Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Needs in F.C. Schools Go Beyond Gifted Students

On Valentine’s Day a teacher at George Mason High School was told to clean out his desk and then escorted to his car. This was simply a disciplinary action, I believe there are no criminal charges filed or pending. Dozens of students and parents addressed the School Board on his behalf. I was one of those parents.

I am generally a fan of the Falls Church City Public Schools (FCCPS). With the exception of one year overseas, our children have been enrolled here since 2000. Even though they are not IB Degree Candidates, my children have derived immeasurable benefits from the rigorous curriculum and extracurricular opportunities. My daughter played on the state championship varsity soccer team for two years. She’s now dean’s list at Guilford College. My sons are still at GM. One plays on the football and lacrosse teams. He lettered as the varsity long snapper. My other son, a senior, sang solos before standing room only crowds in Les Miserables.

The teacher that was suspended is an example of what is right in our schools. It is a touching story that such a groundswell of support arose spontaneously in response to his suspension. A more important story is why those parents and kids were there and how they experience the FCCPS. A few of the kids were gifted or IB students and know him because he sponsors the Model UN Club. Others know him because he offered support, even though he wasn’t their teacher. Most of the kids were there because he is a Special Education teacher. They have learning disabilities, executive function difficulties, physical disabilities, etc. that act as barriers to learning. They have “special needs”. They all came to support a wonderful educator who is particularly sensitive and responsive to the needs of all of the students in our community, and highly appreciated by their parents.

There is no question that the gifted students’ needs are met. The problem is that the kids who are not gifted or who have moderate barriers to learning are struggling.

I was appointed by the School Board to fill a vacant seat on the Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) in 2008, and reappointed for a term that ends in June 2012. I resigned my appointment in protest last week, not only because of the action against the teacher, but because there is no point wasting time on a committee that is heard by neither the School Board nor especially the FCCPS Administration.

I’m also a parent of a child with special needs. Federal Law requires that all public schools provide a “free and appropriate education” to every child. There is a moral and legal requirement for administrators and staff to act in the best interest of the child. In the City of Falls Church, it doesn’t always feel that this imperative is followed as rigorously as it should be. The result is that parents are frustrated, eligibility meetings seem to have pre-ordained outcomes, kids are denied needed services, Gen Ed teachers don’t always understand or implement services, and kids with special needs are not supported in Honors or IB classes. Children who are “twice exceptional” (both high IQs and special needs) should be able to take advantage of our higher level courses. Parents often are forced to aggressively advocate for their children’s rights or give up and send their kids with special needs elsewhere for support.

There is no question that the gifted students’ needs are met. Severely disabled students get the services they need. No one is advocating that we do less for them. The problem is that the kids who are not gifted or who have moderate barriers to learning are struggling.

We should restart the conversation about what we need from our schools. FCCPS is not a private system; our kids don’t take entrance exams to qualify, nor is it a magnet school for the gifted. We have challenging classes. We have stellar extracurricular opportunities. We set the bar high. Many of us buy or rent here because of the reputation of the PUBLIC Schools, some before we have kids, or before we know whether our kids are gifted or have special needs. Once here, we don’t have other options, we have the FCCPS. Changing schools means moving.

Ask the parent of a child with special needs if he or she feels included in the “partnership” mentioned in the School Board’s mission statement. Ask the kids if the message we are sending is that success is defined only as an A in an IB class. Ask if homework policies foster learning. Ask if we are challenging our students, or damaging their self esteem. Ask if we want the FCCPS to be known as unresponsive to kids with special needs.

We have a superior school system, but it isn’t perfect. We have successfully focused on the gifted for so long. Now it is time to broaden that focus. We shouldn’t rest on our laurels, we have work to do.