by Sophia Belletti
The J.E.B. Stuart community was rocked three weeks ago when T. Reese Shapiro chose to focus on two numbers in a survey given to Fairfax County high-school teachers, who were asked, among many other questions, if they find their school’s leadership to be effective and if their school is a good place to work. Indeed, 25 percent of the teachers who responded said that the leadership is effective, while 32 percent said that Stuart is a good place to work.
Since that time, the responses from various people in the Stuart community have been fast and furious. In a letter to Stuart parents, Principal Prosperanta Calhoun recognized the school’s low ranking in the survey by saying that she plans to improve the school’s climate.
“Please know that it is my earnest pledge as we move forward to increase col-laboration between the school and community to make valuable improvements,” Calhoun wrote on May 9. “As I reflect, there were missed opportunities in targeted areas but I am confident through our school wide collaboration in relation to the [working conditions survey] we now have a clearer vision, and most importantly, have identified existing barriers.”
In a subsequent interview, Calhoun admitted that many of the missed opportuni-ties were in communication. “We were talking parallel and not always connecting. We are working on that; we’re like siblings.” Moving forward, Calhoun plans on “putting structure in place for lines in communication.”
Kimberly Adams, the president of the Fairfax Education Association said in an interview that teachers don’t always feel supported or that the administration is making choices that are in in the best interest of the students.
On June 9, Douglas Tyson, the Assistant Superintendent for Cluster Three spoke about the survey results in an email to Stuart families, but at the same time, declared his ongoing support for the administration, the faculty and the students. Tyson doesn’t believe the survey results accurately reflect Stuart. He wrote, “Stuart consistently ranks in the top 5 percent of schools in the country in the [Washington] Post’s Challenge Index. We should be celebrating the achievements of Stuart’s students … Not disparaging them.”
Tyson credited Stuart for having the highest gains in all of FCPS for the 2013 SAT; the critical reading average increased by 23 points, the math average by 18 points and the writing average by 17 points.
Not only did Tyson defend Stuart’s record, but he also highlighted what he and Superintendent Karen Garza are doing to support Stuart. They called in retired Fairfax County principal Bruce Butler to help give Calhoun perspective and to act as a mentor. Calhoun and Butler have had a long relationship, going back to when he was her daughters’ principal at South Lakes High School. “He’s been a sounding board,” said Calhoun. “I’ve been able to bounce a lot of ideas off of him.”
Tyson also shared in his letter “FCPS increased the security presence at the school, provided additional guidance to the school’s administrative team in developing next year’s master schedule, provided guidance and support in the recruitment and retention of teachers at the school, and offered flexibility to administrators to manage the school day, as needed for the advancement of student achievement. These supports are on-going. Additionally, I am working to secure an additional administrator to the school leadership team.”
The county also has offered supplementary support by adding “another set of knowledgeable eyes looking at the master calendar” when creating students’ schedules,” according to Calhoun. Beyond this, the math department has received additional training and collaborative planning has been set in place for the English and math de-partments.
Junior Jessica Pitkin applauded the county’s efforts by saying, “I love how active, engaged, and supportive the FCPS board is in helping improve our school. I ad-mire Calhoun for directing her energy to help the school recover while staying optimis-tic.”
Not only does Stuart receive strong backing from FCPS, but from the Stuart family. “We receive tremendous support from our community, especially the [Parent Teacher Student Association] PTSA,” said Calhoun. Kate Walter, the 2013-2014 PTSA president, spoke highly of Calhoun’s persistent involvement. “Calhoun has been to every PTSA meeting,” said Walter. “That’s rare for a principal.”
Students are beginning to recognize the dedication and passion throughout the school to improve the Stuart name. “I am confident that the county is doing everything in their power to get rid of all the bad press and look to the new and brighter future for Stuart,” said junior Megan Nguyen. “We all need to look at the positives about our school because it’s our only chance in high school and you don’t want to regret it, which is exactly what I think our administration is trying to get across”
Calhoun noted there has been a lack of communication between faculty and parents but prepares to improve correspondence. “If we haven’t been collaborating at the highest level, I want to address that,” Calhoun declared. She has plans to get valuable input from small groups of parents who would work closely with teachers for making decisions and planning school events. “[The administration] wants everyone to feel part of the community,” said Calhoun.
The upcoming councils include attendance, literacy and working conditions, to name a few. By requiring every teacher be a part of at least one committee, Calhoun foresees more teachers getting a sense of involvement in school-wide decisions.
A working conditions council was created in response to the low survey results. Veteran social studies teacher Mark Rogers, a member of the council said that, “The committee’s focus is to discuss [the survey], along with implicating policies, altercations, modifications and to look for solutions to improve the environment to benefit all the students.” The committee will not only emphasize the working conditions of the school, but try to find solutions to improve the school as a whole. “This is not a committee that would work in isolation, rather a committee of stakeholders in the school to implement ideas through fresh inputs,” said Rogers.
Undoubtedly, Calhoun was disappointed in the survey results but takes full re-sponsibility. “The survey grieves me,” said Calhoun. Of the 57 percent of teachers who an-swered the survey, 29.2 percent of teachers agree school administrations support teachers’ efforts to maintain discipline in the classroom and only 21.8 percent of teachers agree they have an appropriate level of influence on decision making at Stuart. One example of teachers not feeling supported is the varying way teachers handle students using elec-tronics in class. “We’re looking at consistently among administration staff in how we respond to situations,” said Calhoun. She anticipates the success of open lines of communication in the future.
While Stuart High School has room for improvement in communication and leadership, there are areas to applaud. This year, 57 percent of juniors and 72 percent of seniors are enrolled in at least one IB class. The number of 10th grade students taking at least one honors class increased 18 percent this school year. Additionally, in 2013, 52 Stuart seniors chose to pursue the full IB diploma- the fourth largest number in the county. Lastly, over 85 percent of IB Spanish, IB English SL, IB English HL, and IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK) students passed their exams last year. In fact, Rogers’ TOK class has the highest scores in the county.
“I love this community and school. Stuart is uniquely special to my heart,” said Calhoun. “I can’t think of another place I would rather work. We have a community that cares.”
by Sophia Belletti