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Students listen to teacher Heather Ulsh during a reading exercise at Lynbrook Elementary in Springfield, Va. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post )

Changing Demographics In Fairfax County To Impact Education

Interesting piece from the Washington Post on the changing demographics in Fairfax County, Virginia, and what it could mean for education and the county’s financial resources. The title of the headline and corresponding picture are more positive then the story’s content.

Here are some of the key excerpts:

Fairfax has experienced a dramatic demographic shift in recent years that is nowhere more obvious than in the county’s kindergarten classrooms.

The white student population is receding and is being replaced with fast-growing numbers of poor students and children of immigrants for whom English is a second language. 

More than one-third of the 13,424 kindergartners in the county this year qualified for free or reduced-price meals, a federal measure of poverty, and close to 40 percent of the Class of 2026 requires additional English instruction, among the most ever for a Fairfax kindergarten class.

The demographic changes in Fairfax are likely to have long-term implications for the school system: Most of this year’s kindergarten class will spend the next 12 years in county schools.

Schools officials believe that the challenges that come with a less-affluent and less-prepared population will exacerbate the system’s struggles with a widening achievement gap for minorities and ballooning class sizes.

The rising enrollment — the overall student body has surged by more than 22,000 since 2004 — is not sustainable at the current funding level, schools officials said, which could intensify already contentious battles for tax dollars with the county’s Board of Supervisors.

Read full story on Washington Post (In Fairfax County kindergarten classes, school system’s future comes into focus)

What does this mean?

Well, for starters, it means that Fairfax County has a severe problem.

I have personally seen a similar case in Loudoun County on a much smaller scale at Catoctin Elementary – where the student population had a significantly higher number of foreign-born minorities who did not speak English fluently / as a first language, and were on reduced / free lunch programs. It was very similar to the 40% that need to learn additional English because it is not their primary language in Fairfax county’s class of 2026.

At Catoctin, the results were extremely problematic as the school was not certified to state standards in academic performance. Parents of students zoned for Catoctin were allowed by the Loudoun County school system to choose alternative schools if they wanted. There was a significant drain in financial and personnel resources as well.

What the story in the Washington Post does not report is the fact that parents from many other cultures do not get actively involved in their children’s education – especially if their English speaking language skills are poor. It is a huge communication and cultural challenge. Not having parental involvement in a student’s education has been proven to statistically reduce that student’s chance of success. It also makes it significantly more likely that the next generation also will be poor, and require government assistance.

One of the solutions to this challenge is conducting far greater cross-cultural parental outreach than schools have ever done. This requires the school system (or each individual school) to produced accurately translated school notices (daily and weekly) in other languages and host events (with a translator) every month designed specifically to bring parents into the school community. Of course, the challenge with this solution is that most parents in these households work multiple jobs and do not have the time for school meetings. It is, however, a starting point.

Another solution is to target these students with required intensive English learning and skills development all throughout the school year. I understand that this also is another drain on limited education resources. However, what are the alternatives for Fairfax County?

If Fairfax County does not begin to increase its focus on English language learning and skills development for these students, it runs the risk of parents from other students demanding the ability to choose alternative schools to fight against lowering academic performance and quality of education. This will create a block of under-performing schools, and lead to defacto segregation of students based on ethnicity and income.

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