Yvonne Folkerts, Alexandria School Board Chair
I’ve been struggling with that question the last few days, after a very fascinating week for the Alexandria School Board.
At our Oct. 22 meeting, Superintendent Sherman presented the Board with a budget forecast for fiscal year 2011. Presently, he estimates the Board could have an $11 million funding gap, which means we will have to make difficult choices to maintain the level of services our students deserve. More than 80 percent of our operating budget comes from city coffers, so we must remain cognizant of the city’s economy as we enter into budget deliberations. Combine budget reductions with increasing enrollments, aging facilities and a focused, strong push toward higher achievement for each and every one of our students, and you can see we have our work cut out for us.
The School Board was further challenged this week with thought-provoking conversations by two nationally-renowned educators: Dr. Ron Ferguson, director of the achievement gap initiative at Harvard University, and Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University and the leader of President Barack Obama’s education policy transition team.
Superintendent Sherman invited both of these well-respected educators to Alexandria to meet with the School Board to give us the benefit of their research and expertise, and tell us how their work could translate into practice for ACPS. Dr. Ferguson had a whirl-wind tour of Alexandria and our public schools: in the course of two days, he met with the community, with principals and assistant principals, with teachers, with students and with the School Board. Dr. Darling-Hammond came to our Oct. 22 Board meeting, to give us an overview of her work leading the School Redesign Network, a 10-year-old research effort to facilitate the work of school district reform and to help districts learn from each other regarding gains in student learning.
The conversations with both of these individuals confirmed that Dr. Sherman and the School Board are charting an exciting, admittedly stressful, path forward to improve student achievement. With our strategic plan firmly in place, we are focused on closing the achievement gap, improving the SAT scores for all our students, eliminating our drop-out rate and seeing that all our TC Williams students graduate.
Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Darling-Hammond demonstrated to me that there are experts beyond the boundaries of ACPS whom want to partner with us and help us achieve our goals. What rewarding partnerships these would be for our students.
Yet, how do we develop these partnerships, implement them in the classroom – where the real work of our school system takes place – and yet contend with the budget reduction decisions facing us for 2011? Partnerships such as those the superintendent will surely want us to consider aren’t free. But should budget challenges be a roadblock to advancement? I say no.
In his forecast, the superintendent outlined some challenges ahead in our budget deliberations: our contribution to the Virginia Retirement System will increase 17.9 percent, compared to 13.8 percent now; our health insurance costs may increase 13 percent; and our facilities challenges and increased enrollments may require a shift in our student-teacher ratio.
These are just a few of the challenges outlined to us in the budget forecast. You can read the entire forecast online, at www.acps.k12.va.us.
The Board received one final budget challenge at our Oct. 22 Board meeting – this one from our chief target audience. Student members of our Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) traveled to Chicago recently to represent TC Williams, and ACPS, at the national youth meeting of MSAN.
In a report before the Board, these students outlined “proposed actions” to resolve issues such as low student morale, low academic expectations, and to provide student advocacy and leadership opportunities. Not surprisingly, the proposed actions have budget implications. The students recommended staff development courses on equity in education and cultural awareness and sensitivity, as well as student assemblies featuring paid guest speakers they heard in Chicago. They also recommended actions that have no budget impact: panel discussions with school administrators, teachers, counselors, the School Board and students; a buddy system for AP classes and cohorts; and peer-to-peer mentoring.
So where do we go from here? We have a gloomy forecast, tough budget decisions ahead, potential partnerships to strengthen our reform efforts, and the wishes of our students. Can we make decisions to incorporate all three? Can we afford not to?