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Big Suburban Districts Form Network of Their Own

Representatives from several large suburban districts announced today that they are forming a coalition to represent the unique needs of the nation's large countywide school systems.

Many of these districts are fast-growing, with increasing numbers of minority students and students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The 10 districts that form the core of this group—the Large Countywide and Suburban School District Consortium—educate about more than 1 million students, mainly in the southeastern United States. Jack Dale, the superintendent of the 178,000-student Fairfax County, Va., school system, and the chairman of the group, said that the consortium hopes to grow to at least 20 members in the next six months. The group is so new that it doesn't yet have a website.

In addition to Fairfax, located just outside Washington, the districts involved in the new group include Fulton County schools, Cobb County schools and Gwinnett County schools, all in the Atlanta metropolitan area; Montgomery County Schools and Prince George's County schools, both located in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, Arlington County schools in Virginia outside Washington; Miami-Dade schools; Greenville County schools in South Carolina; and Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools in North Carolina. Some of the superintendents met today with federal officials in a discussion that was sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators in Alexandria, Va., and EducationCounsel, a consulting firm in Washington.

Dale explained that the idea for the consortium developed about a year ago, after informal conversations among some school leaders. "The needs of some of these larger, suburban, very successful districts are different from some of the 'crisis-of-the-moment' issues you see in some of the city districts," he said.

For example, said Robert Avossa, the superintendent of the 95,000-student Fulton district, his school system has increased its Hispanic population from around 2 percent five or six years ago to around 11 percent today. Teachers and staff are working with the challenges of dealing with a fast-growing population of students who need English-as-a-second-language instruction. At the same time, "the economic challenge has changed the complexion of our suburban environment," he said. The district is dealing with issues like how to get the best-trained teachers in schools that have high levels of poverty.

At the same time, these leaders say that federal policy tends to be geared more towards issues related to distressed, urban school districts, which may not always fit comfortably with the agendas that suburban school systems may already be implementing with some success. For example, Dale said that the current national focus on tying teachers' pay to student test scores doesn't necessarily reinforce Fairfax's work, which is attempting to link student performance to teams of teachers, rather than individual educators.

Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent of the 107,000-student Cobb district in Georgia, said that federal initiatives like school improvement grants were extremely important when he was the head of the Dallas school system. In Cobb, where economic pressures may be less urgent, "we're more thoughtful in what opportunities are available to us at the federal level," he said. Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, the deputy superintendent for the Office of School Support and Improvement in Montgomery County, echoed that point. Prior to her joining the Montgomery schools, Schiavino-Narvaez was an assistant superintendent in Springfield, Mass., where Race to the Top "was driving everything we were doing in the district," she said.

But in the 146,500-student suburban district where she now works, Race to the Top is not as pressing an issue, though the school system faces some complex challenges in getting approval from the state to continue on its own improvement plans.

The consortium sees itself as a way to promote suburban-specific issues as well as a way to share best practices, Dale said.

"In a year, I hope we're relevant," added Hinojosa. "We have a lot to add, but we feel like we haven't been at the table."

Jack Dale clip by casamuels
A brief interview with Fairfax County Superintendent Jack Dale explaining the genesis of the consortium, its goals, and who he sees as potential members (apologies for the noisy room)

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