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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Welch says charter school won't compete with Falls Church HS

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.”


  1. He wants to target at risk kids? and he defines at risk kids as those who may not attend college? does Mr Welch even know what an at risk child is? The at risk children that Falls Church serves are those who are at risk of not coming to school the next day! Those whose parents may be deported tomorrow. Those who have to choose between working to help put some food on the table and going to school. Those who are too embarrassed to go to school because they can't shower because their water has been cut off. These kids won't benefit from a longer school year - they can't attend since they have to work or take care of their own children or younger siblings!

    Does Mr Welch have a clue?

  2. The argument that the school wants to target at risk kids is pretty hard to believe. Since no transportation will be provided (ie a school bus), those at risk kids will have to have a ride to and from school daily. Most of those families don't have the ability to drive their kids to and from school. How will the charter deal with transportation for those kids? To me, this is a slippery slope, and if one charter is given permission to open, others will follow. Fairfax is one of the best school systems in the country. Charters have consistently been a disappointment in every district that have allowed them to open, not delivering on their promises of higher graduation rates, better test scores, etc. Not one penny of my tax dollars should go to a charter when FCP schools right up the street need renovation; when tests and sports fees are being levied on parents; and after school programs and busses are cut to save money. FCPS- get your priorities straight.

  3. 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. Is this seriously the goal? One or two IB classes? No mention of the IB diploma.

    AVID is a great program for at-risk children and is already offered at Stuart, Annandale and Falls Church High Schools. What could help future graduates is to restore Honors-level classes in 11th and 12th grades to give children more challenges than the general ed classes without the stress/workload of four AP/IB core classes. This proposed charter school duplicates efforts already working at the base schools. Falls Church HS is looking into offering IB in addition to AP. I applaud looking to help at-risk children but the services are already at the base schools. AVID teachers have hearts of gold. If students want to achieve, they'll help them make it happen.

  4. There can be no means testing for charter school applicants, so what stops parents of non-at-risk students from applying and making this a smaller version of Thomas Jefferson? What then, Mr. Welch? I'd rather have my tax dollars go to renovating an existing school, plus why not make Falls Church an IB school? It would be much cheaper and continue to help at risk kids!

  5. Why would the School Board listen to Eric Welch? Why would he know more about educating at risk kids than existing administrators? All of the people associated with this proposal come from Stuart High School in one way or another - yet the damage will be done to Falls Church (their biggest rival). Why? Why would the School Board entertain this? It is not needed. Falls Church has a huge amount of success with the students described by Welch. Falls Church is NOT overcrowded! In fact, they fight for population because so many parents play games to get their kids moved to other schools. Welch has publically said he intends to have sports teams at his school - why does he state here that he doesn't? He changes what he says depending on what group he speaks to. Yet, he is the person that the Board is going to listen to? Where is his expertise? Oh yeah - that's right AT Stuart (same with Ponton, Kory, etc.) It is ridiculous that this prank has gone this far.

  6. Cathy Benner, Principal, FCHS1/3/12, 12:45 PM

    Hi everyone.. Just to clarify ~ FLA met with me ONE time last year in early 2011 at the request of the Assistant Superintendent of Cluster II. At the meeting, both Mr. Welch and I were told to not discuss the proposal until it became more likely to move forward. Mr. Welch met with a community group the very next day, at which at least one school board member attended. I did not discuss the proposao with anyone in that I continued to follow the directive of my boss. Privately, I was worried about the negative impact that the school would have on FCHS and I had a meeting with the Deputy Superintendent to express those concerns. He listened and expressed that it was unlikely that the charter school could raise the money or meet the deadlines as part of the application process; and so I got back to the business of running an existing Fairfax County High School with little time or attention being given to Mr. Welch's proposal. I did not hear from Mr. Welch again (nor anyone associated with this project) until the end of the summer, at which time I began to publically express the many concerns I have about the proposed charter school being located at the Graham Road Elementary site. Mr. Welch recently came to a PTSA meeting at Falls Church High School, but beyond that, I have had no direct contact with him. His statement that "we were in contact with the school principal" is not an accurate portrayal of the communication between the two of us. I resent the implication that I was complicit in leaving the Falls Church community in the dark - as they have been by design (and not default) by Mr. Welch and his colleagues.