Correction to This Article
This article about the debate over the future of the Fairfax County public schools' Project Excel, a program for economically disadvantaged students, incorrectly referred to Virginia Standards of Learning, or SOL, exams as mandated by the county. The standards are mandated by the state. The article also said that Project Excel has phased out full-day kindergarten. It should have added that the county still offers full-day kindergarten outside the program.
Fairfax officials spar over program for poor students

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; B06

Officials in Fairfax County sparred Tuesday over the funding provided to programs for the area's neediest schoolchildren, with Board of Supervisors members accusing public school officials of not considering the impact program changes would have on the students.

At issue is an $8 million program that extended the Monday school day by two hours at about 20 elementary schools in Fairfax's worst-off neighborhoods. Project Excel, started in 1998 to boost standardized test scores at economically disadvantaged schools, has been credited in part with turning around several fledgling schools. It required participating schools to show improvements in test scores within three years or face having their staffs replaced.

As part of Excel, low-performing schools offered full-day kindergarten and a limit of 15 students per class, which required more teachers. The program won admirers but many of its key components, including full-day kindergarten, have been phased out over the past decade, said deputy schools superintendent Richard Moniuszko.

The implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, boundary and demographic changes, as well as the construction of several schools has made much of the program obsolete, school officials say. In Excel's place, Fairfax schools have started a pilot initiative targeting 30 low-performing elementary and middle schools, focusing more on achievement gaps on county-mandated Standards of Learning, or SOL, tests and less on school socioeconomic and racial demographics.

"If we're serious about closing the gaps, we need to look at all schools. And part of it is not just adding teachers. It's about getting them resources and coordination that these schools simply didn't get 10 years ago," said School Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill), who attended a meeting of county and school officials in Falls Church Tuesday.

Twenty top-priority schools have been selected for leadership training by staffers at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business and Curry School of Education.

But some supervisors and Fairfax School Board members are concerned that a handful of schools that had improved enough to get off the priority need list could falter if they don't receive continued attention. About five schools that were covered under Excel will not receive additional needs-based resources under the pilot program.

"How are we going to know that somewhere along the line, when there is trouble, there's going to be some rescue there so that our students will succeed? Some of us became attached to the fact that there were successes," said Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill).

County and school officials have been publicly feuding for months, mostly over funding issues. Two Fairfax supervisors -- Hudgins and Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) -- threatened to vote down the county's $3.3 billion budget this year because of the money, or lack thereof, for low-income school programs. About half of the county's budget is allocated to the 170,000-student school system.

School officials note that the achievement gap in reading and math standardized testing scores has lessened in recent years. During the 2006-07 school year, about 68 percent of students at economically disadvantaged schools passed the annual SOL tests. During 2008-09, about 85 percent of students passed, an increase of 17 percent.

The full Fairfax Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on providing $1.3 million for the Excel program at its July 27 meeting.

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