July 13, 2012

Want to know how a school system can kill an innovative program without leaving any fingerprints? All you need to do is watch how Fairfax County Public Schools is handling the charter school application of the Fairfax Leadership Academy.

Teacher Eric Welch is leading an effort to create the county’s first charter school. He and other educators believe that this effort is critical to closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. Their goal is to create a school that will serve high-risk, low-income students — the kids who often fall through the cracks. The school is actually focusing on many of the programs that FCPS used to provide to at-risk populations, such as an extended school day and year, which can be critical for students who need more time to master challenging content. Those programs were among the casualties of recent Fairfax budget cuts.

In April, the Virginia Board of Education gave unanimous support to the group’s charter application. The next step is for Fairfax County’s school board to weigh in.

So the school administration has laid out a timeline that would lead to a board decision in October. A public meeting last month was attended by about 100 people who seemed to be evenly divided between supporters and opponents. (Public meetings are part of Fairfax County’s DNA. We are, after all, the place where 80 parents showed up at a school board meeting to weigh in on a proposed third-grade spelling textbook.)

Now school district staff is preparing its recommendation to the school board. It seems evident that some of the questions it is asking in the guise of gathering information are designed more to throw up roadblocks than to generate a productive give-and-take.

For example, Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko has asked the Fairfax Leadership Academy to submit documentation of commitments for outside funding. The budget is based on $250,000 in corporate and foundation funding and a $200,000 federal grant that is available to charter schools for startup expenses. However, outside funders are unlikely to commit to support of the school without its approval by the school board.

State law permits school boards to approve a charter application “with conditions.” One reasonable compromise would be for the board to approve the application contingent on the organizers raising most or all of the required funding by a date well in advance of the school’s opening.

School staff have also suggested that the academy has not spelled out how it will assess students’ performance. But the school’s application states that every student will be given the Developmental Reading Assessment, the Iowa Achievement Tests and AVID portfolios — in addition to Virginia’s own Standards of Learning assessments.

On top of that, because the school is dealing with students who have not been successful at previous schools, staff members will meet with each family to design an individualized student learning plan for each student. The school’s small size will allow staff members to monitor students on these clearly articulated goals.

Sounds like a pretty thorough assessment plan to me.

School staff have been willing to back off some other questionable aspects of their review plans. Originally, the public meeting was to have included a “poll” of parents. At the end of the meeting, parents were to have been asked, “If the proposed charter school were approved, would you be potentially interested in having your children attend if they were at the appropriate grade level?”

When it was pointed out that the public meeting was unlikely to include a lot of what politicians call “persuadable voters,” and that attendees were pretty likely to have already made up their minds, the polling idea was dropped.

I hope that willingness to compromise can continue. I hope the school board will approach this proposal with a genuinely open mind. There will never be a huge demand for charter schools in Fairfax. But there seems to be a need for the kind of school that the Fairfax Leadership Academy wants to become — a small school that will provide intense instruction to kids who need extra help.

Whether there’s a willingness to approve the charter, however, remains to be seen.

Forgive me if I’m skeptical. I’ve read this book before — and, sadly, I’m afraid I know how it’s likely to end.

The writer, communications director for the think tank Education Sector, was a member of the Fairfax County School Board from 1991 to 2000 and chairman of the board from 1996 to 1998.