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How to help struggling schools in a budget crisis

[This is my Local Living section column for June 3, 2010.]

Daniel A. Domenech arrived in Fairfax County 13 years ago as the new schools superintendent.

He was a former elementary school teacher with a reputation for raising achievement for low-income students. But he had to prove himself, fast, in difficult circumstances. Many Fairfax schools, particularly in the Route 1 corridor, were doing worse than the county average in math and reading, and many parents did not want to hear about it.

Domenech launched Project Excel, identifying 20 elementary schools as low-performing and giving them more class time and money to improve. But at community forums, people asked him why he was stigmatizing schools full of good people trying their best. Domenech shook his head. “If you are satisfied with the education your kids are getting, this is fine,” he said. “But I’m not.”

When he left seven years later, many Excel schools had turned around, and Domenech was a national figure, eventually becoming executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. Now his successor, School Superintendent Jack D. Dale, faces his own crisis: deep budget cuts that have ended the Excel program that made Domenech’s reputation. I asked the former superintendent how he felt about that.

“It was a different time, and we had to do different things then,” he said.

His organization’s members are reeling nearly everywhere from similar financial crises. He said he thought Dale had taken the essence of Project Excel (more resources for the neediest schools) and spread support in a new way to low-income students struggling in every part of the county.

The new program is called Priority Schools. It requires a cautionary note. Raising student achievement in schools full of poor kids whose parents are distracted by the disappointments and irritations of scarce jobs and bad housing is hard to do.

Priority Schools, like Project Excel, sounds terrific, but new programs usually do. A sustained commitment to improving teaching and smarter management can make significant change, but school districts are often torn by conflicting priorities and political disputes that get in the way.

Priority Schools has Domenech’s blessing, but more important, as he would say, is the high level of professional talent in one of the best equipped and led school systems in the country.

Domenech said Project Excel’s gains stemmed in part from adding three hours a week to classroom time in 20 schools and paying the teachers for the extra time with an additional $1 million annually for each school. His staff also pioneered a school performance bonus system well ahead of its time. If an Excel school reached certain achievement targets, everyone in the building, whether the principal or a custodian, would get a reward, as much as $2,000 each.

The Priority Schools program will not be handing out cash. But it will try to raise the talent and expertise at each school on the list by giving special training to principals, such as the University of Virginia’s two-year Turnaround Specialist program. It will also allow those principals to pick the most promising applicants for teaching jobs first during hiring season.

Domenech said the Excel school parents became boosters of his program. He will be just like them, living in the county, praising its teachers and seeing daughter Jillian graduate this month from Oakton High School.

She might be one for the Priority Schools program to watch. She plans to attend the University of Mary Washington and become, like her dad, an elementary school teacher, maybe good enough to help Fairfax kids take another step forward.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Jay Mathews  | June 2, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Daniel A. Domenech, Fairfax County, Jack D. Dale, Priority Schools, Project Excel, new ways to help low income students  
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Domenech launched Project Excel, identifying 20 elementary schools as low-performing ...
When he left seven years later, many Excel schools had turned around

OK, Jay, as your data driven idol would want to know, how many is "many"?

Posted by: edlharris | June 2, 2010 10:55 PM | Report abuse

Project Excel was a program at specific schools. Other FCPS programs are Foreign Language Immersion, Magnet schools, Focus schools, etc. Extra resources went or go to a school. Dale did something far more ingenious - tied resource distribution to staffing ratios via formulas.

More ESOL, FRPM etc the more staff. That means lower class sizes and greater ability to direct staff to work with underperforming students.

It also removes politics. Priority schools? I prefer the staffing ratio approach. School information and test results are easily available. Even the public can find it.

Posted by: mydchome | June 3, 2010 7:08 AM | Report abuse

You write that FCPS is ..." one of the best equipped and led school systems in the country". While FCPS has some great things going for it, it has some serious problems with leadership and fiscal accountability (FCPS accounts for about 53% of the Fairfax County budget). We have an elected school board that is supposed to form policy and direct the superintendent. In reality we have a school board that rubber-stamps a majority of the superintendent's policies. We have a FCPS superintendent who freezes teachers' wages and proposes a PSI program that is in reality a jobs security program for a top heavy curriculum advisers department. Ask teachers in the classrooms or parents who follow school board business what they think.

Posted by: harmony24 | June 3, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

The amount of “extra” time for students in the Excel schools was two hours per week, not three hours. This time could be considered “extra” only in comparison to the substandard schedules of the other Fairfax elementary schools. Why doesn’t the Post report on the Fairfax policy of allowing only 10 minutes for recess at most elementary schools? Schools that allow the students more time for recess don’t meet the state standards for 27.5 instructional hours per week.

Posted by: vfshea | June 3, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

I really am unsure why The Post and Jay Matthews continues to put a positive spin on everything involving our public schools. I will be sitting here at the edge of my seat waiting for some serious investigative reporting from this paper which actually quantifies any improvement in many of these high poverty schools in FCPS. Just remove the VGLA scores from the averages and the scores go back to where they were in 2006. Many of these schools have 40% failure rates on SOLs without the benefit of VGLA.

Someone please show me how all this additional funding and smaller class sizes has made a difference.

Jay, please don't tackle serious subjects such as student achievement unless you are prepared to do the "heavy lifting" required of such reporting.

Posted by: takebackourschools | June 3, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Yes, as always, Jay starts with a flawed premise. Who said this guy improved schools?

Looking up the VGLA scandal is easy enough. So why isn't it mentioned in the blog entry itself, rather than in the comments?

Sounds like recent Project Excel improvements were achieved by gaming the system. I wonder what occurred in the earlier years?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | June 3, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I teach at one of those Excel schools (and have since it was first designated as such). The resources Domenech made available made a huge difference for our students. We are losing a lot of that now. It will hurt.

As to VGLA, why is it that only if students are failing do we believe an assessment is valid? Students are passing VGLA assessments in record numbers because it is a portfolio of their work. Not everything in it is stellar, but it genuinely shows what they have learned. In addition, a VGLA assessment actually addresses every single standard and benchmark for a subject in a a grade level. No standardized test can address all that.

Posted by: Jenny04 | June 3, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

For takebackourschools, as proof of heavy lifting on the improvement of Fairfax schools, I offer my book "Supertest," about Mt Vernon High. Cheap on amazon, and it should be in some Fairfax libraries. There was a story in the Post based on that research. If you buy a copy that will increase sales by about 30 percent. Also google me and Annandale High you will find a long column on that subject.

harmony24---All districts have problems. But when you get around and compare Fairfax to other places, you see how good it is. Haven't you carefully read our recent editorial on how Fx is eating Moco's lunch? Here it is:
It told me stuff I didn't know.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 3, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

You guys need to put the kool aid down and step away from whatever punch bowl you are drinking from.

Let's define success, shall we?

Mt Vernon High School has the highest number of dropouts than any other school in FCPS. In 2007, 62 dropped out and in 2009, 59 dropped out-virtually no improvement.

Mt Vernon High School has the lowest SAT scores and they are DROPPING over the last 3 years. From 515 Reading to 466 and from 499 in Math to 466. Also, there are fewer takers of the SAT at this school.

As far as SOL scores, over the last 3 years, 39% of students failed the Reading SOL. 54% failed Algebra II-is this success?

I don't blame the kids-they go to school and expect to get an education. Unfortunately they are not getting one. Open a charter high school and let's see what happens in 5 years. Could it get any worse for them?

Posted by: takebackourschools | June 3, 2010 6:34 PM | Report abuse

As far as the teacher who thinks the VGLA is the magic bullet-give me a break. No assessment with 100% pass rates is worth a darn thing. Isn't it odd that all these kids with SPED and ESL issues are all magically demonstrating grade level proficiency?

Since Mt Vernon was mentioned by Jay, let's examine an elem. schools that feeds into that high school. Let's see what those teachers have to look forward to.

Hybla Valley used VGLA on 25% of their SOL eligible students-1 out of 4 did not take the SOL. All 94 VGLA kids passed! They outperformed the SOL kids! In 2006-07 the SOL Reading pass rate was just 66%. Now with many of the kids taking the VGLA, the pass rate soared to 78%. SPED kids improved their scores by 45 percentage points!!! This has to be a national record.

So, we pass all these kids even though we know darn well that they are functioning 2-3 grade levels below and pass them off to the middle and high schools to deal with the problems. Everyone has a feel good moment. The principal and teachers get to think they are doing a great job and the school can make AYP and get The DOE off their back.

What genuis came up with this idea?

Posted by: takebackourschools | June 3, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

This observation was deleted:
" identifying 20 elementary schools as low-performing and giving them more class time and money to improve....
When he left seven years later, many Excel schools had turned around, "

How many is "many"?

Posted by: edlharris | June 3, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

takebackourschools - what do you recommend? How does it help those kids to have them fail standardized tests? Holding them back and not sending them on to the next grade doesn't solve their problems. The reason they struggle with a standardized test is not because they aren't capable or haven't learned a lot, it's because they don't have enough English skills or they have a learning disability. Do you really think those factors should be ignored? Their teachers should be able to ensure that students who don't speak English fluently or who have proven learning disabilities should do just as well as their peers without similar challenges? How would you do on a standardized test in Urdu? We love to ignore the realities and act as if standardized tests are the be all and end all. That does not, in any way, help children.

Posted by: Jenny04 | June 3, 2010 10:04 PM | Report abuse

Sorry for the double post, Jay.
40+ year old eyes and all that.
But, how many is many?

Posted by: edlharris | June 3, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse

The most recent staff analysis of the test results in the Project Excel schools mistakenly included six schools with a Monday early dismissal schedule in trying to analyze the 16 schools with a full day on Mondays. Obviously no valid conclusions can be drawn from such a flawed study. However, it would be a waste a time to try to prove anything about school schedules simply based on a study of 16 schools in Fairfax County which had full days on Mondays. Since thousands of schools in the United States have a full-day schedule five days a week, such a schedule is not in any way experimental or unusual. It should simply be the standard schedule for all Fairfax County schools. Fairfax County should end its questionable policy of dismissing most elementary school students two hours early each Monday. It would be absurd to try to prove that the less time students spend in school, the better they will do on tests. Allowing students to spend an adequate amount of time in school is simply common sense. As President Obama has said, “the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom. If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America.”

Posted by: vfshea | June 4, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

What do I suggest???

Sure there are challenges with the ESL students, but let's remember that FCPS has a goal that our students speak two languages when they graduate, correct? So, why is it so burdensome? And why does a kid who has spent their entire elementary years in US schools, still branded WIDA Level 1 or 2 in 5th and 6th grade? So that they can take the VGLA? How convenient.

I have no problem with alternative assessments for kids who demonstrate grade level proficiency but struggle with multiple choice formats-but you guys are ignoring that qualification. You are basically steering ANY kid who can't pass the SOL, slapping an LD label on them and then giving him worksheets to complete, including only the ones with perfect scores, and then telling the public that these kids are doing great!

You don't think that is seriously misguided and flawed? The VA Legislature sure did when they voted unanimously to shut VGLA down.

We need to get rid of lousy teachers and ineffective administrators. This is not rocket science. You can drop class sizes to 5 kids and the kids still won't learn if you have a lousy teacher. And we have lots of them.

When you guys are ready to weed out those who are holding these kids back, then we will see progress-until then, let's be honest about their achievements or deficiencies.

Lastly, FCPS is now requiring parents to pay for IB and AP tests. Where will that $2 million go? To a training program at UVA for 20 of our chosen principals. Our internal training program that we spend millions on is so inadequate that now we need to send them to UVA so that they can be trained on how to run a school.

Posted by: takebackourschools | June 4, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

for takebackourschools---test scores and dropout rates are heavily influenced by family income averages, particularly in the Rte One corridor. I haven't been at that school in a while, but if you look at my book you will see the introduction of the IB program did a great deal to raise the level of instruction for many students. And if you find ANY normal enrollment school that has beaten the family income/SAT connection, let me know. That would be a story. Of course your proposed solution, letting a charter school open and work with those low income kids, is a terrific idea. That would provide the one kind of high school reform that has worked, a much smaller school with closer relationships between teachers and students, and more time for instruction.

for edlharris. I was unable to find data to answer your good question, but you will notice that the link on the piece for Excel Schools does provide evidence of improvement after the program had been going a couple of years.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 4, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse


The link Jay refers to goes back to 2000 and claims success. FCPS is very good at claiming success and often the Wash Post just laps it up and never questions them.

Actually, if you review the School Board docs you will see that there was virtually no improvement in the Excel Schools and this is why FCPS is turning to Plan B-the Priority Schools Initiative. The problem is, nobody can demonstrate how throwing more money at a school has resulted in improved student achievement. VGLA has poisoned the well water, so we really don't even know if our test scores are getting better or worse-we have to take Jack Dale's word for it, I guess.

Posted by: takebackourschools | June 4, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Thanks jay and takebackourschools,
I went to the Excel press link Jay gave and saw that there were
" significant gains at 15 of the 20 Project Excel schools on the Virginia Standards of Learning and Stanford 9 tests."

However, the data and interpretation links did not work, so the results after more than one year requires more digging.

Who has a shovel?

Posted by: edlharris | June 4, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

The most recent study of Excel was entitled “Analysis of Project Excel versus Non-Excel Schools on the 2007 SOL English and Math Results.” The document, dated March 2008, was prepared by the Department of Accountability, Office of Program Evaluation. The conclusion states: “These analyses indicate that Excel schools are performing at least as well, if not better, than less impoverished schools. Achievement performance in English varies more among schools than performance in mathematics for both Excel and Non-Excel schools. That is, both groups experienced a wide range of performance during the 2007 school year. And, the average achievement performance (grades 3-6) in mathematics is higher than average (grades 3-6) performance in English across all Excel and Non-Excel schools. Notwithstanding the limitations of a single year of data on which these findings are based, one may say that Excel schools have overcome the impact of “at-riskness” (poverty and language barriers) slightly more than their closest counter-part (Non-Excel) schools in English. However, Excel schools perform about the same in math, although relatively high, as the Non-Excel comparison schools.”

A major problem with this study is that it identified 22 Excel schools; however, there are only 16 such schools. Some of the so-called Excel schools identified were actually Modified calendar schools. However, the intent of the study was clearly to study the full-day Monday schools. One of the comparison schools was Timber Lane, a Modified Calendar school. One of the so-called Excel schools was never either an Excel school or a Modified Calendar school. Another so-called Excel school was never an Excel school, but is a Modified Calendar school. In recent years, these schools were no longer called Excel, they are simply Modified Calendar. To further confuse the issue, both Excel and Modified Calendar were renamed Extended Learning last year. Of the seven Modified Calendar schools, three were never part of the original Excel program.

Posted by: vfshea | June 4, 2010 10:39 PM | Report abuse

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