Peter Noonan is the Superintendent of the City of Fairfax Schools. Here he discusses his goals for the upcoming school year.
1. What are some goals for you and the City Schools staff this year?
With every school year we have an opportunity to revisit the work of our schools and the needs of the community. This year we will carry forward our support and efforts to integrate technology into the classroom by breaking down barriers and supporting students in bringing their own devices to school (BYOD). I hear it said that we need to “prepare students for their future and not our past.” I believe we are in a critical juncture in public education where student learning is substantively changing. There was a time where students accessed information in traditional methods like libraries, encyclopedias, and other print materials. Today, students access information through resources at their fingertips. Our students need to be empowered in the future to enter the knowledge economy that we as a community are becoming. The tools we arm students with should support this and BYOD allows us to scale the use of technology in a thoughtful, personalized, and economically reasonable way.
We also will be focusing further on our world class facilities in the City of Fairfax. As I travel around the country, and have the opportunity to see what others have (or don’t), I am struck by how great our physical environment is for students to learn. The commitment made by our resident to consolidate schools and renovate Lanier and FHS speaks volumes to the overwhelming support they have for our work in the schools. To this end, it is incumbent upon me and the City of Fairfax School Board to ensure we properly maintain and support our facilities.
Lastly, I am excited to look for ways to expand our preschool offerings for the 4-year old students in the City of Fairfax. We currently have about 50 4-year olds that live in our city and do not access preschool programs before hitting our doors at Providence and Daniels Run. For our students to have the best, and most level playing field with their peers, we need to find new ways to get our future students the head start they need. Throughout this year I will be seeking space and the needed funding to support at least one new preschool program that will serve our neediest kids.
2. What are some exciting programs in the City Schools?
We have a number of exciting programs in the City of Fairfax schools. We are one of the only jurisdictions in the country that offers Chinese language to our students from kindergarten up through high school. We know that second language learning is essential and also supports learning in all other content areas as well due to the cognitive flexibility that comes with learning a language. I also am excited about the growth of the STEAM lab at Providence. This year, with the addition of the full day Monday schedule, all of the students at PES will have access to the exciting programs that the STEAM lab has to offer on a rotational basis. Additionally, we continue to have state and nationally recognized programs that support the “greening” of our schools. This year at FHS the advanced placement environmental sciences will be working alongside of Lands and Waters of Virginia to look at systems around the high school that can be improved. This partnership and collaboration is a great public/private partnership that supports the curriculum being taught in APE but also makes the curriculum relevant to the students we serve. This is a best practice in teaching and learning and we are excited to support this program.
3. How has the partnership with FCPS benefited the City School?
The partnership between the City and the County has been mutual beneficial for decades for a number of reasons. However, there is one in particular that is above all others and that is programmatic. At Fairfax High School, for example, approximately 60% of the students attending live outside of our City and are in Fairfax County. If we were an independent City School district our population of students would drop precipitously and as a consequence we would not be able to offer the broad range of programs we afford our students today. We would not have the capacity to field the teams, fill our band programs, and would have a very inefficient use of a beautiful building that our community members paid for. The benefit for FCPS is the same. We welcome the county students in our buildings and because of our engagement they get the benefit of terrific programming as well but, what’s more is that our county friends also get the benefit of going to school in a community that is connected, has a small town feel, and has a great school board that recognizes our students for their efforts in our City schools whether the student live in the City of Fairfax or in the county. One other benefit to FCPS is that all of the surrounding schools to the City of Fairfax are at, or above, capacity in enrollment. So, we are helping our county friends by utilizing our facilities thus reducing the need to add capacity in their buildings.
4. What do you see as some important advances in education within the last few years?
The most important advancement in public education, as I see it, is that we now know through practice and quantitative research what works in classrooms and schools to support student achievement. For decades, we worked in isolation and our practice was private. In fact, it could be said that when you got a teaching job you became what could essentially be characterized as an independent contractor. However, now armed with information we know better….when we work together our students get the benefit of our collective knowledge and skill. This collaboration, around common goals and outcomes, creates a new sense of urgency because, for the first time that I can remember, there is a mutual accountability that supports our work. A simple example of a great collaboration is when teams come together, review how their respective students did on a common assessment, and then share the practices they used to get their students ready for the assessment.
5. You are a parent to two kids, what advice do you have to parents just starting out with their kids in public education?
I believe strongly in the power of relationships. I think there is no better way to support students in school than by building a relationship with the teachers your child has in any way you are able. I recognize that not everyone can be in the school volunteering or showing up at meetings to support the school but there are other ways to engage. Start by supporting your student through listening deeply to how they are doing, understanding what their strengths are, and identifying areas they want to get better in. Then share that with your child’s teacher. It is an important triad that is being developed…the child, the parent, and the school. Through a great partnership between parents and schools, your child can be successful.