Fairfax County schools push excellence through innovation while preparing the job force of the future

Excellence is at the heart of Fairfax County Public Schools, the 10th largest school system in the country, serving a diverse student population of 187,000.

Nearly 92 percent of FCPS students graduate on time from high schools that are annually recognized by media outlets such as U.S. News & World Report and Niche.com as being among the most outstanding and challenging in the nation.

Fairfax County Public School’s leadership team with Superintendent Scott Brabrand (red tie) in the front row. (Photos, FCPS)

Part and parcel of maintaining that excellence is innovation to keep Fairfax County Public Schools ahead of the curve when it comes to curriculum and culture.

E-Bird Extra spoke recently with FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand to discuss innovative aspects of the schools that help make Fairfax County such a desirable location for families and employers.

“In a professional sense, I was born in this system, raised in this system,” said Brabrand, who attended Georgetown University, taught five years at Herndon High School then spent five years as superintendent of Lynchburg (Va.) City Schools, before accepting his current position in July 2017.

“The world is here at FCPS and the world continues to come here because of the great school system, because of the great quality of life and because of a community that values education. We are lucky to have the best of the best teachers, the best of the best education support professionals, really helping to create a world-class education experience for every kid.”

Innovation in Fairfax County: FCPS

Superintendent Scott Brabrand, in this FCEDA interview, says innovation is constant and critical in maintaining the excellence of Fairfax County Public Schools.

E-Bird Extra: What do you see as the primary difference between Fairfax County Public Schools and other school systems?

Scott Brabrand:  Fairfax County, frankly, has more to offer than almost any school district in America and arguably around the world. There is limitless potential in this system — offerings, experiences, and innovation that can only be only found here, Fairfax County Public Schools truly has a skill level of staff members, teachers and support employees (along with) a curriculum that provides experiences for our kids that are unrivaled.

EE: How does the word “innovation” apply to FCPS? 

SB: Fairfax County Public Schools has always been an innovative school district. It’s been the first on so many things. Right now, we’re doing DNA labs in elementary school with third-graders for the first time ever, stuff that was done in high school and college a generation ago. We’ve incorporated innovation around our Portrait of a Graduate, the skills we want to see in young people: creativity, communication, being global thinkers, being resilient, being ethical, being collaborators who can work in teams. It’s these things that we know employers want.

Flexible seating provides students, like those at Timber Lane Elementary, the ability to learn in a setting that’s comfortable for them.

EE: What are other ways FCPS is distinguishing itself, perhaps doing things others are not

SB: We’ve established innovative labs for STEM academics and instituted flexible seating for kids — creating a physical environment where the classroom is set to accommodate more small groups or workshops…The level of rigor is much higher than it used to be. The old system was about being a great listener and regurgitating the information on a standardized test. The new model calls for more problem-based learning where kids work together on a project that means something to them and solves a community or regional or national problem. It’s not just simple test-taking and memorization.

EE: How important is the role of FCPS in preparing students to handle changing technologies and job markets

The Innovation Lab at Chantilly High School was made possible by community support.

BS: STEM education has been around for some time. Fairfax County has been able to take it to a whole other level, first by inviting the business community to be part of the innovation, as we just did in Chantilly with a partnership between a local, successful businessman who knew the job skills necessary for success in the world of tech and, accordingly, got kids to build stations in the lab.

We’ve gone deeper than just throwing equipment at kids or throwing a math or science textbook at kids. We’ve created a set of deeper experiences backed by rich curriculum, backed by innovative labs and backed by outdoor and extracurricular experiences that you simply don’t get elsewhere…FCPS believes keeping up with technology is critically important. We’re closing the informational divide (but) 30 percent of our students are on free or reduced lunch. Not everybody has internet access at home.

Next year, (our budget includes funds) to provide a laptop for every high school student to go out and access the information that they need. And for students who don’t have access to the internet at home, we’ll provide free mobile hotspot devices for them to use. Also, we’re all using technology to help support students with special needs, giving them the adaptions of the curriculum necessary.

EE: How does this relate to students’ futures and their ability to get meaningful jobs?

SB: Basic communication (used to be) the 3Rs: reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Now it’s 3Rs plus a T — and the T is technology. They’ve got to have digital skills that are native to their own learning and it means not just understanding technology’s functions but technology’s applications — not just to consume technology, which is what many kids have only been exposed to. It’s about creating presentations. We’re partnering with Johns Hopkins to give us the best research on how that’s working and we’re exploring plans to add additional technology access at the middle school and even at the upper elementary levels.

EE: Does FCPS consider the benefits of keeping students in the county after graduation?

SB: This (county) has become a mecca for talent. We need to keep talent coming here and we need to keep the talent that is here, staying here. Our students are the biggest source of future talent. So, we’re giving them a lot of STEM…and we have five (high school) academies that really specialize (in subjects like) veterinary medicine, medical technology, information, information technology, communications, digital communications, social media blogging, giving them employable skills that they can take out into the market place and be successful. We’re working now on a grant from J.P. Morgan Chase to create a region-wide signaling device for employers to (learn) the needs of employers so we can better start matching their needs to the K12 experience, not waiting until the kid goes to community college or a four-year college.

Students at Cedar Lane School in Vienna benefit from advice during the Capital One Coders program, made possible by Capital One Financial.

EE: How important are corporate partnership to the mission of FCPS?

SB: I’m really, really excited about the business community and its support for FCPS. We have over 300 partnerships with businesses and the community. It’s very important for everybody to understand that FCPS is open for business. We’re open for business partnerships. We’re open for business internships. We’re open for business input on how we can better deliver education services to young people. Capital One is supporting our middle school after school programs. Boeing has helped with a $100,000 grant to support one of our STEM programs at Edison Academy that provides access to technology experiences the students would not otherwise receive. Our challenge is to provide that sort of access of opportunity in every school. We need the business community to come in and help fill those gaps.

Brabrand also spoke with E-Bird Extra about some of the innovative programs that are keeping FCPS ahead of the learning curve:

Global Classroom
Students and teachers discuss the Global Classroom initiative in this FCPS video.

International focus: Home to a student population that speaks more than 100 languages, FCPS currently offers language immersion programs in Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Korean and offers courses in Chinese and Arabic at the high school level. FCPS encourages students to make global connections. In classrooms, students use technologies such as Skype to keep in contact with peers from at least 10 countries. “You’re not going to understand what the world is like without having interactions like that,” Brabrand said. “A lot of our curriculum is moving to a problem-solving approach and students learn that many of the problems they face in our local community are also challenges around the world.”

Academies: FCPS high school students have the opportunity to learn about jobs by spending time in the workplace and taking half-day courses often focused on industry certifications and credentialing to make them more job-ready upon graduation. “Our academies give kids a chance to take a deeper dive into career clusters — areas of interest for them, whether it’s information technology, digital media, fashion design, veterinary medicine,” Brabrand said. “We’re really trying to grow our own workforce. We have police and fire programs and we are working to grow our own teachers.”

Academy offerings, such as the Animal Sciences program at Chantilly Academy, provide students a chance to gain real-life career experiences while still in school.

Physical and emotional development: From Mindfulness Mondays to Workout Wednesdays, FCPS classrooms are increasingly taking into account social and emotional needs of students. “One of the things we’ve learned is that to be successful in life, it’s not just about high IQ but high EQ,” Brabrand said. “It’s having the emotional capacity and resiliency to have the cognitive skills necessary, and being able to have strategies for wellness and to understand your emotions. We spend lot of time building behavioral and emotional support in our schools.”

Beyond classroom walls: FCPS instructors take advantage of natural environments to consider challenges facing the environment. Some schools have gardens; others have participated in wetlands restorations. “We’re fortunate that a lot of our schools have nearby parks and streams,” Brabrand said. “A lot of challenges today in our country and in the world are environmental challenges, and only by getting outdoors and exploring nature — flora and fauna — can students understand what that looks like. They’re participating in projects where the schools and community come together to be responsible for the environment.”

Students at Lynbrook Elementary School in Springfield participate in an outdoor classroom. Flint Hill Elementary School in Oakton recently received the Lifetime Green Flag, Eco-Schools’ highest honor, from the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA program.

Post-graduate partnerships:Fairfax County schools are increasingly working with local colleges on multiple levels. High school students can qualify for dual enrollment, taking college-level courses and receiving college credit. “We’re partnering with four-year institutions like George Mason and Marymount University to give students exposure during summer programs to show them what college life is like,” said Brabrand, who sits on the board of Northern Virginia Community College. “With Amazon’s arrival, we’re really in the midst of seeing expansions — of the George Mason campus, the Virginia Tech campus — so, in the next decade, we’ll be doing additional partnering with our higher-ed family to help impact and enrich FCPS kids’ experiences in elementary, middle and high school.”