I’ve heard it said that 75 percent of government happens at the state and local level. In a year when state elections have center stage in Virginia, now is the time to inform voters and encourage candidates to put children first.
Fairfax County Public Schools is internationally known for excellence. We have a well-deserved reputation for providing a challenging, world-class kindergarten to12th grade education.
And yet, even we struggle to meet the needs of many of our students.
We battle persistent achievement gaps that leave certain groups of students chronically behind in virtually every measure of academic success.
Our on-time graduation rate was recently ranked as the highest in the nation for large school systems, yet almost one in 10 of our kids does not graduate on time.
What’s wrong? Why do even our best efforts fall short for so many students? The reality is, gaps in the community follow kids to school. That’s not an excuse — it can never be an excuse — but it is an enormous and growing challenge. To meet that challenge, schools need strong partners in the community.
Gaps in kindergarten readiness follow kids to school. The School Board has committed to adding early education services for families in need, but with 1,000 kids on the Head Start waiting list in Fairfax County, and years-long waiting lists for affordable childcare, we have our work cut out for us. Each year, local governments in Virginia leave millions in state preschool dollars on the table, because they can not afford the local match — as much as 50 percent for districts like ours. Federal sequestration cuts to Head Start funding will deal another blow next year. Schools need committed partners at the federal, state and local levels to help us close the kindergarten readiness divide.
Gaps in family income follow kids to school. Not by design, but in effect, development in Fairfax County has created school-sized pockets of wealth and school-sized pockets of poverty. Some of our schools have nearly 90 percent of their students living in poverty, other schools less than 10 percent. Our school board is committed to providing extra resources for schools in needier neighborhoods, but we must have partners at the state and local levels investing in redevelopment and job growth.
Access to health care, especially mental health services, is not equal among our families. Across Virginia, roughly 125,000 children are without health insurance. Children who are not healthy are not learning. Untreated mental health needs, such as depression and substance abuse, derail many students in their teen years. We are committed to providing as many social workers, parent liaisons and mental health professionals as we can, but we need help from state and local partners.
Even access to housing and food present a daily challenge for some of our students. Many people are surprised to hear that an estimated 500 children are homeless in Fairfax County every day. We do what we can to support children and families who struggle with basic needs, but that too is a community responsibility.
Education is by far the best investment we can make in our communities. Schools can’t go it alone. I urge readers to get involved in this year’s elections. One avenue is to connect with Strong Kids, Strong Virginia, a nonpartisan organization organizing voters around children’s issues. Go to strongkidsstrongvirginia.com, to find out more about this year’s candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and House of Delegates.
The writer is a teacher and vice chairwoman of the Fairfax County School Board.