‘Historic moment:’ Fairfax Co. parents, students detail school experiences during listening session at mosque

Welcome to the School Zone, WTOP’s weekly feature about the latest topics and trends in education across the D.C. region. WTOP’s Scott Gelman takes a closer look at the issues and how they affect your kids. If you have story ideas or suggestions, email Scott at sgelman@wtop.com.

What it is: At the start of the school year, new Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Michelle Reid scheduled over two dozen community conversations at locations across the county.

The goal of each session, according to the school system’s website, was to help Reid “get to know our communities.”

The series started Aug. 23 at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and concluded Wednesday night at Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia. It was the only community discussion that was held at a place of worship.

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What it means: A school system spokeswoman told me that they don’t keep track of superintendent visits. School board member Abrar Omeish said it’s the first time a Fairfax County superintendent has visited a mosque. Former Superintendent Scott Brabrand visited a synagogue during his tenure, she said.

During the 45-minute conversation, parents and students asked about school security, staffing challenges, the curriculum and gender identity.

Responding to some of those concerns, Reid said, “We’re in the middle, honestly, of a mental health crisis with our young people and our staff. … What I do know is I’m going to lead and love and make sure that each of our children feels, as I said, seen, (and) when they are in school, they feel a deep sense of belonging and safe so that they can be the best part of that community.”

On the security front, Fairfax County Public Schools annually conducts audits of “all facilities, or cameras, or fencing or areas around the physical space of our schools to make sure they’re safe as possible,” Reid said.

Talking points: At one point in the conversation, a student said her “complaints aren’t taken seriously,” and provided an example in which she said she was laughed at while in front of the classroom’s white board. “I looked at my teacher, and I expected him to say something, but he looked down and didn’t reply.”

Zineb Elhayani, a student at Fairfax High School, said the workload in classes has increased since last year, adding that things are “starting to go back to how it was” before the coronavirus pandemic.

Siham Ahmedin, who also attends Fairfax High School, said, “As a young Muslim girl in high school, it’s very hard for me to go about my day in school without having altercations or people saying some stuff about me.”

Zakareya Hamed, a student at McLean High School, said Reid’s appearance at the mosque marked a “historic moment, because we have a superintendent in a mosque, who’s speaking directly to members of the community, who have long felt that they’ve been disenfranchised in the conversations that revolve around our place in education as Muslims.”

The students also detailed the stress they’re under to balance workload, extracurriculars and in some cases college applications.

Sereen Radwan said the session was essential for school leaders to understand student experiences.

“I did want them to know from a student perspective, not just parents and teachers, I wanted them to know from a student who actually experienced situations,” Radwan said.

By the numbers
Some data that caught my eye this week.

COVID test results: Over 38,000 students and staff in D.C. took COVID-19 tests before returning to class Monday, after the Thanksgiving break. As of 11 a.m. Monday, a spokesman told me 171 students and 82 staff members who submitted results tested positive.

What Scott’s Reading

  • Traditional snow days or virtual learning: What will FCPS do this year? [WTOP]
  • Magruder High parents, school officials discuss missteps following January school shooting [WTOP]
  • Fairfax Co. school leader attends Native American powwow [WTOP]
  • Loudoun Co. votes to alert parents to sexually explicit material in schools [WTOP]
  • Family of student shot at Magruder sues county, school board [Washington Post]
  • Elementary school official arrested for allegedly exposing himself to 2 women in Greenbelt [NBC Washington]

Field Trip 

Here’s a fun thought ahead of the weekend.

Holiday time: The National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony was held this week, and the tree is now on display to the public. I have yet to see it in person, so that seems like a fun weekend activity.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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