The proposed Fairfax Leadership Academy moved one step closer to becoming Northern Virginia’s first charter school Thursday when it won unanimous endorsement from the Virginia Board of Education.
Now the proposal will be considered by the Fairfax School Board, which under state law has ultimate authority to approve or deny charter applications.
The 7th-12th-grade school, developed and led by a group of Fairfax teachers, is designed to serve as a year-round college-prep academy for students who are at risk of dropping out or not continuing education after high school. It aims to open in fall 2013 and to eventually enroll 450 students.
“The passion of the group putting this together and their strong commitment to transforming student lives is really compelling and is the kind of charter school application we’d like to see throughout the state,” said board member Rob Krupicka.
As currently proposed, the academy would occupy what is now Graham Road Elementary School, whose students are moving to a new building next year.
That plan has created vigorous opposition to the charter school from parents at nearby Falls Church High School. They fear that the new school would siphon off students and delay needed renovations at Falls Church, which — unlike many Fairfax schools — is underenrolled.
Those community-level concerns fall outside the state’s purview and need to be addressed by the local School Board as it weighs whether to approve the charter application, several state board members said.
“There’s a reason that local governing bodies have the ultimate decision — they have to wrestle with those issues,” said Krupicka, who is also a member of Alexandria’s City Council.
Eric Welch, a J.E.B. Stuart High School teacher who heads the group proposing the charter school, said he wants to address the Falls Church community’s concerns and is exploring alternate locations, such as the county-owned Willston Multicultural Center in Seven Corners
But that building would need a ground-up renovation, which would take several years. Another option — operating the charter as a school-within-a-school at an existing Fairfax high school — would also require years of construction.
Graham Road, meanwhile, remains the best option for opening as planned in 2013, Welch said.
Fairfax School Board Member Sandy Evans (Mason), who represents the Falls Church area, said that in addition to location, one critical issue is defining the charter school’s student population.
By law, charters must be open to the public, and there is concern among some Falls Church parents that the Fairfax Leadership Academy would draw the best of the county’s at-risk students — kids who perhaps come from low-income families, or are recent immigrants, but are already achieving in traditional public schools.
Charter school proponents, meanwhile, say their aim is to market the school to the most difficult students — the ones who are slipping through the cracks and need more and different kinds of support to succeed.
“That’s really the key question — can they show us how they would really find those students and encourage them to apply?” Evans said. “That’s the question I’ll be pursuing.”
Welch said he hopes that the Fairfax School Board will make its decision by September.