|If approved, the charter school would be housed at the Graham Road Elementary School building|
Eric Welch, the founder of the proposed charter school opposed by many Falls Church High School parents, wants to set the record straight: He feels that the parents who organized a group to oppose the charter school, UPROAR (United Parents to Renovate Our Academic Resources), have misinterpreted his intentions.
The proposed Fairfax Leadership Academy is not trying to compete with Falls Church HS, Welch told the Annandale blog. He says a complaint by parents “that we’re going to take the best students and we’re not really taking at-risk kids” is not correct. It’s the charter school’s mission to target at-risk students, he says. The school would serve “kids not thriving in a traditional environment—to give them more time to be career and college ready.”
UPROAR has scheduled a meeting for Jan. 4 at Falls Church High School (FCHS) to discuss the charter school and the need to renovate the high school. Several school board members and FCPS administrators are expected to attend.
The proposed school would serve about 450 students in grades 7-12. It would be housed in the old Graham Road Elementary School building which will be vacated in September 2012 when students are moved to a new school being built on the site of the former Devonshire Center. The charter proposal is being reviewed by the Virginia Board of Education; final approval authority rests with the Fairfax County School Board.
Welch’s plan to provide the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program has caused some parents to doubt the school’s goal that it would truly serve at-risk students.
“We are making the assumption that if we give students more time and a smaller, structured environment, at-risk students will be able to do IB,” Welch says. “If students start attending the charter school in the seventh grade, where they will have double blocks in English or math, by the time they are in the 11th grade, they should be able to do at least one IB class.”
In response to parents’ concerns that the proposed charter school’s AVID program would be in direct competition with FCHS’s AVID program, Welch says, “we’re not trying to undermine their AVID. We want AVID in every school. That’s a program that works very well with at-risk students. We wouldn’t be trying to take anything away from Falls Church.”
AVID is aimed at motivating middle-of-the-road students to prepare for college. Welch directs the AVID program at JEB Stuart High School. The Fairfax Leadership Academy board of directors includes several FCPS teachers and administrators. Former Annandale High School Principal John Ponton is on the board, as is Del. Kaye Kory.
Welch says the charter school would be “marketed to students with an at-risk background” from across the region, although he acknowledges state law requires it to be open to everyone who applies. If too many students apply, a lottery would be used to determine who can attend.
To make sure at-risk students apply, Welch plans to reach out to local social service and community organizations that work with at-risk students in low-income communities, including kids with foster parents, English lanuage learners, and those who have been abused and have problems with substance abuse. He also expects FCPS school counselors to recommend the school to “students who are not thriving in a traditional school and who would benefit from a longer school year.”
He thinks students doing well in their current school will probably want to stay there—and will prefer a traditional high school with a sports program and a broad array of extracurricular activities rather than a small charter school with fewer options.
When asked why he didn’t meet with the FCHS community sooner, Welch said “we were in contact with the school principal. We were out in the community talking to groups. The information was out there.” [It should be noted that FCPS administrators had cautioned Falls Church Principal Cathy Benner not to publicly comment on the charter proposal. She did address a parent meeting in November where she talked at length about how the charter school would damage the school community.]
Welch says the charter school would benefit surrounding schools because it would relieve overcrowding. He cited statistics showing that 83 percent of the secondary schools in FCPS Cluster II and 75 percent in Cluster III will be over capacity in the 2015-16 school year.
In response to concerns that a new school at the Graham Road building will create traffic and parking problems, Welch says, that building “will continue to be used in some capacity. Whether it’s used for our school, other community and educational programs, or as an administrative center, there will be traffic going through that neighborhood.”
If the charter school is approved, he says, “we will work with businesses and Fairfax County to bring in outside funding to improve the building and stimulate development to the surrounding neighborhood. We are already looking at applying for a state Safe Routes to School grant that would provide funds to improve the sidewalks, roads, and intersection at Graham Road.”