At GMHS, we have several college tracks and many options. We offer a standard diploma; an advanced studies diploma; and an IB diploma. Students can take classes at the Arlington career center, AP (Advanced Placement) course work, and a select few each year go, tuition paid, to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. There is now also a dual enrollment program which allows students to receive high school and college credit simultaneously.
The time has come to ask if our community can afford all these choices. We also need to ask if each of these programs delivers sufficient benefits to warrant its cost. Can we continue to ask our community to finance tuition for a few students to go to a high school in Fairfax County when we have an outstanding high school here? Might it be better to offer advanced classes online so that we could focus staff time for the students who need instruction the most, to alleviate overcrowding in some classes and contain growing expenses?
Budget discussions provide an opportunity to examine these and other questions. Our budget discussions typically begin with the presentation of a pie chart that shows that 84% of our funding goes to staff salaries and benefits. These costs are fixed, we are told, and so starts the process whereby the school board is directed to noodle around the edges with a bus here, a half time paraprofessional there, and ends up debating, in great detail, the number of copiers made available to our teachers, as the board did last year under the direction of Superintendent Toni Jones. School board members need to resist administrators’ steering them to trim the edges, but, instead, get at the meat of the matter and ask how programs dictate staff allocation.
The headline for the January 5th FCCPS on-line morning announcements is that we graduated 42 students with full IB Diplomas. What is the annual cost for these 42 students? (I know, many others “participate” by taking one class but the question remains). What is the impact of the IB program on other programs, if staff must offer certain IB classes with low enrollments at the expense of offering classes that would serve more students or a demographic that needed the instruction more? We are now a full K-12 International Baccalaureate district. What was the cost of the Middle Years Program (MYP) roll-out and what is the annual cost to train teachers and maintain this certification? To maintain this program what is the impact to other programs? I am not saying we should not have these programs. I am saying that we should have more information with which to evaluate program choices.
While I think it’s great we offer Guitar I at our high school (also Guitar II,III and IV), how many students are served by these classes? I wonder how can we offer these classes while some students still struggle with some very basic educational skills such as reading, writing, spelling and basic math. Are we allocating sufficient resources to help those students? If not, where will we find those additional resources?
I suggest that the school administration collect and present the following program information for each program run in their building. (IB, MYP, ESOL, Special Education, Dual Enrollment, Standard Diploma, Advanced Diploma)
Name of program
Annual Cost of Administrator required for this program.
Number of students enrolled in the full program.
- Number of students who are enrolled in just one class in this program.
Number of classes in this program with fewer than 15 students enrolled.
Number of classes in this program with fewer than 10 students enrolled.
In addition, I think we should have measures of the impact of these programs on student outcomes as well as projections for staffing (and other additional) needs for programs over the next five years based on enrollment projections. The school board needs information that allows it to identify the most affordable and effective tracks so that it can work with school administrators and teachers to create greater opportunities in those programs.
Such an analysis will assist the school board in meeting the challenges facing our school district as well as take advantage of emerging technologies and practices which can be used to achieve district educational goals in an efficient and cost effective manner. As an example of the challenges, our school district is wrestling with how to meet major demands on its aging facilities, yet it also must address the needs of a changing and growing school population. A recent audit authorized by the School Board and performed by an outside consulting firm shows that we need be doing far better for our English Language Learners.
An example of opportunities is online learning. Online class offerings in recent years have exploded. Just a few short years ago, only select and pre-approved students could enroll to take a summer class at GMHS. Last year over 350 students were enrolled in summer course-work mostly on-line. Furthermore, online learning opportunities are available year-round, increasing options for students and reducing staff pressures on our small high school perhaps also impacting what is needed in the configuration of the facility we plan to build.
Having more information about the costs and impacts of programs will open a discussion, undoubtedly with different views on how best to size and allocate the school district budget. However, I think we can all agree on something now and that is that everyone is worried about how we will pay for everything that we actually need. I believe we should do everything in our power now, this year, to look at the school budget in a more detailed way so we can to create a school system that is sustainable for the long haul.
We have something so incredibly unique here in Falls Church City. A treasure. A small and independent system with an incredibly dedicated staff supported by loyal families. That is the jewel. However, this treasure has become increasingly expensive. We need to take a closer look at how the budget is allocated and determine what we want in terms of educational outcomes in order to maintain our independent schools for generations to come. That is what is at stake here. Let’s do this right. Let’s do this now.