F.C. Schools Ranked D.C. Region’s #1 in Post’s Latest ‘Challenge Index’

In the current budget squeeze, brought on by the great recession, you’d think that school districts would hope for a decline in enrollment. But that’s hardly going to be the result for the Falls Church system with the latest “Challenge Index” report published in the Washington Post this week.

Falls Church’s George Mason High School was ranked fourth among the top 179 schools in the entire Washington, D.C. metropolitan region, and as a result, the Falls Church school system was ranked first, overall.

The annual report of the measuring standard for high schools devised by the Washington Post‘s Education Writer Jay Mathews was published in this Monday’s Post. The “Challenge Index” is a simple comparison of the total number of students at all grade levels taking Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) or other college-level testing to the total number of graduating seniors. “It measures a public school’s effort to challenge all of its students,” Mathews wrote.

Three of the highest-level educational leaders in the land all hailed the concept behind the “Challenge Index” in response to a question from the News-Press after speaking at an AP government class at Falls Church High School this Tuesday.

Only two weeks after President Obama appeared at Falls Church’s Graham Road Elementary School a half-mile away, this Tuesday Obama’s U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was joined by Virginia’s newly-appointed Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson and the superintendent of the Fairfax County School System Jack Dale at the Falls Church High School (FCHS) on Jaguar Trail Road.

In the Q and A with reporters after their hour-long exchange with students in the class, Duncan, Robinson and Dale all affirmed the notion that the number of students taking college-level classes and exams while in high school is an excellent measure for success at the college level.

“I enjoy it,” Dale said, when asked about the “Challenge Index,” per se.  He said that students have a “huge advantage” when they take such classes and tests.

Robinson, appointed by Virginia’s new governor, Bob McDonnell, less than two weeks ago, after working for the Black Alliance for Educational Options in Washington, D.C., said that first generation students entering college can feel intimidated when they get there, but if they’ve passed a college level class in high school, they fell much better prepared.

Duncan said that a valuable goal is to increase the percentage of students taking such college-level classes and exams. “We need to create a college-going culture,” he said, and the challenge is to reverse a “dummed down” high school educational environment.

He intimated the “No Child Left Behind” initiative contributed to  “dummed down” standards, and that the focus must shift away from a preoccupation with one test score toward growth in the students’ ability to prepare for college and a career.

Noting that President Obama has called for a $4.5 billion increase in education funding in a budget otherwise cut to the bare bones, he told the FCHS students that the current levels of unemployment offer virtually no jobs for high school drop-outs, and its almost as bad for those who can’t go beyond high school into college or special training programs.

Nationally, the drop-out rate is 27 percent, he noted, and that in Virginia whereas there are 110,000 ninth graders, there are only 86,000 seniors, indicating that there are 24,000 teenagers relegated to “the streets.”

He said the Obama administration is moving the educational focus away from formulas toward competition, raising the bar through programs like “The Race to the Top.” It rewards those making changes to produce better levels of progress among students.

He called the college assistance initiative, valued at $170 billion, “the biggest since the GI bill” that provides student loan repayment relief. No more than 10 percent of anyone’s income can be required to go for repayment of a student loan, and after 20 years the loans are erased. For those entering public service after college, the loans can be erased after 10 years, he said.

In his “Challenge Index” report Monday, Mathews reported that among the top 12 schools, six are in Montgomery County, Maryland, three are from Arlington, two are from D.C., and one from Falls Church. The highest-ranked Fairfax School was listed at Number 13, being W.T. Woodson. McLean High was 16, Langley 17 and Madison 20. Marshall was ranked 30, Stuart 58, and Falls Church 63.

The D.C. region’s top 145 schools all ranked among the top six percent of all U.S. high schools.

Celebrating Falls Church’s achievement in the “Challenge Report,” Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin made surprise visits to seven classrooms in the school system Tuesday to present a bouquet of flowers to every teacher nominated this year for the annual Agnes Meyer Outstanting Teacher Award presented by the Post.

Tammy Chincheck, Marc Robarge, Maria Shields and Alissa Stein were nominated from George Mason High, along with Maryel Barry and Jeanne Seabridge from Henderson Middle School and, Nathan Greiner from Jefferson Elementary.