Opinion Your Views — 30 April 2010

The new federal label for T.C. WilliamsHigh School that of being among the poorest performers in the state isn’t a surprise. We’ve known for a few years now that our schools are doing exceptionally well for some students, but that other students, predominantly those from low-income families, are not reaching the same levels of achievement.As the federal designation of “low achieving” makes clear, our ability to support those kids has not lived up to the standards set by other schools around our state.

I could write a lot about the limitations of the federal law that lead to this designation as well as the inadequate federal “remedies.”But instead I want to focus on one critical point: This is not just a problem of T.C. Williams High School. It is a school system and community-wide issue.We can’t fix it if we don’t accept that reality. It takes years before children become high school students. Education is not a series of cruise ships that kids jump to from elementary school to middle school to high school with each ship self-contained and independent. It is a system more like a train, where kids move from car to car and where each car is dependent on the other to move students forward.

I have great confidence that the teachers at T.C., the School Board and the school administration are on a path to making changes to respond to their part of that education train. But parents, pre-schools, our elementary and middle schools and our whole community have roles to play if T.C. is to live up to its full potential. This is one of the big reasons for my aggressive push to revamp the way we manage and coordinate city and school services for kids. And the train metaphor plays a big role in the changes proposed inour draft for a strategic plan on Children, Youth and Families. 

The plan represents a philosophical change for Alexandria’s policies towards children. These changes are needed.Alexandria has a dropout rate of 11.1 percent second only to Manassas in Northern Virginia. It does not need to be that way. 

There are three main policy changes in the new plan. Each reinforces the other. First, with its focus onalignment and shared accountability, the plan pointedly breaks down the silos that have governed youth programs and services in the past. Second, with its focus on shared goals and data, our new approach emphasizesthe use of information and program performance datato guide and coordinate programs.

And third, with its focus onschool readiness, it recognizes that city efforts regarding children need to compliment the efforts in our schools; what happens outside of school has a great influence on a student’s success in school and early education programs can have a major impact on overall school success.

Understanding that the success of Alexandria’s kids in school and outside of school is the result of family, community and school efforts that happen from birth to adulthood, our strategic plan purposely calls for breaking down silos that currently organize our program areas by age or department. 

When the city works with children, youth and their families, we should always have a focus on the ability of the child to be successful in school and life. That means ensuring our early childhood programs are taking advantage of the best information about supporting families to help kids develop appropriately so that they areready for kindergarten. Smart programs likeHealthy Familiesand quality pre-K programs are proven to reduce community social and health costs, improve parenting skills, reduce child-abuse, improve chances for future school success, prepare children for school and ultimately save all of us money. Sports and recreation programs should help make sure their kids are attending school regularly and doing their homework. Programs that work with kids outside of school should coordinate their efforts with the schools so that no kids fall through the cracks.

Not counting the schools, Alexandria spends close to $25 million (local, federal and state funds) a year on children and youth related programs. With these resources, we can make Alexandria a national education leader. All of us need to find a way to play a part. This can be a rallying point for our community that we’ll look back on. Our new philosophy should bring us a more focused and better-coordinated effort to help all our kids and community succeed.

The writer is a member of the Alexandria City Council and is a governor-appointed member of the Virginia State Board of Education.

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