For the Prince William County School Board, Wednesday night marked the end of 10 months of wrestling with how to offer quality education while handling rapid growth.
It's a short breather before the board resumes the same contest come September.
Major decisions were made even on Wednesday, the last regular board meeting before summer break. With the phaseout of Brentsville District Middle School in fall 2000, the board voted unanimously for most middle-school students in the Nokesville area to attend Marsteller Middle School in Manassas.
With another unanimous vote, the board instituted a required reading list to take affect by fall 2000. The list spells out which books, plays, essays and poems must be taught to students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Member John Harper Jr. (Neabsco) was absent from the meeting.
The twin issues of growth and curriculum were the largest the School Board faced -- to little surprise.
"The big issue is growth, and four years from now the big issue is going to be growth," said member John David Allen Sr. (Coles).
Growth became a little easier to tackle this year as an infusion of state lottery money allowed the School Board to advance the completion date on some projects. For instance, the conversion of Brentsville District Middle/High School to solely a high school will be done a year ahead of schedule, in fall 2002. A new middle school in the Catharpin area of Gainesville also should be open in fall 2002, though the decision not to build a school right away in the fast-growing Brentsville District angered some parents.
The state money meant "you started to be able to do the things you really wanted to do," said member Lyle G. Beefelt (Brentsville). "Before, there just wasn't a possibility of doing a lot of stuff."
Several other construction and renovation projects are slated for completion in fall 2000. The new high school, Forest Park High, will open at that time, along with a middle school now referred to as the "mid-county" school on Hoadly Road. Parkside Elementary/Middle School will be converted into a full middle school, and the replacement elementary school will open. Additions will be made to Mullen, Marshall and Bennett elementary schools.
On the curriculum side, the School Board came out against charter schools in the county, becoming the first school system in Northern Virginia to vote on the proposal and only the second in the state to reject charter schools.
Member Steven Keen (Woodbridge) said he would support charter schools because he thinks they offer parents more choices. But he said Prince William's specialty schools programs, which started moving quickly this year, are also valuable services.
Each high school and middle school, along with several elementary schools, will offer areas of concentration by the time the specialty program is fully in place, in four years. Parents may choose to send their children to Gar-Field Senior High School, for instance, to participate in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program or to Graham Park and Marsteller middle schools for the math and physics programs there.
The School Board also gave unanimous approval to a K-8 school, which was inspired by a visit members made to a Chicago school of educator Marva Collins. Her school is known for getting top achievement from poor, minority students. The program is slated to open in fall 2000 in Pennington Alternative School.
Keen credits Superintendent Edward L. Kelly, who "is the driving force" behind the specialty schools. "This is the conservative's battle cry: more parental choice," Keen said. "This a dream to someone like me."
Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large) sees curriculum issues as driving most of the board decisions of the last year -- from the creation of the required reading list to the implementation of a junior-year research paper required for graduation to a diploma warranty for students who start working after graduation.
The guarantee will allow employers to send Prince William high school graduates back to the school system for additional training. The county is the only Washington-area school system to take that step.
"All those things relate back to the implementation of our curriculum," Beauchamp said. "If that is done properly, a lot of the other things we face, like the Standards of Learning, will be taken care of."
Asked to grade themselves, most School Board members demurred. Beefelt looked ahead to the upcoming elections, when every board member except for Beauchamp and Joan R. Ferlazzo (Dumfries) faces opposition.
"We'll be graded pass/fail in November," he said.