Fairfax school officials decide against endorsing proposed charter school

September 14, 2012

Fairfax County school officials have decided against endorsing a proposal for creating Northern Virginia’s first public charter school, handing at least a temporary setback to the organizers of the Fairfax Leadership Academy for at-risk youth.

Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko said Friday that officials would inform the Fairfax County School Board next week that they could not recommend the school’s application until a number of conditions related to funding have been met.

The School Board is authorized by Virginia law to create charter schools and could approve the school’s application, with or without the school district’s recommendation.

Moniuszko said school officials think the proposed charter lacks sufficient funding to hire a full staff, purchase enough textbooks and pay for significant upgrades to its proposed site in Falls Church.

“They’re not ready,” Moniuszko said. “There are some things they are going to have to do to get approved.”

The Fairfax Leadership Academy’s lead organizer is J.E.B. Stuart High School teacher Eric Welch , who met with Moniuszko on Friday to review the charter school’s application. Welch said afterward that he felt encouraged.

“This is the first time they are doing this in Fairfax County, so I knew this was going to take some time,” Welch said. “It’s progress. We’re closer to knowing more about what the school district specifically is asking us to do to get to a point where we would be able to get their approval.”

Although the Virginia Board of Education gave its support for the charter school in the spring, the county School Board will decide its fate next month.

Unlike other public schools in the county, the Fairfax Leadership Academy would prepare at-risk students for a college education through a longer school day (eight hours instead of 61 / 2) and an extended school year (206 days instead of 183).

The school plans to enroll about 450 students in seventh through 12th grades and would largely cater to children from low-income and immigrant families. Welch said the academy’s goal is to help students who may have struggled at other schools and to give those children a better future.

Because of its small size, the school would offer special programs for students. Teachers would help students engage with local businesses to learn about possible careers. The school also intends to offer dual-enrollment classes through Northern Virginia Community College so students could earn college credits.

The charter school has received bipartisan support at the state and local levels. Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax) is on the academy’s board of directors. Del. Barbara J. Comstock (R-Fairfax) has also offered her endorsement, and Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) is serving as the school’s counsel.

Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, has also endorsed the proposed school.

Moniuszko said the charter school’s proposal was filled with “laudable goals and good ideas.” He said the county’s charter school review committee approached the application with “an open mind and no predetermined conclusions.”

“We are not opposed to charter schools,” the deputy superintendent said.

But during the course of the review, the committee raised concerns about the school’s finances, Moniuszko said. As a public charter school, the Fairfax Leadership Academy would be eligible to receive the same amount of per-pupil funding as other county schools.

In addition, the school would be able to apply for a $600,000 federal charter school grant to help cover start-up costs. The school also intends to raise money from Washington area corporations and private donors.

But Moniuszko said the school had not yet provided the county with written commitments from the U.S. Education Department or local businesses about lending financial support.

The charter school is slated to take over the former site of Graham Road Elementary School, which recently moved to a new location. The building requires renovations, Moniuszko said. Also, the charter school administration would have to purchase new desks and other furniture for the students.

To survive, Moniuszko said, the charter school would have to “do a combination of cutting back on services that are available to students at other schools around the county and find a way to get extra money.”

Charter schools have flourished in other parts of the Washington region. There are 52 charter schools in Maryland, and the District has 57 charter schools spread across more than 100 campuses.

The Fairfax Leadership Academy would be Virginia’s fifth public charter school and the first to open north of Charlottesville. This summer, the state Board of Education approved the application for a math- and technology-intensive charter school in Loudoun County. The Loudoun Math and IT Academy, scheduled to open in 2013, would follow the success of a similar school in Anne Arundel County, which boasts some of Maryland’s best test scores.

The Fairfax Leadership Academy has a number of detractors, including a parent group called UPROAR, United Parents to Restore Our Academic Resource. UPROAR has vociferously opposed the charter application, arguing that the Fairfax Leadership Academy could possibly drain resources from other schools in the area.

Fairfax school officials will give organizers of the Fairfax Leadership Academy until Dec. 1 to address a list of conditions necessary to receive their endorsement.

In the meantime, the School Board will hear the school district’s recommendations at a meeting Sept. 20 and discuss the application in a work session Oct. 15. By law, the board can approve the project without the school district’s consent. The board is scheduled to vote Oct. 25 on the school’s future.

“It’s up to them,” Welch said.

Emma Brown contributed to this report.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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