"Manassas has so many things that make it a great place to live. But let's be honest, our schools fall short of their potential. This limits our kids' futures, fragments our community, and leads to families reluctantly seeking alternative schooling or even leaving. It's time for change."
My career began in education working with at-risk students in a troubled public high school. I later became a paralegal and have worked on school system litigation and with charitable organizations in juvenile and family law. I also briefly worked in rural Nicaragua for an aid program and speak conversational Spanish.
I currently co-manage Alpha-Bet Preschool located here in the city.
In that role and as the mother of two children soon to be entering Manassas City Public Schools, I often hear concerns from parents - both those with kids in the schools now and those considering their other options. Worries about academic performance and rigor, behavioral problems, and parental communication are common.
My family and I love living in Manassas. It's a place with identity and character. We have great businesses and friendly residents from all walks of life. But our school system has a reputation problem, justified-or-not, and almost all common performance metrics lag those of our regional neighbors. This isn’t because our teachers are less talented.
I’m running for School Board because I believe we need to reevaluate a lot of things to make our schools both more effective and more attractive to our whole community. Six of seven current school board members either won uncontested elections or were insiders appointed to fill vacancies. As an institution, I believe it is too comfortable with the status quo and for too long hasn’t had to face the public.
A strong education challenges the student and sets them up for success in life.
My experiences have made me acutely aware that many students face truly difficult situations and need additional support. But I have also witnessed in my career the travesty of low expectations pushing kids through a system without learning as much as they should and failing to set them up for success.
Currently, only 49% of students are proficient in math and 57% in reading. Metz MS and Osbourn HS also lost full state accreditation this past year.
Many people will justify our schools’ low test scores and other sub-par performance metrics by saying we have a “challenging student population.” I’m not willing to accept that. Manassas Park and Prince William County have schools that outperform our own despite spending less per student.
I grew up in a working-class town with a large immigrant community. My father worked at a truck depot and my mother struggled while attending community college at night and raising three kids. Many of my childhood friends or their parents were English language learners. I have experienced how language and cultural barriers create schooling challenges, but the public schools I attended were well regarded. The school system drew students from across the community, it performed at a high level, and was key to my own and my friends’ future successes.
I know Manassas schools can be better. Our kids and our city deserve it.
On the School Board I Want to Focus On:
Raising Student Academic Expectations and Addressing Behavioral and Attendance Problems
Expanding the Range of Opportunities for All Kids and Broadening Our Schools’ Appeal to the Entire Community
Providing Serious Oversight and Asking Questions on How and Why We Are Doing Things Differently Than Our Neighbors
“Sara is serious, reform-minded, and focused on bringing our community together. We are both voting for Sara because our kids’ futures are more important than partisanship.”
Athene Bell, Republican
23-year MCPS teacher and Division Lead Literacy Specialist (retired)
Janet Graham, Democrat
16-year MCPS teacher and Division Lead Math and Science Specialist (retired)
We need a public school system that better serves the whole community.
Our School Board needs to be conscience of the reinforcing relationship of low performance metrics, visible problems such as truancy, and our school system's reputation. Following the pandemic, we continue to go down a path of a de facto two-tiered education system.
Too many kids are being left behind while many other families with means reluctantly turn to private schooling or leave the city. This is not healthy for anyone. This reality has evolved over many years and isn't due to a lack of dedication from teachers or staff, nor is it due to any one policy decision, but we do need a change in direction. I want to work on both improving academic achievement while also aiming to make the school system more attractive to all families. I believe these efforts will reinforce one another.
Raising Academic Expectations
I believe--even following the pandemic--that we should establish high academic goals for our students. I do not believe that lowering academic expectations sets students up for success. Our School Board has implemented a grading policy that prohibits teachers from assigning due dates/deadlines for schoolwork and requires teachers to give a 50% grade on all assignment or tests that are not even attempted or turned in. I want to change this.
There are many grading system reform ideas in education policy currently, and like anything, I don't believe the traditional system is immune from reform. But this particular policy sets an expectation that deadlines don't matter and that on any given day effort is optional, while also contributing to grade inflation. Certain students require accommodations, but this policy as a baseline ill prepares students for the realities of college and work places where more will be expected. It also ties the hands of teachers. Our aim should be to prepare students for success, and that requires learning how to manage time, how to develop strong study habits, and how to have the confidence to confront challenges.
I also want some attention focused on our gifted and talented programs and Advanced Placement courses to make sure these are indeed more advanced material and not just more homework. If students are getting A’s in an AP course, then this should be translating into high scores on AP exams. I want to reevaluate staffing, professional development and training, and application of curriculum in these areas. Students capable of more rigorous work should be appropriately challenged to do so, and the experience or perception of a lack of rigor is one of the drivers for some families turning away from our school system.
Truancy and Behavior Problems
We have a visible truancy problem, as well as an official chronic absenteeism rate at Osbourn HS of 30% this past year (this number does not include students who skip class after official attendance is taken). Along with other issues, this ultimately translated into a 14% dropout rate last year, and Osbourn and Metz both lost their full state accreditations for this year. Our School Board's response to these problems was in part to lobby Richmond to stop measuring chronic absenteeism as a criteria for accreditation, while some current members have tried to attribute our drop out rate to a migrant student population. I don't buy this. Neighboring Manassas Park received full accreditation of all of their schools and had a drop out rate about half of ours. This is despite having very similar student profiles and spending considerably less per student than our system does.
We need better attendance taking and enforcement mechanisms. Other school systems have successfully implemented multiple attendance-taking points throughout the day and automated same-day phone calls home. I am also supportive of our new Family Liaison program empowered to make home visits to check up on students, and I believe there needs to be greater coordination on this issue amongst schools, Manassas Police, and the Commonwealth's Attorney's office. Absenteeism can sometimes reflect serious troubles at home.
Ultimately we also want students to be internally motivated to be in school and one way to do this is strengthening Career and Technical Education (CTE) and creating a better process of guiding students into these programs when transitioning from 8th into 9th grade. Practical coursework motivates many kids to stay in school who might not do so otherwise.
I also want to put attention to reevaluating our current disciplinary framework. There have been a number of systems implemented over the years, but I believe that Board has a role in evaluating whether the current structure is working and what policies, incentives, or resources need to be readjusted. Too many parents and teachers alike complain about a lack of classroom support and communication on discipline matters, and this is a common reason that teachers cite for leaving the profession as well as a reason that families look elsewhere for education options.
Lastly, there have been multiple iterations over the years of how "interventionalists" and social workers have been deployed in our system. Given the changing realties post pandemic, this an area where monitoring and reassessment of deployment strategies and staffing should be ongoing. Ultimately we want to maximize the amount of time teachers are able to focus on quality instruction.
Career and Technical Education (CTE)
I am a strong supporter of Career and Technical Education (CTE) and want to strengthen and broaden our offerings in this area. Not all students have the same aptitudes and interests, so not all education journeys should be the same. National surveys point to students increasingly questioning the benefits of earning a college degree, as well, considering high debt loads. Many students also enter college but lack the direction and skills needed and drop out prior to graduation.
In our case, we also face a high student drop out rate of 14% and a high absenteeism problem. While CTE can be a great compliment for students pursuing college, we need to strengthen programs designed for those not likely to attend college, as well, so these students are able to begin fruitful careers. There is also academic research showing that CTE helps to motivate students to stay in school and that participating in such programs helps with overall academic performance.
One common complaint I often hear amongst parents and students is that it is difficult to figure out what is available and how to register for these courses and programs, especially when entering freshman year of high school. The 9th grade is a key year in determining whether a student “checks out” or not and whether they are on a path for completing high school. I want to work towards better integration of CTE program paths between the middle school and high school level and reevaluate the formal guidance process for students transitioning into high school.
The tendency here and in other school systems over the years had been to increase the amount of time in the early grades dedicated to academic instruction at the expense of recess and other more informal play times. This is in response to pressure to hit early testing benchmarks. I am a strong supporter of phonics based instruction, which we use within our schools and I do believe this should continue to be the case. Students enter kindergarten at various levels of preparedness, and we must bridge those gaps.
However, there is a large body of research pointing to the importance of playtime for young students in digesting what has been taught as well being able to develop social skills, confidence, and focus. We also want young students to be able to see their schooling as enjoyable. There is a balance between time spent on formal instruction and less-structured activities, and I believe it is time we took a fresh look at how we strike this balance. The short term benefits of excessive academic drills may in fact be leading to lower academic performance and greater behavioral issues in later grades.
More play-based kindergarten programs are also a way in which private schools sell themselves to families with the option to pursue them. Making our schools more attractive to families early in their children's education paths is key to increasing participation. I also want to assess the feasibility and interest in having a level of optionality in our public school early education offerings. Many public school systems in our region offer specialized programs to appeal to a wide range of families. We already have the precedent ourselves with the dual Spanish-English immersion program offered at Haydon.
Outreach and Strengthening the System's Reputation
A strong public school system is one where the whole community sees it as a viable option. Unfortunately, that is not currently the case. We can argue over whether the system’s subpar reputation is deserved and the history of how we got here. But reality is what it is, and we need to acknowledge it before we can move forward with improvement.
Many parents with children in the system now feel their kids are being left behind while many other families have reluctantly moved out of the city or pursued alternative education options. Obviously improving school performance would go a long way to rebuilding confidence in our schools and attracting more families into them, but the system can itself be more proactive with outreach.
Other school systems, including Prince William County, have events for families of students not yet enrolled. We could be building relationships with area preschools feeding into the public system. Engaging parents early in their children’s’ education careers to address concerns and better sell the strong points and program offerings of the schools would be helpful. We have many innovative programs that are little known outside of current school families. And there are success stories to share.
Part of what's needed is simply a mindset shift. The system must be honest with its shortcomings and be conscious of how the schools are often perceived. At the same time, there are good things about the schools that are not widely advertised. The school system needs to engage the entire community and take parents’ concerns seriously.
There are also opportunities to get more volunteers involved and to work towards greater interaction between families across our whole community. Tutoring and mentorship programs should be encouraged.
We spend about 18 percent more per student than Prince William County and Manassas Park public schools, yet this is not translating into superior results.
Graduation rates, test scores, advanced diplomas, and absenteeism have for years been generally worse that our neighbors who spend less. This is despite having similar shares of low income and English language learning students, especially in comparison to Manassas Park. This isn't because our teachers are less talented.
The Board should be asking a lot of serious questions about how we run our schools and not just nod their heads. On a basic level, school boards exist to be the public’s oversight body. I think we need to be reevaluating the effectiveness of programs and initiatives. When we create new programs, I want to make sure there is a strong plan with criteria in place for ongoing evaluation so we can assess whether or not resources should be redeployed. There's no easy button to push, but we need to start by asking questions. If I am elected, I intend to be asking often how are we doing things differently than our more successful neighbors, and why?