Karen Corbett-Sanders

Challenges and Opportunities in Public Schooling


During her 15-minute talk, Karen discusses and explains the following:

  • Who flourished and who was left behind after the Covid pandemic;
  • 2014’s Portrait of a Graduate & the One Fairfax Equity Resolution;
  • How to return to in-person teaching after the traumas experienced;
  • Collaboration between schools and families;
  • Teacher training and distribution and use of technology;
  • Changing grading policy and using testing for assessment;
  • Re-thinking how content is presented, Socratic seminars;
  • Peer-to-peer engagement and parent-partnerships;
  • New definitions of academic success

Corbett-Sanders defines "Prepared Adult" as: Someone who experienced problem-based learning, is a critical and creative thinker, a communicator, a collaborator, an ethical and global citizen, a goal-directed and resilient individual.


Karen endeavours towards each school within the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) Board being is a center of academic excellence. With more than 187,000 enrolled students in 198 schools, FCPS is one of the 10th largest public school system in the US.

She is a retired international business executive, a community advocate for healthcare and education issues, past PTA president, and Odyssey of the Mind coach.

Karen currently serves on the THRIVE Advisory Board for the Regional Housing Authority. She has served on Boards of Directors and operating committees for international telecommunications companies and, locally, on the Quality Board of Inova Children’s Hospital and the Regional Board for Odyssey of the Mind.


For those of you who know me, my background is in international business and technology prior to joining the school board five years ago. I believe that the best way of problem solving is to work with a broad coalition of diverse thinkers and using critical thinking and innovative ideas to tackle difficult issues. That is why this colloquium is so important today. I believe that this symposium is an important step at looking at how we can transform the historical approach to education based on an agrarian calendar and a manufacturing economy to one that meets the needs of lifelong learners and the 21st century skills. I welcome the opportunity to share ideas with all of you and I am especially honored to follow Dr. Lillard because of the lessons that can be learned from the Montessori pedagogy, where students are responsible for the individual learning, that teachers perform a coaching function and there is a recognition that a child success is dependent on the social, emotional and physical well-being of that child. The lessons that we have learned from COVID can be seen through this lens. As we begin to see a light at the end of the COVID tunnel, we need to look at what has happened, who flourished and who was left behind. The role of technology is a facilitator for learning and the changing role of the teacher. As we transitioned from a bricks and mortar education environment, we relied heavily on a broadband infrastructure, which is lacking in large parts of my home state of Virginia and elsewhere in the United States.

And we had to acquire and retrofit devices to ensure every child had a computer to use for accessing their education. Prior to COVID, we only had 1 to 1 devices for our high school students, and we're in the midst of obtaining support from our community to extend this program to middle schools. For context, I would like to provide you with some background on Fairfax County. Fairfax County Public Schools is the 10th largest system in the United States where our diversity is our strength, attending 198 schools and centers, our diverse student population of more than 188,000 students in grades pre-K through 12 speak over 200 languages in their homes. Over 29% of our total population is economically disadvantaged. 15% are students with disabilities, and more than 27% of students are English language learners. I am proud that 92% of our students do graduate on time and pursue post-secondary education. In 2014, the school board developed and adopted the portrait of a graduate. This was in collaboration with a variety of stakeholders, including parents, families, local businesses, community members, educators, students and the FCS leadership team, including the school board. The portrait of a graduate recognizes that in our rapidly changing world, education needs to evolve to fulfill our mission of supporting student success in school and in life. The portrait of graduate prioritizes the development of skills that will empower students to be productive citizens of a global community and successful in the workforce of the future.

The portrait moves students and staff members to look beyond the high stakes testing environment established by the No Child Left Behind legislation to focus on problem based learning, critical thinking and innovation. That is the approach is one that realizes that our students will likely change their careers multiple times and need to be lifelong learners. Fcpa is embedded the development of the portrait of a graduate skills across its curriculum from pre-K through high school completion. The attributes of the portrait are communicator, collaborator, ethical and global citizen, creative and critical thinker and a goal directed and resilient individual. Complementing the work in the classroom, FCPA provides resources to parents on how they can reinforce the skills development at home with activities in the community and in their homes or households. Recognizing that our Fairfax County community has changed significantly over the past several decades, county policymakers realized that we needed to do more to ensure that all of our families are able to fully realize 21st century opportunities. With this in mind, our Board of Supervisors and School Board adopted the one Fairfax Equity Resolution this joint social and racial equity policy of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the School Board commits the county and schools to intentionally consider equity when making policies or delivering programs and services. Covid 19 has highlighted the importance of these policies and demonstrated that our students need to be resilient and goal directed. When we transitioned to virtual classrooms, it became evident that many of our students required multiple tiers of support for them to deal with the multiple traumas that they were facing.

These included the trauma that all of us faced of not being able to have the physical connections with our families and friends. The trauma of having housing or food insecurity. The trauma of losing loved ones to COVID with higher concentrations in our black and brown communities, and in some cases, increases in domestic abuse. When we closed schools a little over a year ago, we knew that these multiple traumas would affect many of our students, not only during the pandemic, but have residual effects going forward. Our efforts were to triage the situation, initially ensuring that our students were provided meals, setting up 30 sites across the county for the distribution of breakfast and lunches, including on our local military base and in our highest poverty areas. We ensured that all of our students had a device by acquiring new devices when available and repurposing all the computers on carts and labs in our schools. And after a few weeks, all of our students in grades three through 12 had computers in their hands, and those without broadband at home were provided with MIFI devices for access. Teachers who had never used electronic conferencing applications were trained on the new technologies, and students were brought into virtual classrooms. Our youngest learners were sent learning packets weekly through the spring, and all of our students were sent learning packets for for the summer, and our youngest learners were provided devices at the beginning of the school year.

Our transformation to a digital platform is not without significant challenges, including privacy, bullying and student engagement. The data showed that our students of color were less engaged than other groups, and our first quarter grades declined across all of our student groups. In addressing these issues, we relied on improving technology and increased teacher training, implementing more lessons on digital citizenship for our students, and had our staff reaching out directly to students and parents making phone calls and visiting homes. In some cases, principals became super sleuths, tracking down students that moved to new locations. We also focused on the social emotional outcomes by providing the opportunity for families and students to work with our counselors and social workers directly to address their individual needs. Our teachers are rock stars and adapted their their teaching styles to the online environment and most recently, the concurrent teaching, which provides educational opportunities for students in person and online and a physical classroom. Teachers are able to determine if a student is understanding the subject or engaging by reading facial and physical expressions in the virtual environment where many of our students did not turn on their cameras. Different and more intentional approaches were needed to engage. This included morning meetings, mindfulness lessons. And virtual breakout rooms, as well as a decreased reliance by our teachers on slide decks. And we also changed our grading policy to be one that moved away from punitive grading and towards more mastery of knowledge.

Our outcomes improved. We know the experience has worked for many of our students, but not all. And it is with this in mind that we have developed plans for engaging our students more directly to include one on one interventions on Mondays, increased in-person opportunities for students struggling, and creating opportunities for students to engage with each other through virtual and in-person afterschool programs beyond just sports, but into the arts and into our parks and playgrounds. We brought back to our buildings our most vulnerable learners first. These included students with disabilities, English language learners, and students obtaining career and technical education certifications that required access to labs and were under time constraints to complete. These included nursing, emergency management, cybersecurity certifications and more. This was important because many of our students depended on these certifications to earn more than a living wage when they graduated from high school. You may ask, how can we use these experiences to inform our approach to education going forward? First, we know that students with engaged parents are more able to navigate crises such as COVID. With our buildings closed, parents had to take more ownership of their students education. Virtual town halls were held with each school community to ensure parents knew how to best assist their students and access support. In addition to administrative support available at each school, the county ombudsman and multilingual technology helplines were established parent liaisons called parents of children who were not participating in classes to determine what else was needed to get them to take ownership of their education.

Parents, in turn, help their students navigate scheduling and access issues and became their educational coaches, helping solve problems and assisting with homework and class materials. Our teachers have had to rethink how they present content rather than focusing on a lecture style classroom. Classrooms were flipped with students taking ownership of the content and using their in-person or virtual classroom for Socratic seminars and collaborative problem solving. Students are using the technology and breakout rooms in small group projects. High stakes standardized tests are being used for assessments and not accreditation to a flexibility by the Department of Education at the state and national level. Through these assessments, the classroom teacher is identifying areas for focusing the classroom experience and identifying students who may need more interventions or a more robust summer remediation or acceleration experience this coming summer and the following summer. Some of our students flourished in the virtual environment because of the flexibility it offered to them to manage their education. Economics requires many of our students to work the asynchronous or education on demand approach allowed these students with the opportunity to pursue their education out of outside of the 8:00 to 215 high school hours that we had in place prior. We know that our students need to be able to engage with their peers. We have students in our buildings for two days a week now, and with the reduction of the social distancing requirements, we expect this to go to four days a week for more students this spring and five days a week in the fall.

This summer, we will expand our in-person summer school by ten times, and our summer programming in the arts will be provided in a virtual and in an in-person manner. New opportunities for engaging and partnering with parents that previously could not physically get to our schools because of work, conflicts or transportation issues are being resolved by a technology. For example, PTAs or parent teacher associations worked with local principals to host virtual science fairs, bingo nights and other book booka thons, reading nights and other events. While in-person science fairs created challenges for families where transportation is an obstacle. The provision of a device to all students and a broadband capability, coupled with a new way of engaging parents, virtually resulted in higher participation rates. Just this past weekend, we held our Regional Science Fair. Over 200 high school science projects were submitted by a recorded videos. Over 290 students representing every high school in the county presented their research projects, addressing a wide variety of science and engineering challenges, including neural networks, traumatic brain injuries, Alzheimer's, radio, technology, machine learning and energy projects were judged by over 300 professionals and 50 professional organizations and businesses. During a town hall last evening, I was asked whether the students would be able to continue to have a device when we return to our buildings full time. Prior to COVID, we heard from many parents that they did not want to have a 1 to 1 device program.

Now, these devices are considered an essential part of the learning environment, similar to three ring binders and pencils of the past. Looking forward, we need to take the lessons we have learned during COVID to ensure that we continue to evolve our education system to meet the challenges of the 21st century. We know that technology is essential to the one Fairfax promise of access and opportunity for all of our students, no matter where they reside in Fairfax or their economic status. We know that we must keep parents engaged and that we provide ownership of their educational outcomes to our students. We know that assessments should be used not as a punitive manner, but for judging a student or a teacher, but rather as a tool for developing individualized learning plans. And we know that collaboration and critical thinking in problem solving does not require our students to be physically located in one location. That can be facilitated through technology, which allows students across the county, the state, the country or internationally to collaborate. Finally, we know that academic success is dependent on the physical and emotional well-being of our students. Schools have played an important role in addressing food security during the pandemic. We also know that the stress of COVID has reinforced the need for social, emotional learning to be embedded in our curriculum. Thank you for inviting me today and I am happy to answer any questions.

That's brilliant. That's brilliant. Thank you so much, Karen. As a note, as just to go into our first break here, which will be here, we'd like to like to invite Dr. Angeline Lillard as a keynote and fellow Virginian to perhaps open the dialogue about public education. And if you have any question for Miss Doctor or Professor Karen Sanders, this would be a great way to kick off this first half hour, 15 minute break. Before we go to our first panel of other speakers, Dr. Lillard Lillard would you be happy to do that? Oh, yes. I would be happy to do that. Thank you very much, Karen. So important to bring attention to these these issues of access and the like. I am curious about how you find the receptivity to alternative models in Fairfax, where I know you have some. What do you find to be the receptivity and what do you find to be the challenges to implementing alternatives to the factory model?

I think that we are a work in progress. That initial response, not only from our educators but actually from our families who rely on, well, this is how it's always been done. It worked for me, so it should work for my children. We're slowly breaking that those obstacles down or those barriers. And part of it is with the realization of COVID that many of the challenges spanned socioeconomic groups. We also know that in the decision to have their children go back to school in person, it has been startling to me that the children from minority families who may live in more densely populated areas have been more reluctant to send their kids to go back in person than other groups. And I believe that is because the the threat of COVID has been much more real and that they've seen that their kids can take more ownership of their learning experience through this process. So I actually, as difficult as the past year has been, I think that in many ways it has been a breakthrough year of changing the mindset and there is a much greater recognition of the neurodiversity of our students and that that growth, the brain growth, is fungible and that you need to continuously provide opportunities for our students to stretch and explore. And so one of the things that we did is during this past year with our learning packets and with our engagement with students, is we transformed the classroom because we had to, which required children to go outside and explore on their own things, to explore amongst their own cohort in which they did have perhaps a. Their own bubble or pod. And and so I think that is all positive. And I am optimistic that we are much more open to being creative in these areas. I'll tell you, when we first wanted to introduce technology, it was absolutely not. You cannot do this because. Kids need a textbook and they need to be in their classroom.

Made possible by the Prepared Adult Initiative.