- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

Fairfax County (Va.) schools will open today reorganized into smaller groups called "clusters," which school officials promise will make it easier to serve students, principals and parents.
Under the plan, eight clusters will replace the three area offices that used to act as the link between schools and the school system. The idea is to minimize bureaucracy, improve communication between schools and the system, and keep a closer eye on student progress.
The three area superintendents oversaw 60 or more schools each under the old system, sometimes leading to a duplication of services that stretched already-limited resources.
Under the new plan, however, each cluster will contain between 20 and 30 schools and two to four high school pyramids a group of elementary and middle schools feeding into a particular high school.
The new system therefore will make it easier to "work within the pyramids to monitor students' progress," said Betsy Goodman, director of Cluster VIII, which covers the Oakton, Southlakes and Westfield high school pyramids. In most cases, students who enter certain pyramids at the elementary school level will remain within them until they graduate high school, she said.
Cluster directors, appointed last month, will be responsible for monitoring student achievement, supervising and evaluating principals, and lobbying for schools with support departments in the county schools system, among other things.
They will have "nothing coming between [them] and the superintendent," said county schools spokesman Paul Regnier. The new system "will make central offices much more accountable to schools," he said.
Cluster directors' offices are expected to be in place with the start of the school year. The three area offices will remain open until the end of the month, Mr. Regnier said. It will take two years for the new cluster system to be phased in entirely.
While first announcing the cluster plan this year, schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech had said he was looking to decentralize the county's huge school system and reduce the span of control for area superintendents.
Fairfax, the 12th largest school system in the country, has as many as 234 schools and centers and a projected enrollment of around 161,000 for the 2000-01 academic year. Enrollment shot up over the last few years, increasing by as much as 12,000 between 1997 and 1999. This year, the county will enroll an additional 4,000 students.
Parents said they were looking at the changes in a positive manner, hoping they signal fewer layers of bureaucracy for them to deal with.
Mitch Luxenburg, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, hopes the clusters will "bring services closer to principals and schools."
Some School Board members, however, expressed reservations about reorganization initially, citing a need for more details. But at the most recent School Board meeting in July, all members promised to work with the new cluster directors to improve the school system.
Mychele Brickner, at-large board member and one of four members who originally voted against the plan, said that although the plan looked good on paper, "quirks" still needed to be ironed out.
Initially, things would be tougher, both for her and for parents, because of confusion about whom to call with questions, she said Friday. "But the system is trying to make sure people will have knowledge about who to contact," she said, adding that things should be easier in the long run.
Jane Strauss, who represents the Dranesville District and who voted in favor of the new plan, said she had heard positive reviews about the new system from parents in her district. "We are very excited about this reorganization … services will come much more quickly and efficiently," she said.
Cluster directors, meanwhile, said they would keep themselves open and available to parents and principals.
"I can be much more responsive than the area directors before me because I have only 30 schools," said John English, director for Cluster III, which covers the Annandale, Stuart and Woodson high school pyramids.
He said he already had met the principals of all schools under him and was mapping out strategies for better student achievement and extended learning time for schools with lower success rates.
Ellen Schoetzau, director of Cluster II, which covers the Falls Church, Madison and Marshall pyramids, said she particularly looks forward to working closely with parents "something that was impossible before."
She said she already had started visiting schools in her cluster and meeting with principals and teachers. "We are looking at data on student achievement and working on strategies to improve achievement."

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