|Eric Welch speaks to parents at a Graham Road Elementary School PTA meeting|
Eric Welch, the founder of a plan to develop Fairfax County’s first charter school reached out to Graham Road Elementary School parents at a PTA meeting April 10 to urge them to consider the school for their children.
The Virginia Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the charter application April 26. A state board committee already determined that the application for the proposed Fairfax Leadership Academy (FLA) meets all the state requirements for charter schools. If the state board greenlights the application, it must still be approved by the Fairfax County School Board.
The proposal calls for the FLA to be based at the building now housing Graham Road Elementary. That school is transferring to a newly renovated building about a mile away in September.
“This location is a politically sensitive subject. We’re aware of that,” Welch said, referring to strong opposition by Falls Church High School (FCHS).
UPROAR, an organization created by FCHS parents last fall to oppose the charter school and push for FCHS to be renovated, is concerned about the duplication of programs. The FLA would have the International Baccalaureate and AVID programs, which FCHS offers, and FCHS staff and parents fear the charter school would draw students from the high school, which is already under capacity.
In addition, “both schools will be competing for highly motivated students because FLA’s definition of ‘at risk’ is not clearly defined,” said Joan Daly, one of the founders of UPROAR.
While Virginia charter schools, by law, must be available to any student who applies, Welch said he would primarily target students who live in the Graham Road community, along with students from Annandale, Bailey’s Crossroads, Seven Corners, and Merrifield.
He plans to provide transportation to students within a three-mile radius of the school. Anyone who lives outside that boundary would have to provide their own transportation.
Daly is concerned that the FLA is being primarily targeted to students in the Kingsley Commons townhouse community, which is adjacent to the Graham Road School. The owner of the complex, John K. Freeman, founded the non-profit Arlington Boulevard Community Development Organization (ABCD), which provides educational and other services to residents. He sued FCPS in 2008, unsuccessfully, to keep the Graham Road scjpp; open, with help from Del. Chap Peterson. ABCD Director Sharyn Franck is on the FLA board.
If the FLA will be giving a priority to Kingsley Commons students, “UPROAR would object to this marketing plan,” Daly said. “Any charter school using taxpayer funds cannot be limited to a certain demographic, whether it be ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, or geographic location.” She believes Welch wants students from Kingsley “because they will walk and he won’t have to pay for transportation.”
According to Daly, Welch “doesn’t understand why UPROAR objects to a college prep high school less than a mile from us while county budgets are strapped and I have to go before the county Board of Supervisors begging for more funding so our deteriorating school can get renovated in 2018 instead of 2020.”
“We’re not tied to this location,” Welch said of Graham Road, although “it’s our first choice” because it’s the right size and has already been used as a school. If the FLA can’t use the building, Welch said he would try to find another facility in Cluster 3, but he wouldn’t consider moving it outside the beltway.
The FLA “is not designed for the student with As and Bs who wants to play soccer,” Welch told the parents at the PTA meeting. It’s aimed at students with more challenges, like limited English skills, and who “need more of an intimate setting to be successful.” It won’t have sports, cheerleading, or the other optional programs offered at large, traditional public schools.
The charter school would serve grades 7-12, although it would open in fall 2013 with just grades 7 and 8 and add an another grade each year. It would have just 50 to 75 students per grade.
Welch described what distinguishes the FLA from regular Fairfax County public schools:
- It would have a longer school day and a full-year calendar.
- It would focus on college and career readiness and would rely heavily on partnerships with businesses and non-profit organizations to provide mentors and internships to give students “real-world” experiences.
- Teachers would take part in the management of the school, and administrators would spend part of every day teaching.
According to Welch, the extra time and small-school setting with fewer distractions would be a huge advantage for the population of at-risk kids the school is targeting.
Welch expects the charter application will go the FCPS School Board in May, and it will take four months for the board to review it. His goal is to have the board vote on it by September. The board could approve the proposal, reject it, or request changes, such as adding sixth graders, he said.
The FLA would receive the same per-pupil funding allocation distributed by FCPS to all public schools. Welch also plans to apply for a three-year $600,000 federal charter school grant and hopes to raise about $200,000 from businesses and organizations like ABCD to cover the extra costs associated with a longer school day and year and to provide lab equipment and additional materials.