Weekly Column: Virginia Education Official’s Visit Focuses on Improving Student Testing
The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette and The Mt. Vernon Voice in the week of December 3, 2014.
Virginia Education Official’s Visit Focuses on Improving Student Testing
Two weeks ago, Virginia Education Secretary Anne Holton toured Walt Whitman Middle School and Hybla Valley Elementary School at my invitation as part of the state’s effort to change the way we assess school progress.
Virginia school accreditation is largely based on student performance on the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, tests created in 1995 by then-Governor George Allen.
Thirty schools in Fairfax County were accredited with warning and seven of those schools, including Mount Vernon High School and West Potomac High School, are in the 44th Delegate District along the U.S. 1 Corridor.
While standardized tests are one tool to measure student performance, there is widespread agreement that the strongest predictor of student performance on these tests is family income, not teacher performance.
Additionally, the current school performance assessment system has built-in biases against many schools in our area for a number of reasons. For example, the current method does not factor in student mobility. Schools with high student turnover in low-income areas tend to have many children constantly entering the system who need remedial help.
Also, when schools lose their top performing students to gifted and talented focus schools like Stratford Landing, Thomas Jefferson or others to private school, the teaching staff’s achievements at the community school get diluted.
Mobility is also not always a function of income. For schools feeding into the Mount Vernon High School pyramid, 27 percent of students are from active duty, military families and many children cycle through Fairfax County from school systems in other parts of the United States. Many other school systems are not as rigorous as ours.
The current system also does not adequately evaluate student improvement. If a school enables under-performing seventh grader to get to grade level by eighth grade, many consider the school to have done its job. One educator told us about a seventh grader who arrived reading at second grade level. By the end of seventh grade, the child was reading at sixth grade level. However, this youngster failed the SOL, but the improvement was significant – which should be counted?
If we are going to continue assessing schools with standardized tests (a concept which is debatable in and of itself), we must make some changes. First, closing the achievement gap must be incentivized by focusing on student improvement over numerous years. One-year snapshots unfairly stigmatize schools with achievement problems totally unrelated to the school or the staff’s competence.
Second, student mobility must be considered. Schools with large numbers of single-family residences are advantaged by large numbers of higher-income families and a stable student population. Schools with larger numbers of students moving in and out should not be labeled as underperforming simply because their population is more transient.
Third, students’ performance on tests should not be included in a school’s accreditation until the staff at the school have had a meaningful opportunity to assess and improve a student’s performance.
Every time I tour a school, I am reminded of how much I still have to learn about the education process as a parent and legislator. I am impressed by the dedication, energy and professionalism that our educators and support staff bring to our youngsters. Teaching children in one of the most diverse communities and complex learning environments in
Northern Virginia is one of the most professionally challenging choices teachers can make. Our education professionals carry these enormous responsibilities with poise and dedication, even though they are underpaid and often under appreciated for the challenges they take on every day, challenges that determine the future of our children's lives. .
Testing programs can provide some measure of the educational challenges our schools face and identify the need for resources needed in our underfunded schools. I am working to provide our schools more resources and toward an assessment system that rewards and incentivizes student improvement and not one that just maximizes the recruitment of the best-performing students.
My Lawyer Hat: Time to Check Your Auto Insurance Coverage
In my other job, I practice law for a living, including personal injury, wrongful death and medical malpractice.
I posted this article below on my law firm blog
which is generally applicable to anyone who owns a car.
Time to Check Your Auto Insurance Coverage
This weekend, I received a text message from GEICO regarding my policy renewal so I thought I would take a minute to check out my coverages. Surprisingly, they were not what I thought they were.
I have settled countless cases for extremely low values simply because there is not enough coverage and the person who injured my client had no assets. Most people do not realize that you can protect yourself and your family against these kinds of situations.
The number one problem I see when people come to see me when they are injured is a lack of coverage.
Frequently, the worst drivers on the road are either uninsured or have bare bones minimum policies.
Virginia Auto Insurance PrimerWhen you purchase auto insurance coverage in Virginia, you actually buy several different kinds of insurance. Some insurance is mandatory and some is not.
“Collision” coverage will pay for damage to your car if it is damaged whether it is your fault or not. It is not required and if you have car that is not valuable, you may not want to have that coverage.
“Liability” coverage will protect you if you make a mistake that injures someone else.
Uninsured Motorist (“UM”) coverage protects you if you, someone in your household, or someone in your car is hurt by a driver who has no coverage.
Underinsured Motorist (UIM) protects you, someone in your household, or someone in your car is hurt by a driver who does not have enough coverage given the size of the injuries.
Many insurance companies also offer other kinds of coverage such as roadside assistance plans or coverage for rental cars if your car is being repaired (due to your mistake).
“Medical Payments” coverage will pay for the medical bills for you, someone in your household, or someone in your car who is hurt while in the vehicle.
It will also reimburse your bills even if you have medical insurance.
How do you protect yourself?First, by Virginia Law, Liability, UM and UIM coverage is set at the same levels (so you can't buy a bunch of insurance to protect yourself, but very little if you injure someone else). Therefore, if you set your liability coverage at $500,000, then your family will be protected up to $500,000 if they are injured by someone else. For example, when I checked my insurance, I noticed that my limits were set at $500,000 and that GEICO offered $1,000,000. So how much did it cost me to double my coverage from $500,000 to $1,000,000 in a household with two adult drivers and three cars?
Typically, increasing your Liability, UM and UIM coverage does not increase the total amount of your insurance significantly. The most expensive part of the coverage is the first $25,000.
A whopping $32.00 Per YearSecond, you should purchase as much Medical Expense Coverage as possible. Medical Expense Coverage also “stacks” – meaning that it increases for each car you own so because we own three cars, our $10,000 in coverage will cover up to $30,000 of medical bills. Again, in Virginia, Medical Expense Coverage pays even if you have medical insurance so if you are injured and incur $30,000 of medical bills, your insurance company will send you a check for $30,000 before you begin to fight with the bad guy’s insurance company.
Third, it is always a good idea to purchase an “Umbrella” policy. I have an umbrella policy that provides and additional $1,000,000 of coverage over and above my auto insurance policy.
Also, some umbrella policies will also increase your uninsured or underinsured policies by a similar amount.
In addition to auto accidents, umbrella policies often provides coverage for other kinds of lawsuits like defamation cases or people who might claim an injury covered by my homeowners insurance policy.
My $1,000,000 umbrella policy costs me $222 per year.
Most people make the mistake of thinking they need to purchase insurance in case someone sues them. However, if you are a careful person, it is much more likely that you will be hurt by someone else through no fault of your own. It is important to have as much insurance as possible to protect you and your family against someone hurting you.
Go check your policy limits today and purchase as much as you can.
The Squirrels of Capitol Square
Style Weekly has an entire article on it you can read here:
Both articles have a vivid account of the murder of one squirrel by a dog and the attempted murder of a dog by a brick-wielding Capitol Policeman named Mr. Eustice who apologized for only maiming the dog because "he attempted to kill it."
There was also a story about a squirrel making a nest of papers during the drafting of the 1902 Constitution - maybe they should have taken the hint (if you know anything about that Constitution).
|VCU Photo Entitled "Convict Feeding Squirrels, 1890"|
Looks like Governor George Allen really did not like squirrels. He ordered the destruction of their bathing piers in the Governor's Mansion fountain.
The Department of General Service also pointed out that the Capitol Square squirrels have not been immune from budget cuts - the $200-$300 previously spent on their peanuts has been zeroed out and the squirrel houses in the trees have not been renovated in over 10 years. So much for affordable housing.
The article also has an address where you can ask for the blueprints so you can build your very own Capitol Square replica squirrel house.
I'll never look at the Capitol Square squirrels the same way again.
Are Race & Class Barriers Also a Problem in FCPS?
I was driving between court appearance last week, and I ran across this story by Kavitha Cardoza
on WAMU regarding race and class divisions in the District of Columbia. As I listened, it occurred to me that much of it might just be just as applicable to Fairfax County as it was the District.
For example, one of the points made during he story was that kids from low income families tend to do better when they go to school with kids from other background.
In the story, a Harvard Fellow with the Century Foundation, Richard Kahlenberg, pointed out that packing low income children into one schools doesn't is problematic. He said "one of the best things you can do to improve the education of all children is to give them access to an economically integrated environment.... low income kids will do better if you give them the right environment."
He points out that putting low income families in schools where (1) you have parents in a position to engage, (2) peers are academically engaged, and (3) where you have strong teachers, is the best way to maximize the ability of all children to learn. He pointed out that packing all of the lower income kids into schools doesn't work.
First, Kahlenberg's description of successful schools reminded me of West Potomac H.S. when I attended between 1984-1989. I had lots of friends from lots of different backgrounds. As kids, we didn't think or judge - we all competed for the same grades (and in full disclosure, I was nothing special - #74 out of 420 something).
Second, this story brought to mind the existing situation on U.S. 1 where we have multiple schools with over 70% free and reduced lunch populations. This just reiterates why we need to get to work on U.S. 1.
Listen to the story and let me know what your thoughts!
Weekly Column: Annual School Accreditation Reports a Mixed Bag
The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette and The Mt. Vernon Voice in the week of October 2, 2014. Annual School Accreditation Reports a Mixed Bag The Virginia Department of Education has issued accreditation reports on our public schools. For our area, the results are mixed. First, it is important to understand that the state instituted new math tests this year. Statewide, 32% of schools were not fully accredited, largely because of new math tests. In Fairfax County, 171 of 191 schools (11%) were not fully accredited - 7 of the 20 Fairfax County schools with accreditation challenges were in the U.S. 1 Corridor. Hybla Valley ES returned to full accreditation this year notwithstanding having the highest free and reduced lunch (90.3%) and limited- English proficient populations (66.96%) in Fairfax County. Hybla Valley shows that committed teachers, principals, students and families can meet accreditation’s steepest challenges. They deserve a round of applause.
While Mount Vernon High School remained accredited with warning, MVHS improved student test scores in all categories. MVHS appears to be on the right track and I am optimistic that the school will be fully accredited next year.
Additionally, my alma mater, West Potomac High School, missed full accreditation for the first time by less than 0.5% on its math scores. While this is a concern, I am confident WPHS will receive full accreditation next year. Unfortunately, six other schools are still accredited with warning. Walt Whitman Intermediate School was accredited with warning for the first time due to English and Mathematics scores. Four other elementary schools in our area were accredited with warning after failing Science for the second year in a row: Bucknell, Woodlawn, Mount Vernon Woods, and Washington Mill. Last week, Senator Toddy Puller, Mount Vernon School Board Representative Dan Storck and I met with county school Superintendent Karen Garza and other administrators to learn FCPS’ immediate plans to help these schools improve student performance. While they pledged several measures which will help, long-term, we need major changes. First, we need to invest in the U.S. 1 Corridor. The reconstruction of U.S. 1, including the extension of the Yellow Line Metro, is key to bringing revitalization --housing, retail and higher-paying jobs with shorter commutes -- so that area families can achieve the economic stability. Second, we must make preschool available to all children. It is unacceptable that there are 14 preschools east of U.S. 1 and only one on the west side. The old Mount Vernon High School site is a perfect facility for a Head Start/Preschool Center. Universal preschool for 2,000 youngsters will cost at least $20 million per year, but we must make this critical, long-term investment. Third, every child must have a computing device, especially children in low-income families. Virtually every job requires computer skills and today’s children learn electronically. While FCPS deployed an electronic textbook program, many children in low-income communities do not have a device or broadband to use it. This will cost FCPS only about $250 per child or about $50 million per year system-wide, but it must be done – especially in the U.S. 1 Corridor. Fairfax County now lags behind the Virginia counties of Henrico, Chesterfield, Arlington and Alexandria. If we want to have the best schools in Virginia, we need to commit the resources. Fourth, our area deserves equal facilities - the Carl Sandburg Planetarium must be reopened. If our elementary school children are to do well in science, they must be inspired in the same ways I was with fellow students by the Fort Hunt High School Planetarium in the early 1980’s and FCPS must make its planetaria available to all of its students and not just the students in the wealthiest areas of our County. Fifth, we need to pay our teachers competitive salaries. Mid-career FCPS teachers earn $7,000 a year less than Arlington teachers. We cannot turn these schools around unless we pay competitive wages. All of these long-term solutions depend on funding. While I am hopeful more funding can come from the state in the long-term, in the next few years, Virginia’s economy has flat-lined forcing $800 million of cuts in the last six months and another $200 million cut likely before December 31. Increase funding will only come at the local level and Fairfax County should follow Supervisor Gerry Hyland’s lead -- implement a meals tax and revisit our real estate tax rate which is currently 10-15% below Prince William and Loudoun Counties. Fairfax County has long been known for its excellent schools and its residents have been willing to pay for them. The future of our children, our property values and our quality of life depend on strong schools.
Weekly Column: U.S. 1 Transit Study: It’s Time to Speak Up
The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette and The Mt. Vernon Voice in the week of October 15, 2014.
U.S. 1 Transit Study: It’s Time to Speak Up
Last week, Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transit held the last public hearing on the U.S. 1 Multimodal Transit Study. This study will determine the most appropriate road configuration, mode of transit and accompanying land uses for the U.S. 1 corridor for the next 30 years. As the study ends, public input is absolutely critical. In 2012, Senator Toddy Puller and I won approval of $2 million to fund the study. After sixteen months taking input and considering various alternatives, the consultant team is recommending the “Hybrid Option” – (1) a six-lane U.S. 1, (2) a bike-pedestrian path the entire length, (3) a median-dedicated bus rapid transit system from Huntington Metro station to Woodbridge, and (4) a two-stop Yellow Line Metro extension with stops at Beacon Hill and Hybla Valley. The total cost in 2014 dollars would be about $2.4 billion. However, after considering funding input from the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, the consultants recommended that the project be broken into four phases: In phases I-III, the bus rapid transit system would be constructed between 2024-2035. In phase IV, the Yellow Line extension would be built with service starting in 2040. While I am very excited that they recommended the Hybrid Option, the phasing approach and more specifically, the timing is totally unacceptable. We need projects in the ground as soon as possible. At the Executive Committee Meeting, the schedule was also unacceptable to Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland, Senators Toddy Puller and Adam Ebbin and Delegate Mark Sickles. This view was also reiterated at the public hearing and many residents also commented that the Metro extension should be the first priority for funding with the bus rapid transit system coming second. It is a complicated problem. Construction of any project will require funding. There is some transit funding available from the state, but Fairfax County has not dedicated its transit funding more than six years out, and most of the funding scenarios considered also involve significant federal funding, presumably under the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) “New Starts” Program. As of today, New Starts grants base funding on numerous criteria including environmental benefits, local funding commitment and ridership. The U.S. 1 corridor has a long way to go to reach the housing densities traditionally associated with Metro stations such as Arlington’s Clarendon or Courthouse areas. Federal funding availability and criteria has changed over the last decade and could also continue to change – for better or worse. Moreover, our current infrastructure – with or without Metro – is incapable of handling another 120,000 people living on U.S. 1. These plans are dependent upon a new road grid secondary to U.S. 1 (e.g., secondary roads running along the west side of Hybla Valley and Beacon Hill so that U.S. 1 is not the only route between shopping centers). In the next month, we need to complete this study. Now is the critical time for people to weigh in. I have created a page on my website where you can post final comments that I will forward to the consultant team. Please visit and comment at bit.ly/route1comment. The consultant team will consider comments received and make final recommendations in the next 60 days. Then the Executive Committee will vote and forward recommendations to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors for their endorsement. Then we focus on implementation. This will include updating the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan as soon as possible to add (1) station locations, (2) a new secondary road grid and (3) increased densities to support high quality transit. In the meantime, we need to work to find funding. It is now time to speak up. I truly believe that extending the Yellow Line to Hybla Valley is a game-changer for U.S. 1 that is key to strong schools and decent shopping and restaurants and to maintaining the high quality of life we all expect in our part of Fairfax County. I look forward to your input and it is an honor to serve as your state delegate. If you have any questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Protecting Mt. Vernon's Fisheries
The 44th District is fortunate to serve as the sentinel "guarding" our border with Maryland. The Potomac River is a true asset and Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) helps to keep it thriving and to restore it. Outdoor activities like fishing and hunting create millions of dollars of economic activity in the Commonwealth.
DGIF's has a team of biologists who continually monitor the our areas creeks and rivers. It is funded nearly entirely by licensing fees for fishing and hunting, and grants.
DGIF's biologist in our area is John Odenkirk. I have taken several trips with him to learn about his efforts to study and monitor the Potomac's Snakehead population which originated in Dogue Creek and Little Hunting Creek. Here's some of my prior posts:
DGIF publishes a series of videos called "The Fish Head Chronicles" on Facebook. One of their latest versions focuses on John's Mount Vernon fish monitoring and removal of an invasive species called the water chestnut. You can see the passion he brings to his job in the video. You can watch it here.
Enjoy the video and make sure you "Like" their page on Facebook!
44th District School Report Cards
The Virginia State Board of Education has issued its academic report cards for all of the schools in the 44th District.
I will write more later on the significance of these results. The schools that changed status from last year are West Potomac HS, Whitman MS, and Hybla Valley ES.
44th District Schools 2012-13 Academic Report Cards
Overall Fairfax County
West Potomac HS
Mt. Vernon HS
Carl Sandburg MS
Fort Belvoir ES
Fort Hunt ES
Hollin Meadows ES
Hybla Valley ES
Mt. Vernon Woods ES
Washington Mill ES
Woodley Hills ES
Weekly Column: The Top Three Issues: The Future of U.S. 1, Improving Local Schools, and Helping The Uninsured
The following is my column that will exclusively appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette in the week of August 25, 2014.
The Top Three Issues: The Future of U.S. 1, Improving Local Schools, and Helping The Uninsured
There are many issues facing the communities between the Potomac River, Huntley Meadows Park, Fort Belvoir and the City of Alexandria. The top three are U.S. 1, the future of our local schools, and a burgeoning uninsured population.
First, our quality of life revolves U.S. 1. The future of U.S 1 not only functions as the spine of our mobility, but it drives housing, retail choices, property values, schools, environmental quality, crime levels, and tax revenue.
A year ago, Senator Puller and I secured $2 million to fund the U.S. 1 Multimodal Study and determine the optimal transit, road, pedestrian, cycling, and accompanying land configuration for the U.S. 1 Corridor. That study will come to a conclusion in the next few months.
The study is effectively coming down to two choices. One is a dedicated bus rapid transit (BRT) system from Huntington Metro to Fort Belvoir. The second choice is a two-stop extension of the Yellow Line with a bus rapid transit system to Woodbridge – this two-pronged solution is being called the “Hybrid Option.”
Once the study issues a recommendation, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will need to take a vote to agree upon the Locally Preferred Option (“LPA”). Once the LPA is set, additional planning can commence. Achieving this will not only require the Board of Supervisors to agree upon making the redevelopment of U.S 1 a priority – it will require a consensus here in our community between residents, property owners, businesses, and other stakeholders.
The BRT option and Hybrid Option present two starkly different choices. Due to the land use choices necessary to support it, the Hybrid Option will bring the maximum benefit to the area. A two-stop Yellow Line extension will bring significant redevelopment to U.S. 1 from Huntington to Hybla Valley and beyond and is what our community needs. Enhanced bus-only transit will not bring the significant redevelopment that will maximize quality of life in this area.
Second, the quality of our public schools also depends upon adequate funding. Average Fairfax County teacher pay is $13,000 less than Washington, D.C., $10,000 under Arlington, $8,000 under Alexandria, and only $4,000 more than Prince William. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is facing a $2 billion capital backlog. There are trailers at nearly every school in our community.
Last year, thirteen schools in Fairfax County failed accreditation – six were in the 44th District although we only have about 7% of the County’s population. Universal preschool is the long-term key to solving this problem.
Additionally, five schools failed accreditation due to new computer-based science Standards of Learning (SOL) Tests. Closing the Digital Divide is recognized as having significant short-term benefit and is urgently needed.
Virginia’s other largest jurisdictions are already deploying computers to every child. Henrico County has provided computers to every child since 2001. This week, Chesterfield County issues their first 15,000 Chromebooks. FCPS currently spends $13,472 to educate each child. Computers for every child would cost about $50 million or only $265 per student.
There is no question that state funding of secondary education in Fairfax County is lagging. Thanks to the “Sequester,” Virginia’s economy continues to underperform the nation and state revenue is flat, and raging against funding formulas is a futile exercise without fundamental political change in Richmond, so in the medium-term, funding solutions will need to be local. Supervisor Hyland has been a strong voice for local education funding for nearly three decades. He will need all of our support.
Finally, our growing uninsured population is a long-term unsolved problem. Nearly 13,000 residents in the 44th District receive healthcare from Medicaid – this includes 9,300 children or 1 in 3 people under age 18 in this community. Each of those 9,300 kids has a parent without health insurance. The 22306 and 22309 zip codes lead Fairfax County in non-serious emergency room visits.
Uninsured healthcare expenses drive up premiums for everyone, but no person should have to worry that an unexpected illness will mean they can’t pay their rent. Closing the uninsured gap by expanding Medicaid or any other solution is a critical need in this community.
If you disagree with my analysis or priorities, always feel free to let me know at email@example.com
It is an honor to serve as your state delegate.
Weekly Column: Children’s Issues Dominate First Hispanic Town Hall
The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette and The Mt. Vernon Voice in the week of August 18, 2014.
Children’s Issues Dominate First Hispanic Town Hall
On Saturday, August 16, 2014, I held my third town hall meeting of the year and my first ever Hispanic Community Town Hall. I was also joined by the first Democratic elected Latino State Delegate - Alfonso Lopez - who represents South Arlington and Bailey's Crossroads.
The Hispanic population has grown from less than one percent in Virginia in the 1970s to 8.6% today. Here in our area, there was virtually no Hispanic population when I was a kid. Today, the Hispanic population is the largest minority demographic in the 44th District. One in four people who lives in the 44th District is Hispanic.
This community represents a new and growing part of Mt. Vernon and Lee and are a growing part of the community. It’s important that we reach out to and engage every group in our area in order to have a robust conversation about the challenges we face.
At the meeting, we discussed the following:
- Route 1 Transit Study.
- Healthcare Expansion for Low Income Families
- Secondary Education Funding
- Low Cost Internet and Computers for Students
- Virginia DREAM Act - In-state tuition for migrant students
- Affordable Housing
During the question and answer session, the main focus of the audience was improving local schools and providing more resources for children in the community.
Attendees specifically raised concerns about the seventeen trailers at Hybla Valley Elementary School - even after a new addition to the school. They pointed out that children cannot access bathrooms or water without going outside and back into the main building which also raises safety concerns.
Several mothers pointed out that Hybla Valley Elementary School does not have the same services for students as other schools in the area. The school also does not have a Parent Teacher Association which also limits parental involvement.
Attendees also had concerns about the lack of any meaningful after school activities for children in their neighborhood. Several mothers from Audubon Estates Mobile Home Park pointed out that they do not have convenient pedestrian or bike access to any parks or other activities. The only activities accessible to children are playing street. Several agreed that a bike and walking trails connecting Lockheed Boulevard, Audubon Estates, Mount Vernon Woods, Muddy Hole Park, and the Gum Springs Community Center would help to alleviate this problem.
The attendees also raised concerns about the condition of Audubon Estates, rent increases, and towing practices in their community.
Questions were also asked about how voting could be made more accessible to accommodate people's working schedules. It was also suggested that legislation should be introduced to allow the Virginia DMV to issues driver's licenses to all people residing in Virginia similar to Maryland.
Delegate Lopez explained how his father came to the United States, acquired a college education, and helped to educate dozens of members of his extended family. He also explained the Virginia DREAM Act and Attorney General Herring's recent decision which directed Virginia universities to extend in-state tuition to the 8,000 children granted status under President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.
I encouraged the attendees to stay engaged in the community and we discussed setting up further meetings with other local elected officials.
It is an honor to serve as your state delegate. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
if you have any feedback.