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Educators, Advocates Rally Around Proposed Charter School

At public hearing, critics say Fairfax Leadership Academy would take away resources, duplicate services.

In a nearly year-long discussion about a proposed charter school designed to target at-risk students, its advocates and opponents have played a tug-of-war for supporters ahead of a Fairfax County School Board decision on the application.

On Tuesday, it appeared for the moment Fairfax Leadership Academy advocates had the advantage, as most of the nearly 50 people who spoke at a public hearing about the issue — among them, parents,immigrants, former students, business leaders and several teachers — urged the board to vote later this month in favor of the charter school, saying the county had the chance to be a national leader in finding a new way to address its achievement gap.

"As educators, we are always looking for ways to work together to create better public schools. We all want to find solutions to improve education. The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers won't back down to challenges that impact our students," said Steve Greenburg, president of FCFT, whose 4,200-member union formally endorsed the plan last month.

The proposal, created and backed by J.E.B. Stuart High School teacher Eric Welch and fellow FCPS educators, business partners and state lawmakers, would put a charter school for grades seven through 12 in the former Graham Road Elementary School site off Arlington Boulevard.

The goal: to provide extended learning, through both an eight-hour school day and a 206-day school year, a smaller learning environment, wrap-around services to students and families, and individualized and workforce-oriented programs — focused on dual enrollment, mentorship, career exploration and service learning — to the county's most at-risk students; generally, those from low-income and minority families.

If approved, it would open Aug. 12, 2013, with grades 7 and 8, expanding by one grade each year. Creators envision 450 students at full capacity.

But the charter school does have its opponents, including a committee of Fairfax County Public Schools staff who made a recommendation to deny the application Sept. 14 and cited insufficient funding for desks and other materials, renovations and upgrades, staffing, and concerns about certain parts of the curriculum. Staff recommended the application not be approved unless its concerns could be addressed by Dec. 1.    

The board can establish a charter school regardless of the opinion, or whether those needs are addressed. It will hold a work session on the application Oct. 15, and is expected to approve or deny the application at its regular meeting Oct. 25.

FLA submitted a letter and responses in an attempt to address the concerns Sept. 24. 

Earlier this year, the Virginia Board of Education endorsed the application for FLA, which would be the fifth charter school in the state and the first in Northern Virginia. It has already received support from Del. Kaye Kory (D-38th District), state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34th), who is serving as the group's counsel, Del. Barbara J. Comstock (R-34th) and the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

"It's about time for FCPS to take the leadership that it should," said Kory, a former school board member and current state delegate, who also sits on the academy's board of directors.

Minorities and those who use free or reduced meals, speak English as a second language, have disabilities or come from impoverished homes aren't being served the way they could within the system, the school's creators say: Less than half of the students who attend high school in eastern Fairfax County, where low-income and minority populations are rapidly growing, enroll in four-year institutions after high school.

Kory said 69 percent of students considered impoverished finish high school in four years: The academy would be a place where students who have traditionally struggled could better connect with adults and more clearly see a future beyond their present circumstances.

"We fall short when it comes to having flexible models with which to educate our students. Too many of them are falling through the cracks," said Christine Adams, whose fifth-grader at Bailey's Elementary School has more than 200 classmates designated as homeless and another 800 who speak English as a second language, she said.

Of the handful of opponents who spoke at Tuesday's public hearing, a common concern was the school would siphon away resources that could be used for FCPS' other needs. 

Members of the Falls Church High School community, who have lobbied FCPS for a better spot in the schools renovation queue through the advocacy group United Parents for Renovating Our Academic Resources, said they worried the charter school would hurt their ability to get repairs.

Speakers Tuesday also worried it would negatively impact the diverse community the school has built by drawing students away and duplicate programs — namely, AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), part of the system's College Success Program — already serving at-risk students in their current schools.

As of Tuesday night, more than 600 residents had signed the group's online petition against the proposed charter.

Welch, who teaches AVID and social studies, said it was out of his inability to reach all students with AVID that he began to create the idea for the charter school: The program only serves about a hundred kids per school, he said, leaving three or four dozen at each school, each year, who could be benefiting from similar programs, but aren't.

"We don't want to hurt the system, we're trying to bring in new ideas," Welch said.

Opponents also took issue with the school's location at the former Graham Road Elementary School site, which they said school officials evacuated in part because of its poor condition. Resident Vincent Forcier worried an area deemed dangerous by the Virginia Department of Transportation, particularly for pedestrians, would be worsened by the increased traffic and influx of inexperienced teen drivers.

But that concern wasn't enough for some in attendance, including Christian Deschauer, the Vice President of Government Relations at Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, who said the school would help the area's future workforce, which he called the second largest concern in the area behind transportation.

"Please don't let a building or a location stop this idea. If it's the right thing to do, let's find another location. Let's make it happen," he said, telling board members not to hesitate in asking the chamber for help or support.

Welch, who said he recognizes certain logistics need to be worked out, is optimistic.

The turnout, he said, "shows a lot of people who feel our gap is out there and we need to do new things ... it's a resounding message that we really have to think about some other models."

"We have a great school system so we should be able to show the country how we handle [this problem]," he said. "This isn't going to solve it by itself but it shows we're willing to put everything on the table."

This article has been updated to reflect the number of ESOL students at Bailey's Elementary.

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