With the swearing-in of Karen Garza as the next Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools this week, Jack Dale’s nine-year tenure at the helm has officially come to an end.
As a School Board member, I hear complaints on a daily basis — many of them deserved — about the functioning of our system and what we’re doing wrong. As might be expected, much of the time that board members spend driving our institutional fire truck is spent trying to grasp the flailing fire hose to extinguish these fires before we drown in our own water.
But this week’s leadership change provides the opportunity to step back and reflect on the progress our school system has made over the past nine years amid the daily firefighting and divisive School Board decisions to determine the positive legacies that Dale leaves behind and on which Garza can build.
When Jack Dale moved from the much-smaller Frederick County, Md., to assume the superintendency of the 12th largest school district in the country in 2004, Fairfax County’s outlook was starkly different. Population growth rates appeared to be slowing, and student demographics were changing only slightly from year to year. The economy was strong, as were county tax receipts. One of the few trouble spots was the chasm that had grown between the school system and its funding authority, the Board of Supervisors.
Today our challenges have multiplied with the significant yearly increase of students with special needs who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged households where a language other than English is spoken. Such an increase has not only strained our ability to educate our students, many of whom aren’t prepared to enter kindergarten, but it has also strained our facilities, the renovation backlog for which continues to grow. All the while Fairfax has had to face budget cuts and more mandates from the state and federal governments, weather the recession, and cut administrative positions and programs.
Despite these immense challenges, Jack Dale leaves a legacy of successful innovation in three specific areas.
First, in developing Student Achievement Goals for students, the School Board worked closely with Dale to align board governance with the work of administrative staff while giving the district a crisp and clear three-point mission — ensuring that students would pursue academic excellence, develop essential life skills, and demonstrate responsibility to the community and world. First begun in 2005, the process for developing these goals involved a great degree of community engagement — 33 community meetings, to be exact — by the School Board.
By operationalizing these Student Achievement Goals, Dale has been able to create a strong institutional culture focused on student achievement. The most impressive achievement of Dale’s tenure is that, despite the challenges, student achievement continued its upward trajectory. Pass rates of Virginia Standards of Learning tests have increased (with the exception of math, for which tests changed in 2012), and this year Fairfax County posted the highest graduation rate among the 50 largest school districts in the U.S.
Dale also increased equity in the county by expanding full-day kindergarten to all schools while never losing sight of working to narrow achievement gaps in needier “priority schools.” Most strikingly, the achievement gap has decreased from a 22- and 21-point spread separating the SOL reading and math scores of black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts in 2004 to an 11-point spread in both subjects in 2011.
Second, as part of his focus on student achievement, Dale helped shape the national movement to develop and implement the classroom instruction of 21st century skills, or the 4Cs — critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. His work toward this end has increased teacher collaboration and begun the process of pushing Fairfax away from “teaching to the test” toward more project-based learning.
Third, in searching for a better way to test this kind of deeper, skill-based knowledge, Dale secured Fairfax County’s participation in the Program for International Student Assessment exam, which is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and has allowed the district to begin benchmarking with countries around the world. The results have shown that Fairfax students outperform the U.S. and the world in reading, math, and science while revealing some important areas for improvement regarding how we teach real-world knowledge and develop student-teacher relationships.
While Dale has not been able to douse all of the institutional fires under his term and leaves some others smoldering, he has succeeded at his most important task — increasing student achievement while successfully pushing Fairfax County schools into the 21st century.
Karen Garza will need to determine how to continue moving us forward while overcoming innovation fatigue, resolving teacher workload issues, boosting teacher pay, improving student health, narrowing achievement gaps, and helping the School Board update its strategic planning and measures of student success.
Are Fairfax County Public Schools better off than they were nine years ago? The answer is a resounding yes. Dr. Garza, along with the School Board, will be challenged to build on the significant legacy of Jack Dale.
Ryan McElveen is an at-large member of the Fairfax County School Board, to which he was elected in 2011.