In her first year on the job, the Fairfax County schools chief is proposing plans to boost teacher salaries and eliminate 731 staff positions, mainly through attrition. Karen Garza leads one of the nation’s largest and most-respected school districts, one that’s seen belt-tightening in recent years because of the recession and a fast-growing population that’s straining school resources. She joins Kojo to talk about the challenges facing public schools and her goals for Fairfax students.

Guests

  • Karen Garza Superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools

Transcript

  • 12:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. After several years of belt tightening, because of the recession, teachers in northern Virginia's Fairfax County may get a raise next year. The school system's new superintendent wants to boost teachers' pay to better compete with higher salaries in neighboring districts. To do that, she's proposing to cut hundreds of staff jobs and increase class sizes.

  • 12:07:23

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHomeowners could also see a small hike in their property taxes to help cover the costs. In her first year on the job, Fairfax Superintendent Karen Garza is crunching numbers and courting County Supervisors in an effort to win more money for the 11th largest school district in the country. As Fairfax County continues to grow and the student population increases, she's also grappling with issues familiar to many large school systems.

  • 12:07:50

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHow to use standardized tests, how to get students out of portable classrooms and into permanent buildings. And how to close an achievement gap between students of different races. Karen Garza joins us in studio. As I said, she is superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:08:08

    DR. KAREN GARZAThank you. Thank you for having me.

  • 12:08:10

    NNAMDIYou left the helm of Lubbock, Texas public schools, in your home state, to take over the Fairfax school system. What appealed to you about this job?

  • 12:08:20

    GARZAYou know, this is a job that -- it's one of those lifetime opportunities that you certainly could never turn down. Fairfax County Public Schools are considered nationally to be some of the finest school systems in the country. And so the opportunity to come to this, you know, wonderful part of the country, in the backyard of D.C., and be able to take what it considered some of the finest schools in the country, and take them to the next level, was certainly something that appealed to me as an educational leader.

  • 12:08:52

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Karen Garza, Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools, give us a call at 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org. You can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. This is a region that has seen some, well, high profile superintendents who take leading roles in national education debates. You've been described as someone who prefers to work behind the scenes, rather than make headlines. How do you see your role in Fairfax County and beyond?

  • 12:09:29

    GARZAYou know, I do believe because of the stature of our school system, that we do have the opportunity to lead the nation on a lot of very, very important issues. I also believe that we're uniquely positioned to solve some of those issues that face the schools, public schools all across the nation. But, I don't see my job as being the face of the school system, publically. I think my job is to lead the school system, work with our community, and try to make a difference in our neighborhood.

  • 12:10:01

    GARZAIf that makes a difference in other school systems across the country, you know, I think that's great, and certainly something that, as an educator, would be very affirming and satisfying. But my first goal, my foremost priority, has to be the children of Fairfax County Public Schools.

  • 12:10:17

    NNAMDIYou may not be the face of the school system, but for the next hour, you are the voice of school system here on these airwaves. Let's look at the challenges you're facing as you negotiate a budget for next school year. You're proposing to cut 700 staff positions to free up funds to give classroom teachers a raise. Why is boosting teachers' pay a priority for you?

  • 12:10:39

    GARZAWell, I've seen the comparisons to our neighboring jurisdictions. And we live in a very competitive marketplace, as it relates to classroom teachers. With that being said, we all know, the research is very clear, and I think, as parents, we also know that having the best teacher we possibly can have in every classroom, in any school organization, is mission critical. They are what makes things happen for our children. So, that has to be a priority for us, and that is to make sure that we're being very competitive with our surrounding jurisdictions, that we keep our best teachers in our classrooms.

  • 12:11:19

    GARZAAnd I'm disappointed with where we are. When I looked at how compare to our other surrounding jurisdictions, we've lost ground. So, our school board and myself, the leadership team, that is our priority, to be at the top -- atop of that comparison. We ask a lot of our teachers. Teaching is very, very hard work. And we want to keep our best. You know, I have people often say, but does it matter? You have so many people apply. You can just backfill any teacher that leaves and goes somewhere else. Well, there's a cost to turnover. And when you have highly skilled, knowledgeable, expert teachers, we need to keep them in our classrooms.

  • 12:11:56

    NNAMDIBut you also have to, as I said earlier, cut 700 staff positions in order to accomplish this. That means 700 people are going to be losing their jobs. How do you explain that to them?

  • 12:12:09

    GARZAWell, first and foremost, you know, the budget that I presented, there's a lot of competing needs. And we've had to make some decisions that I would prefer that we weren't in a position to make. You know, I do find it unfortunate that I've come into a system where our need is really eight to nine percent increase in the transfer. That's where our real need is. That was not going to happen. That was very obvious to myself and the school board. So, we found ourselves in a position where we had to look at all the array of priorities and challenges and needs we have.

  • 12:12:48

    GARZAWe are asking the county leadership to increase their transfer, but at the same time, in order to meet some of these very, very pressing concerns that we have, we had to wrestle with making some very hard decisions. The 731 positions that are reduced in this current budget -- that's, again, just balancing those priorities. And we've had the teacher groups at the table with us. This budget I presented to our school board on January the 9th, it was not developed in isolation. I've conducted well over 100 different meetings all throughout our county, asking for feedback from our community.

  • 12:13:25

    GARZAWe had a menu of options, in terms of reductions that was public document, starting back, you know, almost since July -- really soliciting, you know, what our parents, what our community, what our stakeholders have to say. So when we talk with our teacher groups, and we say, what is more important to you? You know, we can cut fewer positions, but not give you the step increase. And so, that tough decision was made with the benefit of a lot of input from our teacher organizations, from our community. Very difficult decisions, no doubt, but it's the place that we find our self in.

  • 12:14:02

    NNAMDIYou're asking Fairfax County for a 5.7 percent increase in funds, $98 million more next year. The Board of Supervisors did raise the property tax cap to allow for a possible tax hike to cover some of the requested amount, but it has not voted yet on the school's budget. How does the historically bumpy relationship between the school board and the Board of Supervisors, that preceded your arrival here, factor into this equation?

  • 12:14:31

    GARZAThat's a big -- it is the equation, isn't it? You know, we've long had this bumpy relationship, and I will tell you that the school board, myself -- we're committed to not continuing that relationship in the way in which it's been, or to improve the relationship. Some of the angst is by design. You know, we are responsible for the school system. We determine how the school spends the dollars to meet the needs of our students and our stakeholders. Yet, we look to the County Board of Supervisors for the money itself.

  • 12:15:07

    NNAMDIThere's a necessary tension, there is.

  • 12:15:08

    GARZASo, there is some tension there that I don't think we'll ever completely alleviate, just because of design. But we have been very sincere in our desire to be a good partner with them. We certainly recognize that, as a fast growing county, there are, you know, just demands on all manner of services. And, you know, we certainly appreciate that struggle that our Board of Supervisors and that leadership challenge that they have, as a system. But, we have a responsibility to present a needs based budget for our county.

  • 12:15:43

    GARZAThis 5.7 percent increase, we recognize, is asking our county a lot. But if you look at the transfer increase history, we're still, I mean, there have been years in recent history where we actually experienced a reduction in money. Over the last five years, the average transfer increase is 1.11 percent. Yet, at the same time, we've grown by 15,000 students. So, I think it's time for our community to be engaged in this conversation, because we can't continue to grow as fast as we are, yet have resources that are relatively...

  • 12:16:28

    NNAMDIAnd you are growing, that's for sure. In case you're just joining us, we're talking with Karen Garza. She is the Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. 800-433-8850 is our number here. I'll start with Jennifer in Fairfax, Virginia, who I think has some budget suggestions for you. Jennifer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:48

    JENNIFERThanks very much for taking my call. And sorry I haven't met with Miss Garza in person yet, but I'm glad to have this opportunity. Yes, the question is about, well, looking at the transportation system very carefully, because there's a 63 million dollar delta right now between what the Board of Supervisors wants to give the schools and what they're getting. And there is -- it looks like there's some ways to tighten up the transportation system. For instance, a lot of parents are driving their kids to school these days, for many, many reasons.

  • 12:17:20

    JENNIFERBut, that's a trend that's happening. That increases construction costs of trying to build these facilities where more cars can drop off their kids. At the same time, yellow buses are running empty, which is a tremendous waste. On the good side, we've got parents in the county that are trying to have their kids walk and bike to school, which is healthier and, gets them perked up for learning for the day. But some schools can't do it, because there's not good connectivity between the neighborhood and the schools. And one other budget factor is that...

  • 12:17:55

    NNAMDISo you're suggesting here, Jennifer, that somehow, parents can be persuaded not to drive car -- not to take their children to school by car?

  • 12:18:03

    JENNIFERWell, everybody is allocated a, you know, seat on a yellow bus, or they can walk to school. And so, yeah, I definitely think that there's ways to see why are parents driving their kids to school, and there's a whole bunch of different reasons.

  • 12:18:17

    NNAMDILet me have Karen Garza respond to that first.

  • 12:18:22

    GARZAYes. Thank you for the question. We're -- over the last, you know, nine, eight months that I've been here, plus over the last, I can tell you, at least the last five to ten years, this school system has been looking for any possible way to reduce cost. Our transportation budget has been looked at, time and time again, and we continue to look at how we can operate a very large logistics enterprise. You know, we have one of the largest fleets -- fleet of buses in the United States. With that being said, we do look at ridership and we do adjust routes based upon the number of students the buses.

  • 12:19:02

    GARZAI will tell you it's not perfect, but we continue to look at that to make sure that we're optimizing those resources. And I will tell you, experts, even our -- we had a state efficiency review. They spent almost a year in our system. And, so, if you want to look at an objective report, they'll validate that we're running at least 200 buses short. So, we do have some challenges there. I will tell you it's also challenging when I look at just the -- our, you know, county and how diverse and spread out we are.

  • 12:19:31

    GARZAYou know, sidewalks are an issue, in some cases, places for students to walk to school. I do think, like you said earlier, that's optimal where we can create those conditions where more and more students walk or ride their bikes to school. But not in all circumstances is that possible. But, very good point. We will continue to look at our transportation. You know, I think down the road, there may be a way. I know there's at least one supervisor that has talked about us being a stronger partner with Metro, for example. So, we're looking at any possible idea that we have coming to us, so thank you for your suggestion.

  • 12:20:06

    NNAMDIJennifer, thank you very much for your call. Your spending plan would increase class sizes in some schools. Explain what you're proposing and what it would mean for students and teachers. What's the optimal class size and how do you get that?

  • 12:20:20

    GARZAWe're not at optimal. The class sizes that are considered in the budget are -- they're based upon a ratio that allocates staffing to schools. So it's a base formula. For example, at the elementary level would be about 26.5 students. But that does not mean, from a parent's perspective that my child is going to be in a classroom with 26.5 children. It's merely a way of allocating staff to schools.

  • 12:20:52

    GARZAWhat does that translate into at the campus level? It really depends. It depends upon the programs at the school. It depends upon the grade level. Our students do not come to us in logical groupings. So we have to provide some flexibility at the campus level. I would love to have out class sizes smaller, particularly in grades K, 1 and 2, because we know those are the foundation areas.

  • 12:21:21

    GARZAIn our kindergarten classrooms, fortunately, we do have instructional aides with our teachers that helps that student-adult ratio. But in those formative years, we'd like to have lower class sizes. I will tell you that's an area we wish we did not have to increase. And in some cases, we actually have lower class sizes than that. We have schools that used to Title One monies or use other resources to lower the class sizes.

  • 12:21:47

    GARZABut I think over time, it's something we're definitely going to have to look at. I believe that class size does matter despite what some of the research might tell you. When we're asking teachers to give students lots of one-to-one, you know, instructional time and certainly the opportunity to respond where students are not making appropriate progress. It requires a lot of individual time on behalf of teachers. And so, that is a challenge.

  • 12:22:13

    NNAMDILet's hear what Patricia (sp?) in Washington has to say about that. Patricia, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:22:19

    PATRICIAGood afternoon, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. You did address one of the issues I was going to raise about the class sizes. Actually research does show that smaller class size actually enhances student learning. But the other thing I was going to say is you're also planning to eliminate foreign language at the elementary school level, which is problematic. I just want to make a couple quick points and then I'll hang up.

  • 12:22:45

    PATRICIAIt's problematic. You know, to -- many of the people are going to be laid off are folks that have in essence helped to make the Fairfax School District what it is. And to say we're going to lay these people off so we can give pay increases to the teachers is kind of like pits people against each other. And lastly, I was going to say that, you know, if there were outside funding that could be used to help -- I'm not going to say to resolve this issue -- but that could help in addressing some of these issues. You know...

  • 12:23:20

    NNAMDIWhat is the source of that outside funding, Patricia?

  • 12:23:22

    PATRICIAYou know, there's landscape could be applied for to address the elimination of foreign language, to get funding for that. There's all sorts of creative ways to do things. But I think to lay off, you know, employees in order to address the deficit that summarily give raises to teachers. That pits one group of people against each other and I don't think that's constructive. And that's constructive. Thanks.

  • 12:23:47

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Patricia.

  • 12:23:49

    GARZAThank you for your questions, Patricia. I'm glad you brought up those two important issues. And I think it gives me an opportunity to really clarify. We talk about laying off 731 positions. That's not exactly what will happen. As a fast-growing school system, we do have the opportunity to absorb a lot of those positions. So they are a real reduction in the number of people doing the work. So it is asking people to do more.

  • 12:24:19

    GARZABut, at the same time, most of those positions can be absorbed through attrition. So that's important to note. The second piece is, we have not, in the budget that's been presented or advertised, it does not include the elimination of our foreign language programs at the elementary school level. Those have been discussed on a menu that was presented to the public and has been shared throughout the public for many, many months.

  • 12:24:47

    GARZABut those were only to help guide some of the cuts that we reflected in the January 9th budget as a guide only and were not reflective of all the reductions. The real reductions are reflected in the January 9th budget and foreign language at the elementary school is not in there as a reduction.

  • 12:25:03

    NNAMDISo bottom line is that foreign language at the elementary school level is not being cut out.

  • 12:25:09

    GARZAThat is -- it is not reflected in our current fiscal year '15 budget. No, sir.

  • 12:25:13

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Karen Garza. She is superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools and take your calls at 800-433-8850. How do you feel about raising teacher's salaries in the public schools? You can also send us email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:27:11

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Karen Garza. She is superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. If you have questions or comments for Karen Garza, you can shoot us an email to kojo@wamu.org. Go to our website, kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there or give us a call, 800-433-8850. Teacher workload has been a concern in Fairfax County and elsewhere, are we placing too many demands on teachers today?

  • 12:27:38

    NNAMDIYou started your career as an elementary school teacher. Today, we're asking teachers to master new digital tools, fill out more complicated report cards and manage bigger classes. Is that to much?

  • 12:27:51

    GARZAI do think teacher workload is certainly something that I think all public schools are challenged it. And in an era of high stakes, accountability, high stakes testing, I think that certainly exacerbated what already is a very challenging job we expect a lot of our teachers. In Fairfax County Public Schools, we, you know, in our effort to be the best in the nation, I think we sometimes get a little overzealous in the way that we've implemented new initiatives.

  • 12:28:23

    GARZAAnd so, as I visit with our classroom teachers and I talked with our stakeholders, it is very definitely a concern is how do we mitigate and be much more thoughtful about how, when we make changes to the system, how that affects classrooms and our classroom teachers. So we have a number of things that we're working on to try to mitigate some of the workload challenges that our teachers face.

  • 12:28:47

    NNAMDIWe got an email from someone who says, "How does teacher workload, teacher evaluation and professional development all need to be considered together when addressing the demands you place on teachers in Fairfax County?"

  • 12:29:02

    GARZAWell, first of all, I think that professional development needs to be very thoughtful and designed around kind of our key strategies, our key initiatives as a system. And I think we've tended to use professional development as the key improvement driver. But I think we have to look at our master schedules, how we designed, how we protect classroom and teacher planning time, particularly at the elementary level.

  • 12:29:31

    GARZAI think we do have to address how much dedicated planning time our individual teachers have. I know that we have some disparity between the planning time that our teachers have at the elementary level as compared to our secondary teachers. Some of our changes that we've made around improving the quality of our teacher evaluation systems, our principal evaluation systems, our planning at the campus level.

  • 12:29:55

    GARZAWe're looking at how can we align those better so that we can make those systems work together and not create, you know, duplicative work.

  • 12:30:04

    NNAMDILet's see if you'll answer the question that Teresa (sp?) in Alexandria, VA has. Teresa, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:30:11

    TERESAYes, actually you just touched upon my question. Thank you for taking my call. Actually I'm someone who graduated from Fairfax County, now I'm back in the area actually finishing up my masters in education right now. You know, listening to what you said about high quality teachers or something. And I couldn't agree more with. But you just kind of answered this now.

  • 12:30:28

    TERESAApart from raising salary, what are you looking at in terms of anything for teacher developing, improving resources? What types of stuff will be available to be implemented for me specifically as a hopefully teacher, a secondary teacher in terms of improving teacher development throughout the year or at least once a year or once every few years.

  • 12:30:47

    NNAMDIKaren Garza?

  • 12:30:48

    GARZAI believe it's some of the things I just touched on before. We offer a lot of great professional development in our system. But we won't -- right now, I've got an entire community working with me to help us be more strategic about how we're using those dollars. I think sometimes professional development, if it's not clearly aligned with the division priorities, it just feels like it's more layered on top of everything else.

  • 12:31:10

    GARZAAnd I think it has to be very much more strategic. I think that we need invest in teacher leadership at the campus level and be very thoughtful about that. But, again, I think it goes to -- as I visit with teachers, I think it's more about the planning time I have available to me, the master schedule and how that protects that planning time as well as any other kinds of key initiatives. How we make those fold together versus be layered on top of each other.

  • 12:31:40

    NNAMDITeresa, thank you very much for your call. The College Board recently said that it's dropping the essay requirement from the SAT test and revamping the questions to measure students' learning rather than their aptitude. At the same time, your portrait of a graduate program ask community members what they think high school grads need to know. What broad skills, what knowledge do students need for success in college and at work?

  • 12:32:07

    GARZAWell, we do -- I think that's an interesting question, certainly one that we've been asking our community is, you know, we're preparing students, our high school graduates for a rapidly changing world. And a world that, to some extent, we can't completely predict. We do know that our students will likely change jobs and maybe even go to different professions up to 11 different times, which is very different than, you know, our fathers, maybe our own generation, but our fathers, our grandfathers and grandparents.

  • 12:32:42

    GARZASo that does force us to think differently about how we're preparing students for the future, success for the future. And so we've asked that question of our community. And I will tell you that passing a test did not come up once. But we are looking for graduates who have very strong communication skills, effective critical thinkers and problem solvers, individuals that are self-aware and can self-regulate and self-advocate and are good model citizens.

  • 12:33:10

    GARZASo we think this is a conversation that has been very beneficial for our community and will help us really guide our thinking as we begin to contemplate what is Fairfax County Public School? What do we want to look like in the future? If anyone is interested in seeing what our portrait of a graduate looks like, it is available on our website. We continue to ask for feedback into the community.

  • 12:33:35

    GARZAWe are beginning a strategic planning process to help us create that vision around the 21st century skills that we know are necessary. At the same time, it's incumbent upon us as we talk with state and national leaders that they have to give us the room within the system to do those things that are much more engaging, much more rigorous, much higher level and certainly prepare students for success in the future.

  • 12:34:01

    GARZAAnd I think we've seen some progress there, enrichment. We see that there will be an elimination of five assessment, state assessments up to grade eight. I think it's a good starting point, but we need more conversation around, you know, what we want our schools to produce, how do we want our graduates to look. And then we have to provide the room in the system to do those much more engaging work.

  • 12:34:28

    NNAMDIOne of the big debates in public education today is how much standardized testing is too much and whether these tests should be used to evaluate teachers? What are your thoughts on the value and on the quantity of standardized testing?

  • 12:34:42

    GARZAWell, our current -- you know, our current system has been designed across the nation to hold schools accountable because taxpayers do want to know that the dollars that are being spent in our public schools, that they're getting good return on investment. So I think it is important that we'd be held accountable. But we do believe in Fairfax County and certainly our legislative part is very clear that we believe that that can be done without testing every student every year on every content area.

  • 12:35:14

    GARZAWe believe that the state and the federal government should allow that those kinds of assessments periodically measure progress of student learning and then leave the day to day assessment, you know, discussion, which is much more meaningful with teachers and students in classrooms and with schools, because that's where the best assessment occurs. And that is measuring progress of students on critical skills on a daily basis.

  • 12:35:43

    NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Are students subjected to too many standardized tests? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Here now is David in Alexandria, VA. David, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:36:00

    DAVIDThank you very much for taking my call. And I'll keep this brief. I'm wondering if the superintendent is aware of the massive amounts of homework that my three high school children goes through and they're almost unable to participate in family functions. And is this a direct correlation to the pressure on teachers? And I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 12:36:26

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, David.

  • 12:36:28

    GARZAYou know, that's a very good question that you raise and certainly something I'm concerned about. And I hear, you know, I hear the concerns around too much homework. Quite frankly, I was just at a meeting earlier this week where I had a group of parents saying we don't give enough homework. So I don't know if there's a perfect amount of homework. But I do think that there, you know, we're certainly in prime right now in Fairfax County Public Schools to really have a conversation about what is meaningful homework?

  • 12:36:57

    GARZAYou know, do we have to give, you know, 40 problems when maybe 10 would do? And I do think there's a balance to life that we think is important. We're certainly very concerned about the stress on our students. And I, like the gentleman, David, that called in, you know, I am concerned when students have hours upon hours of homework every night to prepare for the next day. If we are serious, and I am very serious, about health and wellness, overall wellness of our students, then I think homework and expectations of time at home on studies.

  • 12:37:36

    GARZAWhile homework can be a very important piece of the learning process, there needs to be -- we need to strike a stronger balance. And so, I happen to agree with David. It's something that we've been talking a lot about in Fairfax County?

  • 12:37:49

    NNAMDIAre you listening, Mr. King? I have a former high school lab teacher who now lives in this area. Here now, we go to Rob in Alexandria, VA. Rob, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:38:01

    ROBThanks for this terrific show. And Ms. Garza, thanks for your leadership in your work. In Salt Lake City, the Granite School District is freeing up budget resources by expanding a very high-quality three-year-old, four-year-old pre-kindergarten and cutting their special education assignment rates. The assignment rates are cut as a result of the quality pre-K enough to pay the pre-kindergarten entirely, freeing up budget resources for the schools after the financing for the pre-kindergarten is over.

  • 12:38:37

    ROBWhich is about -- they get a portion of the saving federally year by year and then 100 percent of the saving after the sixth year. I'm wondering in Fairfax County if we are beginning to look at this kind source of budget resource.

  • 12:38:54

    GARZAActually, I found that -- I'm going to find that story. That sounds fascinating. Yes, we are talking about early -- high quality early childhood education. And I will tell you that if we're serious about mitigating the achievement gap, then we have to be serious about serving all children, at least all the qualifying children if not all children in high quality early childhood programming.

  • 12:39:21

    GARZAWhen we write about or hear the new research around kindergarten as the new first grade and it's very true. The second semester of kindergarten we expect students to be reading and that will, you know, exacerbate whether or not students have had exposure in ways that prepare them for success in kindergarten. I know the achievement gap is something we've been talking about. It's interesting your comments around how that mitigates how many students are referred for special education programming.

  • 12:39:53

    GARZAI bet you're right on point about that. Our challenge, I think, in Fairfax County is there are some upfront costs. I do think there are some long-term savings and it's a great investment. The research, I think, says for every dollar you spend on early -- high quality early childhood programming, you get a return of $7 on that investment. So I think that speaks to what you're speaking of. We do have to have a commitment. A very strong commitment from our state and county leaders to accomplish this very important goal.

  • 12:40:23

    GARZAWe've been talking about this with anyone that will listen to us because we agree with you on that. And I do think there'll be some long-term savings, but there's still some upfront costs that we would have to contend with.

  • 12:40:36

    NNAMDIRob, thank you very much for your call.

  • 12:40:36

    GARZAThank you for your question.

  • 12:40:37

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Karen Garza, superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. And you can continue calling, 800-433-8850. What do you see as the ideal class size? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:42:48

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Karen Garza, superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools, and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org. We got a tweet -- I'll start with a good one. We got a tweet who says, "Please thank Dr. Garza for her travels throughout the community and for having open discussions with parents and with students." Okay.

  • 12:43:16

    GARZAThank you.

  • 12:43:17

    NNAMDIAnd we got another tweet from Marissa, who says, "Any suggestions for aspiring teachers? As a future teacher, I feel very discouraged with all these budget cuts and shuffling in Virginia." Can you encourage Marissa?

  • 12:43:30

    GARZAI can -- I will encourage Marissa. I will tell you that I became an educator at a time when things were very different than they are today, but I will tell you also, I interact with educators every day that are just inspiring and just have an enormous impact on young people. So I think of a profession where -- first of all, you get to be around some of the best people you can imagine. Educators are lovely, caring, good people.

  • 12:44:03

    GARZAAnd that's a great work environment as a whole. And then secondly, the opportunity to have a profound impact on young people. I will tell you most people I interact with I can say, "Can you name two or three teachers that you had in your school and that made a difference?" In fact, Kojo was just telling me about…

  • 12:44:21

    NNAMDIMy high school Latin teacher…

  • 12:44:22

    GARZAYes.

  • 12:44:22

    NNAMDI…from Guyana, South America, who I ran into the Whole Foods, who was very good.

  • 12:44:26

    GARZASo I mean educators are impactful. I mean, they make an impression upon you and help shape your life. And so I think it's a great career to be in. You know, and just like, you know, it's just -- we do have challenges. And I think there are challenges that enforce us to know that we need more and more and more great people.

  • 12:44:48

    NNAMDIWhile we do try to stick to the facts on this broadcast, we also traffic in rumors. So I'm going to read this email we have David, who says, "Residents have been hearing rumors that Dr. Garza is in favor of implementing a six-period day for high school students. How will Dr. Garza guarantee that students who are involved with the arts and music be able to continue studying their passions with a six-period day? Could students take seventh period for free, through the online campus?"

  • 12:45:15

    GARZAActually, I'm not endorsing any particular calendar. I did have a group of principals bring forward some recommendations on changing the master schedule a good number of months ago, maybe six months ago. And I indicated to them that we could not do anything of that magnitude or change anything dramatic without a meaningful conversation with our stakeholders.

  • 12:45:38

    GARZAI do have a group of educators looking at some -- or developing some recommendations around our master schedules moving forward. Once they come out with some recommendations and we're in a position, I will be taking that out to the community. I will -- I think already -- I think at least have demonstrated that we're going to work real hard not to make decisions in isolation. And that we're going to meaningfully engage the community.

  • 12:46:04

    GARZAAny changes to the master schedule at the high school level, we would spend a lot of time talking with our community about it. And I'm not going to make those decisions in isolation. They will be -- have the benefit of a lot of people involved. Nothing will change for our high schools for September of '14. So anything that would change, it would be down the road some.

  • 12:46:27

    GARZAIt would give us plenty of time to have a lot of conversation in the community. We are looking at our elementary schedule for this next year. There may be some tweaking to that. But only to insure that we're protecting our teacher planning time. I'm hearing that is more of a challenge at our elementary school level.

  • 12:46:44

    NNAMDIFairfax County has some rock star high schools that show up at the top of the national rankings. But it also has some schools where achievement levels are lower. Talk about the challenge of closing achievement gaps, both among students of different races and among schools in different communities.

  • 12:47:00

    GARZAYes. We do have great schools. And I'm constantly amazed by our students when I'm around our students. We have a lot of talented students, too. We are -- we do have an achievement gap that we're all very concerned about. It is one of our major priorities. And that is to eliminate the achievement gap. I believe that we can do it. We are working right now with the model schools network.

  • 12:47:27

    GARZAThese are some of the most rapidly improving schools across the country that were identified by the Bill and Melinda Gates -- a longitudinal study done by the -- funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The 25 most rapidly improving elementary, middle school and high schools across the country. And we're networking with these school communities and learning from what they did to make a difference around the achievement gap. And we know some things are very clear.

  • 12:47:55

    GARZAWe've got to expand our early childhood programming, as was mentioned by an earlier caller, very important. Number two, we've got to have more of a focus on literacy. How do we have consistent and high quality reading programming instruction beginning at the earliest levels and have that very focused around best practices and we have to intentionally teach children academic vocabulary.

  • 12:48:20

    GARZASo those foundation skills and the ability to interact with any kind of content or learning is really fundamentally built around the ability to read and read well at the earliest levels.

  • 12:48:36

    NNAMDIKris (sp?) , in Fairfax, Va., wants to talk about academic disparities. Kris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:48:43

    KRISYes. I have wanted to first make a comment. And it was my experience in the school where my daughter goes, in McLean, that the PTA there was very well funded. I mean, they had a budget of over a $100,000. Then, you know, the Fairfax County had said that they wanted schools to move towards the STEM curriculum. And the principal there said we don't have enough money to fund a STEM curriculum.

  • 12:49:08

    KRISSo the PTA money gives them $20,000 a year to fund a STEM curriculum, which again, I'm not complaining because my daughter was in that school and benefited from that. But I was wondering how the superintendent feels about these PTAs who are really well-funded, especially in wealthy communities like McLean, that are able to fund curriculum?

  • 12:49:28

    KRISI mean, usually when you hear the PTA's involvement, you think that's a good thing and, you know, they'll buy some equipment. They'll buy some supplies to help the school. But the PTA seems to be in the business these days and the county seems to be obliged to permit this to happen to fund inequality in the actual curriculum. So I was wondering how the superintendent felt about that, about these well-funded PTAs and their involvement…

  • 12:49:59

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 12:49:59

    KRIS…and funding actual curriculum.

  • 12:50:01

    NNAMDIOkay. Here's Karen Garza.

  • 12:50:03

    GARZAThank you for your question. And I think this is an issue that we really are wrestling with. You know, we are certainly grateful for the support and we do enjoy a lot of support from our parent community, but those funds that are raised should be supplemental and not take the place of what the school system should be providing. Because it does create very strong inequities with regard to some parent in some communities that can afford to, you know, augment what's going on, as compared to others.

  • 12:50:33

    GARZAWith that being said, I think we also have to factor into that equation that we do have some schools that have higher percent poverty that also receive Title I monies from the federal government to augment and supplement educational services. And then we have other supports throughout the system, like our needs-based staffing model that does take into consideration schools that need more.

  • 12:50:59

    GARZAAnd so there are some ways that offset it. But the point is still well made, those should be, you know, that is of a concern to us and we have to make sure that we're not creating inequities throughout the system.

  • 12:51:13

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kris. Like other districts in our region, enrollment is up in Fairfax Public Schools, as the county's population continues to grow. How is that affecting the timeline for renovating schools and for building new ones?

  • 12:51:28

    GARZAThe fast growth of our school system has most definitely created a strain on the very limited amount of monies we have available to us on the annual basis for capital, both capital, you know, renovations, for example, expansions of capacity, adding additional classrooms, and in building new schools. We have $155 million available to us on the annual basis. And that number has not changed for many, many, many years. So that's the limit on the amount of money we have available to us.

  • 12:52:05

    GARZASo if you take that and couple that with the fact that we're growing by, you know, almost 3,000 students a year, in some cases even more than that, that does put an enormous amount of strain on our system. Therefore, we now, sadly, lead the area on the number of temporary buildings that we have throughout the system.

  • 12:52:27

    GARZAWe have over 1,000, 1,100 temporary buildings. But we have been in an ongoing conversation with the county leadership because they control how much money we have available to us for capital needs. So the answer is or the response to the question is, yes, it does put an enormous amount of strain on our system. I think we use those -- the limited dollars we have available to us to respond to our needs, but it comes -- it falls significantly short of what our real annual needs are. So it is very much a concern to all of us.

  • 12:53:03

    NNAMDIYou're also seeing more students who get free or reduced price meals at schools -- that's a reflection of household income -- and more students who do not speak English at home. What challenges do those trends present for you?

  • 12:53:15

    GARZAThose very much present an additional strain on our resources available to us. I think -- when I walk into our schools and I see the diversity in our classrooms, I'm just impressed and amazed because I think what a great experience that provides for our students. I mean, this is, you know, the opportunity to go to a school with students from, you know, all over the world. I think that's great.

  • 12:53:41

    GARZABut we have to be real in that if we have students coming to us in, you know, living in poverty and that number's growing. Our kindergarten class is right now at about 35 percent. And so I think that's a sign or a signal of kind of that change over time. And then we have students coming to us that do not speak English in the home. Those kinds of services that students need to keep them on track with their age appropriate peer group is -- it does put additional strain on our system. And because it does, we'd have to mobilize more resource to support their needs.

  • 12:54:14

    NNAMDIEmail we got from Celeste, "My husband and I are working parents and the school lunch program is very important to us, but school lunches have become so lacking in flavor that my children and many of their classmates refuse to eat them and will even skip the meal if they can't bring lunch from home. Instead of creating new, healthy options, the county has chosen to serve traditional, high-fat options, such as hamburgers and pizza without the normal amount of fat, basically tasteless re-engineered foods." To which, Karen Garza, you say what?

  • 12:54:44

    GARZAI think she meant low-fat options.

  • 12:54:46

    NNAMDIOh, yeah, you're right.

  • 12:54:48

    GARZASome of that, you know, we are looking at this. In fact, we just completed a study with an outside consultant, to have them come in and, you know, give us a report. In fact, it's online. They gave us some recommendations on, you know, on our food service programming. We are focused on providing more fresh fruits and vegetables and just more fresh foods throughout our system. But I will tell you, some of what the parent referred to in the email is controlled by the federal government.

  • 12:55:20

    GARZAThe U.S. Department of Agriculture is very much -- have very strict standards over, you know, calories, the fat grams, salt, you know, all those things that -- that's why many of the foods that oftentimes our children love are not completely reflected in those programs because, you know, we can't, you know, we can't offer it exactly like you would get it in a restaurant because of those nutritional guidelines.

  • 12:55:50

    GARZABut it's something we are definitely working on. We are trying to increase our participation. And if want to increase our participation, we have to ask our students, you know, how can we improve the quality of food so that you want to eat in our cafeterias? So I like this parent's goal. It's certainly a goal that I share with her. And that is for her child to want to want to eat in our cafeterias. And so we're working on that. Even despite how the challenging food nutritional guidelines from the federal government.

  • 12:56:22

    NNAMDIAnd now we go to Sylvia, in Reston, Va., who I'm predicting will raise one of the more pressing issues at hand. Sylvia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:56:32

    SYLVIAHello, Kojo. Hi, Dr. Garza, it's a pleasure to meet you. My question is as a taxpayer in Fairfax County, with budgets being paramount, I know that school has been extended three days into a new week. And I'm wondering if the school system is going to apply for a waiver to the state, so that we don't have to pay extra custodian care, bus transportation, etcetera, etcetera, to have three days, when usually the kids have kind of checked out that time of year. I hate to say it.

  • 12:57:03

    NNAMDIWell…

  • 12:57:04

    SYLVIABut I'm wondering -- and I'll take it offline -- whether you're going to be applying for a waiver to consider that as a budget saver. Thank you.

  • 12:57:12

    NNAMDIAnd since, Sylvia, we only have about a minute left, I'll add to that question, how are -- are you going to make up for all the snow days we've had this winter? How far into June will the school year go? And when will you decide whether school is on or off tomorrow?

  • 12:57:26

    GARZAI hope we have school tomorrow. You know, I keep praying that it won't be too bad. It's amazing to me that we've missed 11 days of school this year due to weather. Any time we make up days it's not always a cost increase for the school system, just, you know, the making up those days. I will tell you snow removal is going to be a significant cost to us this year. That's kind of a different story. We are working right now with the U.S. Department -- I mean, excuse me, the…

  • 12:58:00

    NNAMDIWe got about 20 seconds left.

  • 12:58:01

    GARZA…State Department of Education to determine whether or not they would consider a waiver from us. But right now we do have to make up through June the 24th and potentially the 25th.

  • 12:58:12

    NNAMDISo…

  • 12:58:12

    GARZABut we're working with the U.S. Department, I mean, excuse me, the State Department of Education on this.

  • 12:58:16

    NNAMDIStay tuned to find out what's going to happen tomorrow. Karen Garza is superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. Thank you so much for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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