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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Falls Church HS principal and parents oppose charter school at Graham Road

Dozens of parents speak out against a charter school
proposal at a Falls Church PTSA meeting.
A proposal to develop a charter school for at-risk high school students at the site of the former Graham Road Elementary School was met with anger and outrage at a Falls Church High School PTSA meeting last night.

Several parents expressed alarm that the school could draw students away from one of the smallest high schools in Fairfax County and suggested it be located somewhere else, such as the western part of the county.

FCHS Principal Cathy Benner seemed to sum up parents’ feelings when she said it could do “incredible damage to our school.”

The proposed charter school, the Fairfax Leadership Academy, was developed by a group of educators led by Eric Wolf Welch, a teacher at JEB Stuart High School. Its board members include former Annandale High School Principal John Ponton and Del. Kaye Kory.

The school would serve grades 7-12. It would have a longer school day and full-year calendar. It would be targeted to lower-income, at-risk students and would offer a college prep curriculum with a focus on leadership development, career awareness, and service learning.

Among the aspects of the school that are most troubling for Benner and FCHS parents are its plans for an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, which is aimed at preparing disadvantaged students for college, and an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, a rigorous, academic high school curriculum.

FCHS has the best AVID program in the country, Benner said, so it doesn’t make sense to bring another AVID program to a nearby school. And because FCHS offers Advanced Placement, rather than IB courses, she said, parents could use the charter school’s IB program as an excuse to move their kids out of Falls Church. As a result, FCHS “could lose the cream of the crop,” she warned.

“They’re taking the one thing we do well [AVID] and the one thing we don’t do [IB],” Benner said. “That is scary.”

Noting that FCHS only has about 1,400 students, Benner said, “We can’t afford to lose a single kid.” She said FCHS almost didn’t have a baseball team a few years ago because there weren’t enough kids who wanted to play.

But she made it clear that she has nothing against Welch and his partners. “This is a noble mission. They are good men,” she said. But “it’s ill-conceived to put this across the street” from FCHS. “I’m not afraid of the competition. I’m not afraid of a fight. I just want a fight to be fair.”

“We aren’t against you. We aren’t against your school,” a parent told Welch. “We just don’t want it here.”

If approved, the Fairfax Leadership Academy would receive the same per-pupil funding amount that goes to Fairfax County public schools. Those funds would follow students who transfer from a regular public school to the charter school.

Welch addressed parents’ concerns about the charter school drawing students away from Falls Church by stating that the school will be marketed to lower-income students from throughout the area. But, as one parent said, Virginia law requires charter schools to be open to everyone who applies; if there are too many applicants, a lottery would be held to select students.

Benner objected to the way the proposal refers to “at risk students.” She said “an at-risk kid at Falls Church is not a kid who might not go to a four-year college. At-risk kids here are kids who might not go to school tomorrow.”

Welch told the audience he wanted to hear parents’ concerns. “We’re here for a conversation,” he said, insisting that the charter school is not intended to be competition.

“Where were you guys a year ago?” a parent asked. The charter proposal has already been submitted, so it seems like it’s a done deal, he said.

Welch responded that there hasn’t been an opportunity to talk to FCHS parents before, although he had discussed the proposal with FCPS administrators, school board members, and representatives of community organizations that serve the same population he hopes will enroll in the new school.

“I don’t buy that you didn’t have an opportunity for a meeting with parents,” a parent charged. “I get the feeling that this is being slid under the carpet.”

“This is not a done deal,” Welch asserted. The proposal was submitted to the State Board of Education Oct. 29. The state board has 60 days to review it and determine whether it meets state requirements. It will be up to the Fairfax County school board to determine whether it should be approved or not.

School board member Sandy Evans told the group that the charter proposal has been “in the works for a long time” and was discussed at a school board work session six months ago.

“Generally speaking, I don’t like charter schools,” Evans said. “This idea seemed different. When they first came to me, this proposal seemed to have merit.” But the plan for the school has changed since then. When she first heard about it, Evans said, the school was to be located at the Willston Center in Seven Corners, and there was no plan to provide transportation to students.

Now that the proposal “is likely to have a major impact on FCHS, that is significant,” Evans said. Noting that it could take several months before the proposal comes before the school board, she said, there is plenty of time to have a conversation in the community to determine whether it’s a good idea or not or if it should be modified—which is also an option.

Meanwhile, Evans encouraged parents to harness the energy in the room to form a group to start pushing for Falls Church to be renovated. FCHS is long overdue for renovation, Benner said. She has heard FCHS students refer their school as “ghetto,” and said, “that is like a knife in my stomach.”


  1. Thank you for this well written article. Finally the parents get to be heard. The charter school was not brought to the attention of the FC community regardless of who in administration or the school board knew last year. I believe Eric Welch has the best of intentions but he was misguided in his attempt to place the charter school less than a mile from FCHS for all the reasons listed above.

  2. I am so grateful that FC finally has a strong leader in principal Cathy Benner.
    She did an amazing job explaining her conerns last night. She was honest, straight forward and respectful to all.

  3. Kristin Haynes11/3/11, 5:58 PM

    I was told at the FCPS Facilities Planning Advisory Council Listening Tour (for Cluster 2) meeting on 11/1 that the federal money would be a drop in the bucket compared to what they'd need to change the ES into this charter school. Falls Church should be at the top of the list for renovations. Spend the money there.

  4. I am really disappointed that you don't offer open discussion. This blog should be reclassified as an editorial.

  5. We do welcome open discussion and publish many comments that disagree with our posts.

  6. I posted two comments that specifically respond to the principals comments, and you have not published them.

  7. I wish there were more context around the statement from Sandy Evans: "Generally speaking, I don’t like charter schools." Why doesn't she like charter schools? What's wrong with giving parents more choices that may better fit their students. Evans may have just lost my vote.

    Also, perhaps Principal Benner wouldn't be so concerned about alternative choices if her school had made AYP, didn't have significant gaps between white and minority and poor students, and didn't have completely appaling graduation rates (just 60% of Hispanic students graduate). Check it all out here:

    This data makes the case exactly FOR such a charter option...

    Parents, don't feel threatened - feel excited - you might have a better option available if there were more choice.

  8. Remember, there is an election coming up. If you do not like what's happening --- as they say -- "Vote the Bums Out!"

  9. Elaine Wiggins11/6/11, 9:05 PM

    If FCPS has one plugged nickel to spend on a charter, then they can: 1. roll back athletic fees; 2. fund more music and arts teachers at the elementary level so kids can get more than 1 lesson a week; 3. renovate existing high schools like FC who are doing a fabulous job with all their kids and deserve to be treated with respect (look at the recent renovations to Woodson); 4. provide more than 1 late bus a week to high schools; 5. recruit and retain the best possible teachers by paying them more money- need I go on? FCPS is already one of the best school systems in the country. Setting up a charter sends a bad message and research has clearly shown charters DO NOT perform better than public schools, in fact, a majority perform worse. Our kids already have the best resources available. Charters are not what FCPS needs.

  10. You should post my comment about the state report card. Have an open discussion.

  11. In response to anonymous above, if most of the parents you refer to should feel excited about this new option for their kids, then the charter school's mission is NOT to serve disadvantaged kids and it's representation as such is being disingenuous, at best. Instead, this feels like a option that will appeal to priviledged kids that do not get into TJ. Is this where we should be focusing scarce resources?

  12. Charter schools raise the bar for all students in the division just has having several grocery stores in the neighborhood keeps prices down and the quality of good up. Sounds like Fairfax can't meet the needs of all students but wants a monopoly on providing for those needs. Let parents choose between the charter and the local high school.

    The principals comments regarding baseball are just bizarre. Trapping students in a school with high drop out rates and a history of not making AYP to keep enough students for a good sports team? This community needs a charter school.

  13. Carole O'Gara11/11/11, 11:31 AM

    Charter schools operate without the transparency and accountability of public schools. They answer to their own board of directors. They are a last ditch option for a failing school system with insurmountable management problems. That is not the situation we have in Fairfax County. If the baseball analogy is bizarre, how about your grocery store analogy? How does that apply? A charter school would be like Whole Foods. We can't afford the price for the fancy stuff we don't need.

  14. Here is a link to a petition to oppose this school at this location. Please consider signing it: