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Friday, July 27, 2012

The Fairfax Leadership Academy and college entry rates

By Gary Petrazzuolo, a member of United Parents to Renovate Our Academic Resources (UPROAR).

The Fairfax Leadership Academy (FLA) certainly has created a feel-good buzz about launching a charter school in the county for the laudable goal of getting more low-income/minority (LIM) students into four-year colleges.

But the real feel-good buzz here should be that the three high schools the FLA targets—Stuart, Falls Church, and Annandale high schools—are doing far better for their LIM students than the rest of the county is doing for theirs. THEY are the model that FCPS should try to emulate at other county schools, not the FLA, because they are doing it with standard days, calendars, class sizes, and budgets that currently exist in FCPS.

FLA’s leaders talk of an achievement gap [between LIM students and their more advantaged peers] but never presents any actual data. Four-year college entry rate achievement gaps among Fairfax County high schools range from 22 percent to 53 percent. Falls Church is closest to FLA’s proposed location and most directly affected by the FLA. (Sure, anyone can apply, but FLA is only paying for highly limited, local transportation.) And Falls Church has the smallest achievement gap of any FCPS high school. Stuart has the fifth smallest, at 29 percent.

The FLA proposal relies on two observations: (1) Schoolwide four-year college entry rates at Stuart, Falls Church, and Annandale high schools are some to the lowest in the county; (2) These schools have the highest percentages of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches (FRL) in the county. But FLA’s approach targeting these schools and students makes two assumptions without ever questioning their validity.

First, FLA assumes a school’s raw college entry rate accurately represents its performance, or why else would it target these three schools? FLA points out an achievement gap, but then completely ignored it when assessing school performance. Second, FLA assumes lower school-wide scores are due to underperformance of LIM students, or why else would it target these students? FLA cites schoolwide data, but never examined readily available county data on the performance of student subgroups at the schools it targets.

FCPS data on four-year college entry rates show a strong correlation between the percentages of FRL students and college entry rates at 19 other county high schools. That means using raw entry rates to compare performance is not valid unless schools either have comparable FRL percentages or entry rates are normalized for differing FRL percentages. This strong correlation also means the data establish a sound basis for estimating expected performance at these schools.

What does this statistical mumbo-jumbo mean?  It means on a level playing field, the three schools targeted by FLA are not just doing well by their LIM students, but are doing far better than other county schools.

Stuart, Falls Church, and Annandale college entry rates are 45 percent, 49 percent, and 70 percent  higher than should be expected based on the FRL student percentages and schoolwide entry rates at other county schools, and their LIM student college entry rates are 5.8, 3.8, and 2.3 times higher than expected. Using their total enrollment, FRL student percentages, and LIM college entry rates, these three schools are estimated to have sent 142 LIM students to four-year colleges in 2011.

If the college entry rate performance for LIM students at the other county high schools is applied to Stuart, Falls Church, and Annandale student enrollment and demographics, a whopping total of 11 LIM students would be expected to attend four-year colleges. Which schools need the help here?

Surprisingly, student subgroup data show white students drive schoolwide underperformance at these three schools, not LIM students. For example, at Stuart and Falls Church, schoolwide college entry rates were 18 percent and 19 percent below the county average; white student rates were 14 percent and 18 percent below average white student rates, but LIM student rates were only 4 percent and 3 percent lower than their average county rates. Which students need the help at these schools?

UPROAR is not opposed to charter schools. We are opposed to this charter school at this location.

We are opposed because precisely the schools FLA targets have ongoing programs for their LIM students that are outperforming other county schools by far, and doing so within the limitations of the current county school system.

We are opposed because the leaders of the FLA want it to serve as a model for other FCPS schools when data show that model already exists at the schools FLA is targeting.

We are opposed because FLA’s “innovative” and “creative” strategies are retreads that the county has tried and dropped because they were either ineffective or fiscally infeasible.

We are opposed because FLA cannot serve as a laboratory for innovation: It proposes no way by which the effectiveness of any of its proposed strategies (such as longer days or longer calendars, smaller class sizes, teacher/administrators) can be independently assessed; FCSP would need to reproduce FLA in its totality, which fiscally is a non-starter.

We are opposed to FLA because it is a sub-optimal use of limited FCPS resources:
  • FLA is unnecessarily redundant appendage to FCPS when fiscal reality is the FCPS budget doesn’t accommodate once-overs, never mind do-overs.
  • FLA states it will raise $1.35 million in outside funding in the first three years. But closer inspection shows that the FLA budget projects the county share of the $2.45 million Year 1 budget to be $1.95 million (80 percent), but by Year 5. the county share increases to $5.6 million (96 percent) of the FLA’s $5.85 million budget. And to what end, when three schools it targets are already far ahead of other county schools and doing it for less money?
  • While resources are directed to four-year college entry, the far larger issue in the communities FLA wishes to serve is dropouts, which at Stuart, Falls Church, and Annandale are 15.8 percent, 8.4 percent, and 10.8 percent, accounting for fully one-third of the dropouts in all Fairfax County high schools.


  1. Hard to follow this without links to the underlying data. Mostly sounds as if, because these schools have higher percentages of under-achieving white students than other county schools, the performance of their low-income students doesn't look as bad by comparison. That's damning them with very faint praise indeed.

    1. Gary Petrazzuolo7/27/12, 3:41 PM

      Anon, you comment suggests the comparison here is between the white and LIM students at FCHS,that because white students are underachieving the performance of LIM students looks better. But that's not the comparison being made, which is between whites students at FCHS and their peers at other county schools and the performance of FCHS LIM students and their peers at other county schools. Both comparisons are independent of each other. Your point about needing underlying data is well taken. We will put a link to that data on the UPROAR website when the webmaster returns from a trip. In the meantime, if you want the data sooner, reply with an email address and I will send the report to you.

  2. Uh - can you say hatchet job? How about a little balance here. Rather than post a rant, interview folks from both sides of the issue and post their comments giving each equal print.

  3. Lynn Petrazzuolo, FCHS PTSA Co-President7/29/12, 8:34 AM

    It is posted as an opinion piece and was created precisely because none of the media or other groups who have published their endorsement of FLA have bothered to talk to anyone who opposes the FLA proposal to get the complete picture. We are just trying to get our "equal print."

  4. I think I speak for quite a few readers when I say I had no idea of what FLA even was, so some explanation of the issue and outlining the positions would have made making your point more effective - but let both sides state a position and let readers decide.

  5. Scroll further back in the blog, there have been at least 2 articles that have been posted since June 2 regarding the proposed FLA. Several articles in the Washington Post, also.

  6. This isn't about enrollment/renovation of Falls Church High for UPROAR anymore? Now UPROAR is about supporting existing LIM programs because they're performing better than other counties? Maybe I missed some meetings, but I've only heard UPROAR oppose FLA because of the renovation issue (except the one opposition comment I heard about getting buses to Centreville). These new items seem conjured to oppose FLA for opposition's sake.

    Why the issue switch UPROAR people?

    1. I'm not seeing an issue switch. I see a group that is advocating for several issues relating to FCPS and Falls Church High School. The charter school and the renovation are two separate issues.

  7. There is no issue switch. UPROAR has always been about two separate issues: the FLA eviscerating Falls Church High School; and the very poor physical plant at FCHS, non ADA compliant in some areas. The two issues are related in some ways, since taking 300 students out of an already underenrolled school won't do anything to hasten renovations, but the problems with the bulding and furnishings have been going on for a long time.

  8. Private sector (charter schools) always challenges the public sector to be more efficient. Yay competetion! Boo big government and the failed public school system!