Five years ago, when I moved to Northern Virginia and was offered a teaching job in Falls Church City, my teaching colleagues in Michigan were jealous. Although I would be taking a small cut in salary and a significant cut in benefits, I was moving to a community that placed an extraordinary value on education – one with a motivated population that provided its children with necessary resources for future success.
Upon my arrival, I found the sentiment across the region to be the same, if not even stronger. “People move to Falls Church for the schools,” was the mantra of our stakeholders; and in turn, the schools have kept Falls Church a desirable location to reside. The outstanding schools help maintain property values and promote community spirit that is successfully reinforced by other Little City programs such as rec basketball and Watch Night. We may not have the commercial hustle and bustle of Arlington and Alexandria, or the huge homes on sprawling tracts of land like Fairfax and Loudoun; instead our citizens know that Falls Church is a tremendous place to live and raise a family because their children receive the most outstanding comprehensive public education in the Commonwealth.
Lately, as the recession has challenged the economy, our perch at the top of the Northern Virginia educational pyramid has been slowly eroding. The individualized attention that drives our students’ achievement has declined, as enrollment has increased, and teacher and support staff numbers remain stagnant, while support staff contract hours have decreased. Changes in student demographics and the pressure to comply with unfunded state and federal mandates have led to the reprogramming of staff from core classroom subjects into ESOL and subject-specialist positions. New technologies programs, while meant to monitor and improve student achievement long-term, have forced teachers to work longer hours with less time to work on collaborative planning and academic differentiation, areas which have immediate impacts on student achievement. The cumulative effect of these changes was finally felt by our school system, as last year two of our schools failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under the guidelines of No Child Left Behind.
Many of our best professionals are considering whether or not it makes sense financially to be teachers anymore in Falls Church City.
Does this mean it is all doom and gloom for our schools? Hardly. Our participation level in the IB Diploma Program is up and our passing rates and scores continue to remain well above national and global means. Extracurricular achievement is at an all-time high, with our music and academic programs winning countless awards, and to top it all off, George Mason was named the best athletic program in Virginia. And just last year, Falls Church students shattered all Northern Virginia records with the Class of 2010’s performance on the SAT exam.
None of the recent accolades would have been possible without the tremendous effort of the dedicated professional staff of the Falls Church City Public Schools (FCCPS); however, as the changes dictated by the current economic climate show, we are trending perilously close to losing what makes these accolades possible. For two years, the school staff have worked without improvements in salary, either through a salary step or cost-of-living adjustment, and have had their take-home pay reduced through an increase in benefit costs. With the longer working hours, more difficult working conditions, and lessened compensation, many dedicated professionals are considering whether or not it makes sense financially to be teachers anymore. Now, with our neighbors to the north, south, east and west all proposing compensation improvement, many of our best professionals are considering whether or not it makes sense financially to be teachers anymore in Falls Church City. Many of us came to Falls Church knowing we would make a little less than surrounding jurisdictions, but that we would have better working conditions, smaller class sizes and more resources for student success. If these attributes are no longer hallmarks of an FCCPS education and compensation continues to lag behind our neighbors, we will no longer be able to recruit and retain the best possible individuals to work with our children.
At the town hall meetings the past week, countless citizens spoke up about their willingness to pay a little more in taxes to help maintain the quality that is synonymous with our school system. While as an educator, I was thrilled to hear the enlightened views of our citizens, I know there are others who do not feel similarly. This city has come to a crossroads where its residents will need to decide which priorities are important. I firmly believe that in order to keep the unique character of our city, the most educated city in America, education must be the top priority. Falls Church City must truly be a place that exists for the schools; as without high-performing schools lead by a dedicated professional staff, is there even a reason to remain independent?
Jonathon Pepper is a teacher at George Mason High School and the president of the Falls Church Education Association.