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C H A P T E R 7 ————— Fairfax County Public Schools and the Future of Suburban Education Suburban educators at the dawn of the 21st century find themselves at a crossroads. Their communities increasingly resemble cities. Population homogeneity has given way to diversity. Suburban schools enroll substantial numbers of poor, minority, and non-English-speaking students. Problems traditionally associated with cities—bumper-to-bumper traffic, steadily rising crime rates, homelessness, fiscal uncertainty, internecine politics—are becoming commonplace in the suburbs. Will suburban school systems go the way of many urban school systems? Will capable students abandon suburban public schools in favor of private and parochial schools? Will well-to-do residents move to exurban enclaves, taking with them the resources on which suburban schools have come to rely? Will the concentration of atrisk students in suburban classrooms steadily rise, causing student achievement to spiral downward? Will talented educators quit in the face of persistent financial problems and political infighting? Or is there a more encouraging alternative? The success of Fairfax County Public Schools in dealing with the myriad changes washing over suburban America offers hope, not just for the education of suburban students, but for the education of urban students as well. In this chapter, several reasons why FCPS should be considered an exemplary school system are reviewed. The literature is full of analyses of what makes certain schools great, but less is known about the keys to a great school system. The foregoing examination of the evolution of Fairfax County Public Schools offers important insights into the building blocks of systemic success . Three of these building blocks are highlighted in this chapter —a willingness to explore new responses to familiar challenges, a stable organizational culture, and an appreciation of the necessity for balance in dealing with pressures for change. 159 “The Best School System in America” The title of this section is in quotation marks because it is not a proven fact. No widely recognized set of metrics for rating or ranking school systems presently exists. If there were such measures , however, a strong case could be made for Fairfax’s placement at the top of the list. Perhaps the most compelling justification for an accolade this lofty is the fact that the achievement of Fairfax students, based on standardized test scores, has steadily improved at the same time that the school system’s percentages of poor, non- and limitedEnglish -speaking, and special education students have risen sharply. Most school systems would be thankful if they simply were able to prevent a decline in achievement in the face of such growing diversity. Fairfax’s ability to improve on its excellent track record under these conditions means that it is a great school system not only for white students and bright students, but for students of all descriptions. The fact sheets prepared for Dan Domenech’s “good news ambassadors” program provide a glimpse of Fairfax’s impressive academic performance in recent years (“Just the Facts,” September 2003): • On the 2003 Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), FCPS students scored their highest ever (1,110), 86 points above the national average. • More than 80 percent of all FCPS third, fifth, and eighth graders passed the math Standards of Learning (SOL) tests in 2002. • The passing rate for the SOL English exam for third graders has rise from 68 percent (1998) to 82 percent (2002). Fifth graders have increased their pass rate for the writing exam from 80 percent (1998) to 92 percent (2002). • 20,689 FCPS students took the Advanced Placement (AP) exams, up from 20,236, in 2002. The number of scores of three or above increased to 13,278 in 2003, up from 13,089 in 2002. • Based on the 2003 Newsweek rankings, FCPS high schools are in the top 4 percent of all American high schools measured for their student participation in 160 Education Empire Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) examinations. • As the 12th largest school division in the country, Fairfax County is the only large American school system to have every eligible high school on the list, with six schools ranked in the top 100 nationwide. (And this number does not include the high school that is arguably the best high school in the United States—Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. TJHSST was excluded because it does not have open enrollment.) • All high school students in Fairfax County can choose from numerous honors, AP, and IB courses. • Ninety-two percent of FCPS students...


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