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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Most speakers at school board hearing support charter school

Current plans call for the FLA to be based at the Graham Road Elementary School building.
Speaker after speaker at a Fairfax County School Board hearing last night on the proposed charter school spoke out in favor of the Fairfax Leadership Academy (FLA).

The vast majority of the 47 people who spoke at the hearing urged the school board to approve the FLA’s application, many of them repeating the same message: that a longer school day and year and smaller classes, with more individual help will level the playing field for lower-income, minority students. They also touted the school’s use of AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a program that helps lower-income students prepare for college.

Five Falls Church High School (FCHS) parents, all of them members of UPROAR, spoke out against the FLA, arguing that it isn’t needed, especially in its proposed location, the Graham Road Elementary School building.

Meanwhile the leaders of the FLA faced another huge setback when they learned that the U.S. Education Department failed to approve their application for federal funds to develop charter schools. FLA founder Eric Welch said he learned about that decision when he saw that a press release announcing the grant recipients does not list the FLA.

“That’s $600,000 over three years that we won’t get,” Welch said after the hearing. “That may mean delaying the process. We’re going to have to reassess where we are with the budget.” Without those funds, he acknowledged, the school might not be able to open in fall 2013 as anticipated.

The rejection of the grant request follows a mostly negative report by a Fairfax County Public Schools staff review committee that recommended the school board not approve the FLA unless major changes are made in the budget, curriculum, admissions policies, plan for providing special education, and much more.

For the hearing, Welch rounded up teachers, community members, parents, and students to speak out in favor of the FLA. Noting that the board’s top priority is eliminating the achievement gap, he told the board, “We can help you make that happen.”

Del. Kaye Kory, a member of the FLA board, urged the school board to support the charter school because it would serve students who need extra help to succeed, citing statistics showing lower-income students are more likely to drop out.

Suzie Phipps, a parent with children at Bailey’s Elementary School, said the FLA model “would be another tool in the FCPS toolbox to meet its commitment to prepare every student for success beyond high school.” Former Bailey’s PTA president Christine Adams said the FLA’s small classrooms and innovative teaching would provide encouragement to lower-income students to help them “see beyond their current circumstances.”

Amelia Robinette, who has a daughter at FCHS, said FCHS is a great school but she supports the FLA because it would provide a choice to parents whose kids might “fall through the cracks” at a traditional school. The FLA won’t hurt FCHS and won’t affect its place in the renovation queue, she said.

“This is about kids who don’t have anybody advocating for them and not succeeding in school,” said Chris Minnich. A former student at J.E.B. Stuart High School, Juan Carlos Rodriguez, said AVID helped him succeed in school, while “most students float through from class to class without any real idea of what they could accomplish.”Terry Adams, president of the Annandale Sports Club, spoke about the “legal and moral imperative to close the achievement gap.”

Sharyn Franck, a member of the FLA board and founder of the Arlington Boulevard Community Development (ABCD) Organization, which is based at Kingsley Commons, said she is thrilled the FLA “will be in our neighborhood.” ABCD President John Freeman, the developer of Kingsley Commons, says the FLA will benefit students who have noone to help them with homework and no access to enrichment activities on weekends.

Among others who spoke in favor of the FLA were Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers; Maria Demarest, parent liaison at Bailey’s Elementary School; and Christian Deschauer, representing the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

All the talk about the FLA closing the achievement gap, however, missed a key point: The FLA would only serve 150 students, and there’s no guarantee that students who apply will be at-risk kids from lower-income families. Falls Church, Stuart, and Annandale high schools, from which the FLA hopes to draw its students, together enroll 3,196 students eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.

Lynn Petrazzuolo, of UPROAR, explained why UPROAR is opposed to the FLA at the Graham Road location:
  • The FCPS 2012 Legislative Program says charter schools are supposed to increase student achievement or address the unique needs of particular student populations “more effectively than other programs.” One of the major “innovations” of the FLA is the AVID program, she said, but FCHS and Stuart already have successful AVID programs that have helped eliminate achievement gaps. At FCHS, 100 percent of AVID students—and 99 percent at Stuart—went to a two or four-year college.
  • While the Virginia Board of Education calls for charter schools to create innovate instructional programs, Petrazzuolo said, FLA would provide the same programs FCHS already provides, such as AVID, dual enrollment with Northern Virginia Community College, and collaborative teaching teams.
  • Most of the advocates for the FLA are not from the FCHS community and don’t know what FCHS offers. What the school board should be asking is: “What is their school not doing that Falls Church is doing? And how do we replicate the Falls Church model in our other schools? not let’s divert funds to retest a theory that has already been proven successful and let’s do it at the expense of all other schools and students in the county.”
Kristin Haynes of UPROAR questioned how the FLA’s use of small learning communities and a full-year, extended-day schedule could be replicated in other schools when “our school system is already $150 million in the hole next year. What are the odds we can get more money to apply this strategy to other county schools?”

Rather than create a new charter school, she urged the school board to expand the scope of AVID, which would result in more at-risk students going to college.

Joan Daly of UPROAR took exception to statements in the FCPS committee report on the FLA that ignored statistics showing that poor students and those with limited English skills at Falls Church, Stuart, and Annandale, the schools targeted by the FLA, attend college at higher rates than students from those groups at other high schools.

“We have not and do not claim communities targeted by FLA don’t have at-risk students, but that there are other at-risk students in the county who have a greater need for additional support,” Daly said. “How do you justify to your constituents their subsidy of a school that only provides free transportation to students from communities already sending more of their students to college than your own constituents?”

Gary Petrazzuolo raised concerns, also cited by the review committee, that the FLA might not be able to enroll enough at-risk students to reach its goal of having those students comprise 60 percent of its student body. “If FLA does not succeed in attracting a sufficient number of at-risk students, its mission and financial footing are seriously compromised,” he said.

Another Falls Church parent, Vincent Forcier, called the Graham Road building a bad location for the FLA, because “it’s one of the most dangerous intersections in Fairfax County.”

The school board will discuss the FLA application at its Oct. 15 meeting and is scheduled to vote on it Oct. 25.


  1. FCPS - 150 million dollar deficit. Taxpayers cannot afford this school at any cost.

  2. In general, it is my understanding that charter schools do not perform better than public schools, while at the same time taking resources away from the public school system.

  3. Your understanding is incorrect - what they do offer is a way out for poorer students who are trapped in bad schools and powerless. This program has been very successful in DC. Funding is always and issue, so perhaps you even shut down the worst public school to fund this. For that matter, provide students vouchers and let the parents decide where to send them.

    1. A study of middle school students in charter schools in 15 states has found that they generally performed no better in math and reading than other public school students.

      Students in charter schools in urban areas were an exception; they did better in math than their public-school peers, and charter-school students were generally more satisfied with their schools, said the study, done by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. and released Wednesday. But the outcome — that charter-school students generally didn’t do better academically than other students — is sure to be disappointing to education officials seeking new ways to improve student achievement.

      Read more: Study: Charter school students' performance average - Washington Times
      Follow us: @washtimes on Twitter

    2. Charter schools should be opened in areas where students are trapped. The article above even admits they work best for certain people. So only open them where they are needed (not in McLean) We pay enough taxes so I sure hope MOST public schools are not an abject failure. See WSJ article.

  4. Exactly. However, there are no bad schools in the area.Falls Church and the other high schools are doing a great job, especially considering the demographics. Something is needed, but not the charter school as proposed. The area needs a place where all the students who don't fit into the current niches can get remediated and returned to base schools:
    1. Intensive ESOL support
    2. Intensive reading programs for students who are several grade levels behind.
    3.Intensive math remediation for those students who haven't mastered the basics. (Why the heck are we mandated to teach Algebra to students who don't know their fractions and decimals yet?)
    3.A creative curriculums for students transferring in, who would otherwise lose credits.

  5. The bottom line: what FCPS has been doing hasn't been working. Hispanic students are still dropping out in high numbers because they don't get the educational interventions they need and have been proven to work: more time in school, the direct help that's possible with smaller classes, close monitoring, and the other services that the FLA would offer them.

    If the school board rejects the FLA in favor of the status quo, thousands of individual students will be written off. This is the shame that will fall on a school system that is supposed to represent the best education in VA.

  6. Giving 150 students the chance to enroll in a charter school with longer time on task and more individual instruction will undoubtedly help them. However, it won't help the thousands of other at-risk students remaining in regular public schools. Besides, there is no guarantee that only at-risk students could attend the FLA.

  7. I would not dismiss the value of preventing 150 kids from dropping out. It means saving those young people from a doomed future. AND it would signify a line in the sand against the tide of dropouts we will see in the future as our county's demographics shift and we have a majority minority population. To your point about the FLA serving ONLY at-risk students - you're right, there's no guarantee. But, if the FLA succeeds in persuading a good number of poor or minority families to put a priority on their students education and proves to be a turn-around specialist, it will be worth admitting the few students who don't need the services. However, it's beyond me why you think any teen would want to be seen as going to a school with a bunch of struggling kids.

  8. Regarding the quote, there are no bad schools in the area. Falls Church and the other high schools are doing a great job.

    Many folks that read this blog would beg to differ!