Emily’s Exclusive: Growing Up in Fairfax County Public Schools

Contributed photo by Emily Richardson

By Emily Richardson

August 30, 2023

A family friend of mine recently took in a foster child. She comes from a rural part of Virginia and has never lived in a county with more than 10,000 people, let alone the over 1 million in Fairfax County. 

I’ve lived here all my life, and I went through the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) system from kindergarten to graduation. I’ve never known anything else, but she has, which is why she was utterly overwhelmed when faced with the challenge of picking her class schedule for her sophomore year of high school. 

She could barely comprehend the vast range of choices she had for electives. Sophomores at many FCPS schools also have the option to take certain AP courses, which were not offered at her previous school. She could take a psychology course, or a journalism course, or a film study course if she wanted to. She could take studio art or digital art, theater or tech theater. It took her the entire summer to settle on a course schedule. It would have been strange if it wasn’t such a difficult process—the paths she could take and potential niches she could fit herself into were endless. That experience might not be had at any other district in the state.

FCPS is the largest school system in the state, and among the largest in the entire country. The median income in the county is $54,708, though certain areas clock in much higher. FCPS has often been lauded for its quality of education, though it’s dwarfed in affluence by nearby Loudoun County. Still, great schools.

The variety of opportunities in FCPS most notably gives students the chance to find their own unique identity and form their own experience. I was able to explore my adult career path, journalism, beginning in seventh grade. I played on my high school’s field hockey team. I took seven AP courses (which I didn’t have to apply for to enroll in), many of which I was able to turn over for college credit. The opportunities are plentiful, and to boot, the system’s makeup is wildly racially and ethnically diverse. 

In those regards, my experience was positive—but the sheer size of FCPS also contributes to what I view as some of the lesser parts of my experience. At many FCPS high schools, college will be the next step for most students. Thus, the environment is fiercely competitive and, at times, overbearing.

There are no class rankings or valedictorians in FCPS, because high schools found that the majority of their students had above a 3.0 GPA, making class rank an unfair reflection of a students’ performance in school

The lack of a class rank did little to quell the competitive environment. For four years, there was always an unspoken tension in the air. In my classrooms, walking down the hallways, everyone was keenly aware that we all viewed one another as competition. Everyone had this preconception of what exactly our lives should look like after graduation: Go to college, and better yet, a very expensive one with a low acceptance rate. If you didn’t do that, you’d be met with these vapid reactions and sideways looks that would make you wish you worked just a little bit harder to get into UVA. It was never explicit, always implied, just quiet enough to make you question if you’re crazy for putting this pressure on yourself.

Now, I’m in my senior year at VCU. It’s taken me these past three years to recalibrate my mindset. There isn’t that same competitive environment here, not even close—maybe it’s more the intent of higher education that everyone’s on their own path, or in their own timeline. I still see reflections of my 15-year-old self when I find myself staying up into odd hours of the night to get ahead on readings, or whatever, when I really don’t have to be.

If nothing else, growing up in FCPS taught me that “positive” and “negative” are not mutually exclusive.

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