Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews
Columnist

Jay Mathews: Let Fairfax teachers be creative

Gary Petrazzuolo is a Northern Virginia biochemist who understands complicated statistics. His youngest daughter attends Falls Church High School in Fairfax County. He is angry that resources for that school might be drained away by a proposed public charter school to be called the Fairfax Leadership Academy.

And so he sends me detailed critiques of the charter plans.

Jay Mathews

writes a weekly column about education and the Class Struggle blog.

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Petrazzuolo is unhappy with a piece in The Washington Post in which former Fairfax School Board member Kris Amundson said many low-income minorities in that area are not performing well. Petrazzuolo asks why Amundson cited third-grade test results, because the new charter is for only seventh- through 12th-graders. He discovered that existing schools in the area were doing relatively well raising achievement for minority children. It is white children who need help, according to his data.

Affluent suburbs such as Fairfax don’t like charter schools, which are tax-supported but not bound by district rules and practices. Petrazzuolo, part of a group called United Parents to Renovate Our Academic Resources (UPROAR), says it would be better to spend the money that would go to the new charter on improving existing regular schools.

The School Board is scheduled to vote on the proposal Oct. 25.

Amundson defends the academy, which would be the first charter school in Northern Virginia. She says she used third-grade test data because they are key to overall effectiveness. White children would be welcome at the schools, she says. Anyone can enroll. If there aren’t enough spaces, admission will be by random lottery.

Good school districts such as Fairfax don’t see a need for charters for the same reason I don’t think you need to read any education columnists other than me. Fairfax school leaders and I can be blind to the creative power of competition.

Consider Petrazzuolo’s suggestion that Fairfax “identify and specify system-wide needs and openly solicit charter school proposals to address those needs.” He overlooks the fact that school boards are often clueless about what their schools need. Some of the most successful features of unorthodox schools, such as home visits and firing power for principals, are so alien to mainstream education policy that school boards never list them as “system-wide needs.”

Petrazzuolo says that if a charter doesn’t offer innovative programs, that is one reason not to approve it. The academy plans to have college-level courses and longer school days. Those approaches are not new. “That FLA is not proposing anything ‘that different’ may be the strongest reason for the School Board to disapprove FLA’s application,” Petrazzuolo says.

Successful charters have exposed the weakness of that argument. When the KIPP DC: KEY Academy began in a Southeast Washington church basement in 2001, it offered a standard curriculum of math, science, English and social studies, plus two hours a day of homework and strict discipline, very old school. Before long, despite the lack of innovation, its students were performing far above the level of their neighbors in regular D.C. public schools.

What is the secret for success? The best charters and regular schools are careful about whom they pick to supervise and teach. Most schools say they have the best principals and instructors. They say they give them strong support. The best schools actually do that.

Amundson recommends that we judge charter applicants by the quality of the people in charge. The Fairfax Leadership Academy board includes several current or former Fairfax educators, including Executive Director Eric Welch. I once watched Welch, then a teacher at J.E.B. Stuart High School, give average students the study and time-management skills they needed for college. He plans to use the same program, called AVID, at his new charter school.

Often, the most important and exciting contributions of charter schools are the result of teachers being allowed to be creative in new ways long after the school is approved. What invigorating teaching methods will the academy be able to develop without having to check with headquarters?

If the small charter doesn’t succeed, it is much easier to close than a failing regular school. A school system as successful as Fairfax can afford to see where such a hopeful experiment might lead.

To see previous columns by Mathews,
go to washingtonpost.com/blogs/
class-struggle
.

 
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