Clifton Elementary closing, Fairfax parents organize bid for new charter school

( Dayna Smith / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Sonia Cromp, left, and Jenny Della Santina have played in Clifton Elementary School’s orchestra. Fairfax County officials are closing the school because of enrollment and renovation concerns.

With the clock ticking down to the last last day of school at Clifton Elementary on Tuesday, a group of community leaders is drawing up plans for what would be Fairfax County’s first charter school.

Now that the Virginia Supreme Court has upheld the county School Board’s decision to close Clifton’s only elementary school, the prospect of a charter school may be the best hope of keeping a school in the rural community in southwestern Fairfax.

But to have any chance of opening by the 2012-13 academic year, charter school supporters — including state Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax) — say the application should be submitted to the Virginia Board of Education by June 30. Even then, approval is hardly assured.

If the Clifton group goes forward, its application would be the first submitted from Fairfax since Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and the Virginia General Assembly modified the approval process last year to promote the creation of new charter schools.

In the Washington region, charter schools have established a considerable presence in the District but have not been a significant factor in the suburbs. In the District, 52 charter schools serve about 28,000 students. But in high-performing suburban districts, such as Fairfax and Montgomery County, there are no charter schools. Earlier this year, Montgomery’s Board of Education rejected two charter school applications. In November 2003, Fairfax’s School Board rejected a proposal for a charter school for autistic children, although it incorporated many elements of the idea into the public school system.

The proposed charter school in Clifton, to be named after Virginia-born explorers Merriweather Lewis and William Clark, would be the only elementary school in the county to offer an International Baccalaureate program. The Lewis & Clark School’s board members, including Clifton’s mayor and vice mayor, envision a school with an emphasis on the study of Chinese culture and language, as well as technology, and with more than 400 openings for children from across the county.

But the charter school’s backers also know that their concept faces obstacles, not least the district’s long-standing coolness toward charter schools and the open wounds from the year-long battle over closing Clifton Elementary.

“What we’re trying to show is this is a potential strength for everybody,” said Dwayne Nitz, Clifton’s vice mayor and president of the proposed school’s board.

The School Board voted July 8 to close Clifton Elementary, citing projected enrollment declines and the high per-pupil cost of renovations. An uproar ensued, with hundreds of residents saying that the school was critical to its sense of community.

A lawsuit filed Aug. 6 by Elsa Armendaris and other parents accused the School Board of acting capriciously and arbitrarily. But in December, Fairfax County Circuit Court Chief Judge Dennis J. Smith upheld the board’s decision, and this month the Virginia Supreme Court declined the parents’ appeal.

“I think there are some who do have hope, but the majority of people realize it’s over,” said Patti Hopkins, president of the Clifton PTA. On Friday night, hundreds of people gathered at the school to celebrate its accomplishments and mourn its loss.

But some are optimistic that another lawsuit, which is pending, could force the school board to reconsider. The lawsuit, filed Feb. 17 in Fairfax County Circuit Court by Jill D. Hill, accuses the School Board of violating open-meetings and freedom of information laws while deciding Clifton’s fate.

“What we’re hoping for in the [Freedom of Information Act] suit is that the judge will find they held an improper meeting and we can do it again,” said Tom Peterson, a former mayor.

But others are looking to the future, including this year’s elections. One parent, Elizabeth L. Schultz, has channeled her anger over the School Board’s decision into a political campaign to join the board. Others say there is heightened interest in this year’s School Board election because of Clifton’s closing and other controversies, including the district’s zero-tolerance disciplinary policy.

But most of the energy appears focused on establishing a charter school on the small hilltop where a town school has stood since 1912.

The Virginia General Assembly enacted its charter school law in 1998, but only four such schools now operate in the state.

The schools use public funds but operate more independently than conventional public schools. Supporters say they invite innovation; detractors say they divert scarce public funds and create two-tiered educational systems, often at the expense of children who remain in traditional public schools.

Although McDonnell has made charter schools a priority, only one application has been received by the state Board of Education since he signed the law to encourage their creation. That application has come from a group in Petersburg, said Charles B. Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.

Like any public school, the Lewis & Clark School would not charge tuition, board member Charlie Rau said. The student body would be selected by a lottery, with certain proportions of seats set aside for students from Clifton, from the southwestern part of the county, including a numerical preference for low-income students, and at-large students.

Rau said the charter school could save the county money by providing additional capacity at a reduced cost, because its board would take responsibility for the building and the land, including an estimated $11 million in needed renovations. Backers think they can find that money through many of the educational nonprofit groups and foundations.

“We feel our school has a very sound financial plan,” Nitz said. “For innovative educational programs, there is money out there.”

 
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