Melanie Meren has built her life around education.
Prior to launching a campaign on Mar. 6, 2018 to become the Fairfax County School Board’s newest Hunter Mill District representative, Meren began a career in education policy as an employee of the U.S. Department of Education.
After moving to Vienna in 2005, she served as a Fairfax County Public Schools substitute teacher and founded the independent firm MKM Strategies in 2009 to work as a communications consultant specializing in education reform and advocacy.
Since then, the school board has appointed her to represent Hunter Mill on human resources advisory and minority student achievement oversight committees.
Her passion for education took on a newly personal dimension in 2015 when her oldest child started attending FCPS. She still recalls the joy of walking her daughter to kindergarten for the first time.
As a parent, she believed even more strongly in the lessons she gleaned from working in the U.S. Education Department at the same time that then-President George W. Bush’s administration implemented the No Child Left Behind Act.
“What I want to do…is make sure that every student gets the individual education that that student needs to succeed,” Meren said. “…We need to make sure that we’re offering children a more human-centered education. It’s not just language, arts, and math and measuring what they know. It’s got to be way more than that.”
Meren accepted a position as a presidential fellow at the Department of Education in 2002 after obtaining a master’s degree in public policy.
While working at the DOE, she served as a point of contact between the federal department and schools at a local level with a particular focus on early childhood programs and Title I schools, which have the nation’s highest poverty rates for students and their families.
Through conversations with teachers, students, and parents during her visits to different schools, Meren noticed a contrast between the creativity on display in early childhood programs, which were not subject to the same No Child Left Behind standards, and the more regimented approach imposed on kindergarten through 12th grade schools.
Teachers reported struggling to keep up with their workloads and feeling disappointed that they had no time to incorporate class trips and other unique or fun activities into their curricula, which had to accommodate the standardized testing emphasized by No Child Left Behind.
“I literally traveled to different states to see how the law was being implemented, and I heard time and again that it was sucking the life out of schools and teachers,” Meren said.
Those experiences shaped Meren’s belief that the U.S. public education system needs to take students’ social, emotional, and physical needs into account as much as their academic ones.
Child hunger, bullying, lockdown drills designed to train students in case of an intruder or school shooting, and general insecurity can all disrupt a student’s ability to succeed and contribute to a less-than-ideal learning environment, Meren says.
Meren points to her advocacy as one of four parents who organized the #IamFCPS campaign in 2016 as a key experience that convinced her that serving on the Fairfax County School Board would be the best way for her to support and improve public education.
A group of Lake Anne Elementary School parents launched the #IamFCPS campaign in 2015 after then-FCPS Superintendent Dr. Karen Garza told the community that fall that the public school system would need to make budget cuts to address an anticipated $70 million deficit for the 2016-2017 school year.
Proposed alterations included increased class sizes, the elimination of some Advanced Academic Program centers, staff reductions, and cuts to athletics programs.
“I teamed up with some other parents, and we did a grassroots campaign,” Meren said. “We got other parents who were also frustrated and concerned about the pending budget cuts, and we helped them raise their voices.”
Those suggested budget cuts never happened, and Garza resigned as superintendent on Dec. 16, 2016 after just over three years in that position.
Fairfax County ultimately addressed the impending budget deficit by raising real estate taxes for Fiscal Year 2017 by 4 cents instead, though a proposed meals tax intended to generate funds for FCPS failed at the ballot box in November 2016.
Meren says that, if she is elected to the school board, her priorities would include finding ways to make public education more accommodating to children’s emotional and social needs as well as different learning styles and goals.
For instance, she argues that FCPS needs to do more to nurture career and technical education and other post-graduation paths outside of attending a four-year college.
Thoughtful facility planning and use, environmental stewardship, and equity of programs and resources are also topics that Meren cites as particular concerns.
“It’s going to take a team to tackle that, and I’m really excited that so many people are running for office,” Meren said. “We’ll have this mix of experienced people if they remain on the board…but also new folks like myself who bring passionate ideas that want to get something done.”
Current Hunter Mill District School Board representative Pat Hynes announced on Jan. 9 that she will not run for reelection in November after serving on the board for seven years.
Laura Ramirez Drain, co-founder of the Alcanzando Metas Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting career development for young Hispanic and Latino women, has also declared her candidacy for the school board’s Hunter Mill District seat.
Fairfax County will hold primary elections on June 11 and general elections on Nov. 5.