Members of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s appointed “Children’s Cabinet” were in town recently to tour Fallon Park Elementary School. The southeast Roanoke City public school has its challenges, as outlined by principal Dr. Cynthia Delp during a tour that she conducted for Virginia Secretary of Education Ann Holton, Secretary of Health & Human Resources Bill Hazel, and Secretary of Commerce & Trade Maurice Jones.
Among those challenges that can sometimes get in the way of a solid education: a student population where 93% of children qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch under federal guidelines; a more diverse, transient population where students may come and go during the year, and less than stable home lives that may include poverty or non-traditional family arrangements.
There are also language barriers to overcome with some students learning English as a second language while they are mainstreamed at the same time. Delp noted that those scenarios are viewed as “opportunities,” and she had high praise for how the Fallon Park staff meets those challenges.
Holton and company got to practice their square dancing, spent time with students as they worked on an outdoor garden space and sat in as third graders tackled math problems. An executive order from McAuliffe created the Children’s Cabinet said Bill Hazel, “to think about where in the government we actually have programs that address children – to look for where they can align.” Oversight and some problem solving said Hazel, are what the special cabinet is tasked with doing.
Aligning programs, funding streams and the information collected by various state agencies is a tall order – Hazel said, for example, that the real impact of social service programs used to help stabilize families may actually be seen in better scores for grade level reading – young students who come from a more stable home are likely to do better in school. “We’re working across agencies,” said Hazel, who termed it a novel approach. “Even around the country it’s not all that common to create a focus like this.”
Holton, a Roanoke native (and the wife of U.S. Senator Tim Kaine) said Fallon Park is a school that the state uses as a bellwether, “because they are doing such great work with children from some of our most challenging environments. I’m just here to learn what they are doing.” Holton is also a former teacher.
She appreciated the dance class, saying it taught kids about teamwork and following directions. Holton also displayed some fancy footwork during a square dance routine. “It’s just great to see teachers doing great work.” Finding out where to fill the “gaps” in the education net cast by the state is why the Children’s Cabinet is in place said Holton, who tours schools “all the time. This school is one of the great ones in Roanoke City. The people are what matters. The quality of teacher [and staff] is the most important factor.”
Holton said there could be some new legislation coming out of the Children’s Cabinet work and points to a reduction in the number of Standards of Learning tests now required in elementary schools – passed at the most recent General Assembly session – as an example of the group’s influence. More help for children learning English while in school is also on Holton’s to-do list.
Maurice Jones noted the varied student population he observed while touring Fallon Park: “The talent that we are preparing now is a really diverse class – we have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to give a much more diverse ‘next generation’ a much more world-class preparation for the work force.”
Hazel acknowledged the special challenges at an urban elementary school like Fallon park: “Kids can’t learn when they’re hungry for one thing. How you match the federal funding and ensure the kids get the food … [but] when they’re feeding in school what are they not doing when they are feeding? Those are all problems – what happens at night and on weekends when they’re not here is a challenge …housing stability is [another] issue for student performance.”