Students, not school board salaries, should be the focus in the election

Apparently former school board member Stuart Gibson hopes voters will rely on his odd litmus test for deciding which candidates to support in the November election for the Fairfax County School Board. Although he admits that school board members “should be paid more than $20,000,” he scolds the members who voted for a raise and invents a convoluted method that he would deem appropriate for voting for a raise in salary. Without listing each of his steps, I’ll sum up by saying he would probably support such a vote when the Moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars.

“Only those candidates for the board who support these criteria will get my support and my vote in November,” Gibson said.

This is an incredibly narrow-minded view of the work of the school board. The election in November is not about the school board, it is about the students. Elementary school students are greatly benefiting from the school board’s decision to give them full-day Mondays. Gibson showed poor judgment in opposing this needed reform, both during his time on the school board and in his more recent advice to the current school board. Even though he was on the wrong side of this issue, I would hope that Gibson would admit that this vote was 1,000 times more important than the vote on salaries for school board members.

Children need salt for good health

The health benefits of salt also apply to children.  A recent Washington Post article  notes that it’s possible that sodium aids growth. “As scientists from New Jersey Medical School found out, if you put rats on low-salt diets, their bones and muscles fail to grow as fast as they normally would,” Martin Zaraska reports. “In one of his experiments, Leshem found that children in general reach for more salt than adults do–independent of calorie intake–which may be explained by the needs of their growing bodies.”

This is yet another reason why we should prevent drastic reductions in sodium in school meals.

A tragic example of a misguided zealotry to limit salt intake in a young patient lead to his death. Zaraska reports:

In 1940 the case of a little boy was described in the Journal of the American Medical Association. From the time he was a year old, the boy would go out of his way to eat massive amounts of salt. When he started speaking, one of his first words was “salt.” During a hospital stay (unrelated to his dietary habits), he was put on a low-sodium diet. To prevent him from sneaking around the hospital and stealing salt, he was strapped to his bed. He soon died. The reason? Due to severe and undiagnosed cortico-adrenal insufficiency, his kidneys were unable to retain sodium. Only eating huge amounts of salt had kept the boy alive.

Libraries help with internet access

Libraries help close the digital divide. Stephen Barker, a librarian in Prince Georges County, describes the vital role of libraries play in providing internet access. Librarians can try to assist with on-line job applications, but sometimes are frustrated by poorly designed on-line applications. “No one should have to spend hours on dysfunctional Web sites to find an entry-level job,” Barker says. “How many unemployed people have thrown up their hands in despair and joined the ranks of the long-term unemployed?”

His op-ed in today’s Washington Post says we must do more to eliminate the digital divide:

As a nation, we have to do more to make computers available to all people. While public libraries are one part of it, local librarians can’t do it all. The government should increase grants to schools, libraries and community centers, especially in low-income and economically depressed areas. Community colleges could make some computers available to the public and offer free computer classes to adults, as Prince George’s County Memorial Library System does.

Should school funding be tied to enrollment or to attendance?

Cinque Henderson argues that school funding should be tied to enrollment, not attendance: How some school funding formulas hurt learning and make schools more dangerous.

Attendance-based school funding hurts our most vulnerable students by pressuring educators to keep unruly – sometimes violent – children in school. Add to that the recent push to ban suspensions altogether, and the schools in our toughest areas feel no different from the rough streets that schools, at least in part, are designed to provide poor students an escape from.

These funding formulas put educators in a no-win situation: If they suspend or expel disruptive children, they lose out on money to provide educational services to other students who need it. If they keep misbehaving children in school, that threatens the safety of the staff and cripples the learning process. Teachers can’t teach when they are forced to babysit recalcitrant students in their classrooms. Allowing states to, in essence, punish the vast majority of students — those who are well-behaved and show up to school every day willing to learn — for the indifference or truancy of the minority who are chronically absent seems fundamentally unfair.

Henderson, who was a writer for HBO’s The Newsroom and is working on a book about America’s public schools. says, “As Congress debates this month the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, the nation’s primary education law, lawmakers should consider how states distribute the federal funds they receive for schools.”

Should Fairfax consider a fee for after-school program for middle school students?

Supervisor John C. Cook (Braddock District) recently asked how much revenue could be generated if an annual $100 per student charge for the Middle School After School (MSAS) Program was instituted, exempting children eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Here is the response prepared by Mark Emery, the after-school program administrator:

The 2013-14 school year MSAS program had approximately 13,000 students that were considered regular attendees (i.e., U.S. Department of Education term denoting students who attend 30 or more days of after school programming in a school year). The extent to which a new fee will reduce participation is hard to predict, but it is assumed the regular attendees would be the most likely students to stay in the program in the event a fee is implemented. Assuming the current broader school population free and reduced price meals (FRM) rate of 28 percent applies to the regular attendees, 9,360 students would pay the $100 fee, for a total revenue generation of $936,000. However, as a result of outreach efforts, the percentage of after- school attendees who receive FRM is higher than the cited school-wide 28 percent. Therefore, revenues are very likely to be less than $936,000.

It should be noted that the MSAS program has been a key element in the County’s and school division’s initiatives to not just combat gangs but to improve student behavior, improve academic performance, and develop healthy and successful youth. The MSAS program provides safe, engaging, and enriching activities to students who do not have access to such opportunities otherwise. These students often come from a background where funding is not available for extracurricular activities. As such, significant effort was put into encouraging participation among as many middle school youth as possible. The decision not to implement a fee from the beginning of the program was a part of those efforts.

While the MSAS program receives the majority of its funding from the County’s General Fund, the program is officially a Fairfax County Public Schools program and as such any adoption of a program fee requires the approval of the Fairfax County School Board.

Source: FY2016 Responses

Project Momentum replaces Priority Schools Initiative

County schools overhaul support program addressing low test scores. Kate Yanchulis explains that administrators of Fairfax County Public Schools have changed the approach and the name of the Priority Schools Initiative to Project Momentum. Many of the 47 Priority Schools will continue to receive some additional support through Project Momentum, “but the majority of resources will be focused on a small group of 15-18 schools judged to have the largest academic needs.”

The funding in the FY 2016 budget for Project Momentum is $4.3 million.

Prevent drastic reductions in sodium in school meals

More scientists doubt salt is as bad for you as the government says.  This excellent Washington Post article explains the science (or lack of science) behind the government recommendations on salt. Left unmentioned is the lack of science regarding healthy salt levels for children. In the absence of such studies, it seems more important than ever to follow the recommendation of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) to hold off on further restrictions on salt in school lunches and breakfasts.

Here is the SNA 2015 position paper on sodium in the re-authorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free kids Act.

Maintain the Target 1 sodium level reductions and suspend implementation of further targets.

Naturally occurring sodium present in milk, meats and other foods will force schools to take nutritious choices off the menu, and drive more students away from healthy school meals. Studies have shown school meals are more nutritious than packed lunches or lunches purchased from fast food restaurants. Despite these benefits, student lunch participation is down by 1.4 million per day since 2012, when the new standards took effect. Schools made significant sodium reductions to meet Target 1, effective July 2014. Before advancing to Target 2, the Institute of Medicine recommended assessing the impact of Target 1 “on student participation rates, food cost, safety and food service operations to determine a reasonable target for the next period…reducing the sodium content of school meals as specified and in a way that is well accepted by students will present major challenges and may not be possible.” (School Meals:  Building Blocks for Healthy Children)

The Government Accountability Office affirmed that the new standards influenced this decline in participation and warned that forthcoming limits on sodium would remain problematic with cost and product availability making sodium targets difficult for many schools to implement.

The health benefits to students choosing nutritious school lunches within Target 1 sodium limits is clear. Additional sodium reductions, at the risk of decreasing student participation, are not merited based on the inconclusive evidence on the benefits of sodium reduction for children.

National School Lunch Program

Sodium Reduction Targets

Grades Target 1
July 2014
Target 2
July 2017
Final Target
July 2022
K-5 ≤1,230 ≤935 ≤640
6-8 ≤1,360 ≤1,035 ≤710
9-12 ≤1,420 ≤1,080 ≤740


Former educators face overly harsh penalties for a cheating scandal

Twenty years? It is ridiculous to even threaten former educators with that amount of jail time due to a cheating scandal.  AP reports they have been locked up in Fulton County jails as they await sentences that could send them to prison for years.

The teachers, a principal, and other administrators “were accused of falsifying test results to collect bonuses or keep their jobs in the 50,000-student Atlanta public school system.”

“This is a huge story and absolutely the biggest development in American education law since forever,” University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson said. “It has to send a message to educators here and broadly across the nation. Playing with student test scores is very, very dangerous business.”

There are a lot more dangerous threats out there that the government should spend its time protecting people from. Yes, cheating is wrong. No question about that. But how does this scandal morph into an episode of America’s Most Wanted?

There are other ways of sanctioning cheating without resorting to incarceration.

Fairfax County 2015-16 School Calendar is approved

On March 26 the Fairfax County School Board approved the 2015-16 school calendar which sets Tuesday, September 8, as the first day of the school year and Thursday, June 23, 2016, as the last day. There are 180 days in the calendar; apparently this will be the new normal for Fairfax County. In previous years 183 days were scheduled so there would be extra days in the event of snow days.

The press release announcing this decision stated that the 2015-16 calendar “was developed with input from a number of teacher, parent, and community stakeholders.” The only “parent” group participating in this questionnaire was the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. These groups were given the choice of two versions of a 180-day calendar. Clearly there is room for further discussion in future years on the topic of the optimum amount of time in the school year.

On the bright side though, elementary school students will continue to benefit from not having weekly early dismissals. The school board deserves credit for the major accomplishment of having eliminated Monday early dismissals, starting with this current school year.

Steven L. Greenburg, the president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, told the school board Thursday that FCPS management and labor continue to solve serious problems in a collaborative manner “so parents, teachers, and students all end up better than before’…we set a model for others to achieve success.” As an example he cited “Full day Mondays that help students learn, protect teacher planning, and fix calendar issues for parents.”

There will be seven days when all students are dismissed two hours early: October 30; November 25; December 18; February 4, 2016; April 21, 2016; and June 23, 2016. Student holidays are planned for the following:  teacher workdays on November 2; February 5, 2016; and April 22, 2016; a staff development day on January 19, 2016; and school planning days on October 9; November 3; and March 28, 2016.

Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District) proposed a motion to give students the day off on Veterans Day. Steve Hunt, a former school board member, testified in favor of this proposal. Speaking on behalf of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8469, Hunt said that this should not be just another school day. “I know that there are schools that have special events. It is my hope that much like Martin Luther King’s Birthday or President’s Day those events will continue on a day other than the actual holiday.”

Steve Martinez also supported the amendment, but said “it does not go nearly far enough to fully recognize the 11th of November as a holiday for FCPS, as it should be.”

I have been addressing the issue related to Fairfax County Public Schools not recognizing Veterans’ Day, a Federal & State holiday, as a school holiday (i.e., day off) on the school calendar for over 3 years now. I am passionate about this matter since Veterans’ Day is the ONLY holiday which occurs during the school year that is not recognized with a day off for everyone…students, faculty & staff…by FCPS.

Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District) also supported this amendment, which failed by a 10-2 vote.

Winter break is scheduled for December 21 through January 1, 2016, and spring break will be held March 21-25, 2016.  Makeup days may be used to ensure 990 hours of instruction during the 2015-16 school year.  Missed days, delayed openings, and unscheduled early dismissals are considered in the calculation of these hours.  State code requires school districts to make up the first five missed days of school, and then requires only every other day of missed school to be made up.  FCPS asserts that it has the equivalent of 13 days (78 hours) built into the 2015-16 calendar. If a 14th day is missed, no makeup is required by the state.  If a 15th day is missed, April 22, 2016 will be considered a makeup day.

Getting rid of zeros in grading students

Fairfax schools consider new grading policy that would eliminate zeros. Megan McLaughlin, the school board member who represents Braddock District, told the Washington Post she supports the proposal to replace zeros with a 50 percent for F grades.  “Digging out from a zero is a whole lot harder for kids than a 50,” she said.

Using a zero as a grade is very counterproductive.