Accountability and higher student achievement will be the focus when an estimated 156,000 Fairfax County students return to classes Tuesday.

"Accountability is going to be a major theme this year," Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech said. "In a comprehensive model, at all levels of the system, people will be held accountable for their achievement."

By mid-fall, each county school will have a set of academic goals that it will be expected to meet. Details of the plan are still being finalized and are expected to be presented to a special task force for review later this month.

In another initiative, the centerpiece of Domenech's plan to boost achievement, 20 elementary schools will receive extra resources to help students succeed. The 20 targeted schools have large numbers of children who, for a variety of reasons, are at risk for failure.

These Project Excel schools have eliminated the long-standing practice of releasing elementary students early on Monday, in order to give students more time in class. The district has allocated about $8 million in extra funding for the schools, which serve about 12,000 of the district's neediest students.

The schools will be required to use one of several new curriculum models, all of which have been shown to increase student achievement, and all 20 schools will offer full-day kindergarten.

While the district has, for many years, provided extra resources to schools with large numbers of poor and otherwise at-risk students, Project Excel differs in that it will hold schools accountable. In exchange for the extra resources, Project Excel schools will have three years to meet individual school goals for improving their academic performance--as measured by the state Standards of Learning exams and the Stanford 9 tests.

A special task force has been appointed to determine possible rewards and sanctions for the schools based on performance. Domenech has proposed, for example, that schools that meet their goals receive financial rewards equal to 2 percent of the total salaries of their school staffs. Those that fail could face having their staffs replaced.

The Project Excel schools are Annandale Terrace, Bucknell, Cameron, Dogwood, Fort Belvoir, Glen Forest, Graham Road, Groveton, Halley, Hollin Meadows, Hutchinson, Hybla Valley, London Towne, Mount Eagle, Mount Vernon Woods, Pine Spring, Riverside, Westlawn, Woodlawn and Woodley Hills elementary schools.

Throughout the system, schools will expand the use of technology to provide more individualized instruction; students in the early grades will spend more time in class; and there will be a renewed focus on basic skills such as reading.

Students in every elementary class, for example, will have a mandated 90 minutes of uninterrupted time each day for reading and writing. All the county's first-graders will participate in a special computer-based phonics reading program.

Secondary students will have access to more challenging course work with the expansion of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. Fairfax also will be one of two school divisions in the country testing a new AP diploma.

And teachers will get more training to help them better assist students in improving their achievement and passing the state Standards of Learning exams, Domenech said. The expanded teacher training is especially critical in light of the record number of new teachers that have been hired for this year--1,300.

"We're having probably the most ambitious and comprehensive staff development program ever," Domenech said.

The district also will start a project aimed at strengthening the bond between home and school by fostering better communication with parents. The Bridge Project, developed by a Vanderbilt University professor, uses a voice-messaging system to allow parents and teachers to exchange information.

The program will be piloted in nine schools--Chantilly and Herndon high schools; Franklin and Poe middle schools; and Centre Ridge, Centreville, Fairfax Villa, Lees Corner and Silverbrook elementary schools.

Teachers at the schools will be provided with individual voice mailboxes so that they can leave messages for parents about daily classroom activities, homework assignments, tips for helping children at home, ideas parents can use to reinforce educational goals and general school information about schedules, lunch menus and events. About 1,000 schools nationwide have implemented the program, and researchers report increases in parent-teacher contacts by 500 percent.

This year also will see the expansion of other initiatives aimed at boosting student achievement. Six more schools will be added to the district's Success by Eight program. At Success by Eight schools, students in kindergarten through second grade are organized by skill and ability level rather than by age to better serve student needs, school officials say.

Students are grouped and regrouped throughout the day--and school year--depending on the subject and their skill level. The program's goal is to ensure all children are on grade level for basic skills by the time they enter third grade.

Clearview, Parklawn, Belvedere, West Springfield, Kings Park and Timber Lane elementary schools join the program this year. Hunters Woods, Lemon Road, Mantua, Terra Centre, Waynewood and Westbriar adopted the program last year.

Success by Eight schools also offer full-day kindergarten and with this year's expansion and the Project Excel schools, 32 county elementary schools will now offer full-day kindergarten programs.

A new elementary school is opening next week. Bull Run Elementary in Centreville has a capacity of 950 students and is expected to open with about 800. The school will offer a gifted and talented center serving third- through sixth-graders and a special program for children with autism.

Fairfax residents also could see a change in leadership for the school system this November as the county's first elected School Board faces reelection. In addition, voters will be asked to approve a $297.2 million bond referendum to pay for construction projects to ease crowding and renovate aging school facilities.

If approved by voters, money in the bond package would allow the acceleration of several projects aimed at easing growing pains in the district by adding the equivalent of about 5,500 classrooms.

The plan includes money for two elementary schools, one in Herndon and one in Centreville; funding for a middle school in the southwestern part of the county; and money to begin planning for a secondary school in the southern part of the county. Funding for additions to Bren Mar Park and Kent Gardens elementary schools and Twain Middle School also is included.

The money also would pay for renovations to more than two dozen schools.