is followed by a review of the economic problems that plagued the school system during the late ’70s and early ”80s and its search for stable leadership. Two reasons why Fairfax escaped this period with relatively little damage was its steadfast commitment to respond constructively to students with special needs and its persistent openness to new and innovative ways of doing things. These aspects of district operations are addressed at the end of the chapter. The End of the Baby Boom Something very unusual happened when the doors of Fairfax schools opened in September of 1976. Fewer students entered the schools than the previous year. For the next eight years, enroll41 ments continued to drop. America’s—and Fairfax’s—experiment with population explosion had come to an end, at least temporarily . According to state statistics, FCPS enrollment peaked at 145,385 students in 1974-1975. The following year saw a slight decrease to 145,300 students. By 1982-1983, enrollment had settled at 122,646, more than 22,000 fewer students than 1974-1975. Fairfax would go on to complete the century and enter the new millennium with steadily increasing numbers of students. By 2004 enrollments exceeded 166,000 students, making Fairfax the nation’s 12th largest school system. Someone unfamiliar with the impact of declining enrollments in school systems might assume that the primary consequence would be school closings. For Fairfax, the process of dealing with 42 Education Empire KEY DATES FOR FAIRFAX COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS: 1976-1985 1976 School enrollment for FCPS drops Division of Research and Testing is created 1977 Virginia Supreme Court disallows collective bargaining by public employees 1978 School Board adopts policies governing school closings 1979 L. Linton Deck appointed Superintendent 1980 Superintendent Deck reorganizes central office 1981 FCPS receives federal approval for its ESL program 1982 William J. Burkholder appointed Superintendent 1983 School Board agrees to study the achievement gap between white and African-American students 1984 Merit pay plan is presented to School Board FCPS adopts a long-range plan to improve minority achievement Superintendent Burkholder resigns in dispute over his compensation package 1985 Robert R. Spillane appointed Superintendent Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology opens declining enrollments was hardly so straightforward and simple. First of all, trying to close a school, especially a high school, can generate considerable controversy. Community sentiments, like land mass around a coral reef, build up around neighborhood schools. Closing a school can adversely affect property values and even threaten the very existence of a neighborhood. Another problem concerns the fact that neighborhoods do not lose all their children at the same time. Numbers dwindle slowly as a rule, forcing school systems like Fairfax to consider redrawing school boundaries . This process ultimately can result in proposals to close certain schools, but not before one neighborhood is pitted against another neighborhood in a contest to see whose school will survive. To make the drama of declining enrollments even more difficult, parts of Fairfax County actually continued to grow, while other parts declined. Consequently, the school system was forced into the awkward position of proposing to build new schools in the western part of the county at the same time it sought to close schools in the eastern part of the county. Not only were adjacent neighborhoods placed at odds, but the county itself was divided between areas of growth and areas of decline. Maintaining a focus on educational quality under such circumstances can be extremely difficult. Realizing the sensitive nature...


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