An article in Sunday's Metro section incorrectly said Fairfax's Groveton Elementary School is in the Mount Vernon magisterial district. The school is in the Lee district. (Published 11/02/1999)

Groveton Elementary School didn't fare too well when the results from last spring's Virginia Standards of Learning tests were announced. Its students met state benchmarks on only one out of eight exams.

That didn't come as a shock to teachers and parents at the Fairfax County school. More than half of Groveton's students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and low-income students are more likely to struggle academically. The school is in the Mount Vernon area, home to more than a third of the Fairfax residents living below the federal poverty line.

The two candidates vying to represent Mount Vernon on the Fairfax School Board, Sharon Baroncelli and Isis Castro, agree that the area's No. 1 problem is low student achievement. But they disagree sharply on how to solve the problem, in a split that illustrates the deep philosophical differences between Fairfax Republicans and Democrats as they fight for control of the School Board.

Although Virginia school board elections are nonpartisan--no party affiliation appears on the ballot--both political parties have endorsed candidates in Tuesday's Fairfax board election, as they did four years ago. Democrats have an 8 to 4 majority on the current board.

Baroncelli, who is backed by the GOP, says Mount Vernon students need a more traditional curriculum, with more math drills and phonics-based reading lessons.

"Yes, we have large numbers of poor immigrant children and high mobility, but those parents should be angry that our situation is being blamed on them," said Baroncelli, who is executive director of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce and a former PTA president. "All children can learn if we meet their needs with a strong curriculum focused on the basics.

Castro, running with Democratic endorsement, says there's nothing wrong with the county's curriculum. What Mount Vernon schools need is more money, she says, so they can reduce class size and improve teacher training.

"We need to make sure teachers and principals are given the resources and flexibility to use the approach that best fits their schools' needs," said Castro, who quit her job as a Spanish teacher at Fairfax's Whitman Middle School so she could run.

Similar debates between Republican- and Democratic-backed candidates have occurred in many of the county's other School Board races. But the Mount Vernon contest may be the truest test of which philosophy has more appeal to voters because it is the only race in which neither candidate has the advantage of incumbency.

Baroncelli's and Castro's arguments have resonated with Mount Vernon parents. Several agree with Baroncelli that many administrators continue to discourage teachers from using phonics in the classroom. But there is also a widespread view among parents that their schools need more financial resources.

Fairfax already provides smaller classes at schools with high numbers of poor and immigrant children, including many Mount Vernon schools. But many parents say more help is needed.

"Historically, Fairfax County has distributed everything equally because we were a fairly homogeneous county," said Connie Lorentzen, the mother of two children who graduated from Mount Vernon High School and a third who is a junior there. "Well, we aren't homogeneous anymore, so that formula won't work anymore."

Lorentzen declined to say which candidate she is supporting in the School Board race.

Mount Vernon's school buildings are relatively old, in contrast to the brand-new schools in fast-growing western Fairfax, which contributes to the parents' perception that Mount Vernon is being shortchanged.

Susan Weigert, who has three children in Mount Vernon schools, remembers the time her daughter was selected for a state science competition and Weigert had to buy science equipment because the school couldn't afford to purchase it. She is supporting Castro.

Eight of Mount Vernon's 13 elementary schools are "Project Excel" schools. They are getting full-day kindergarten and an extra two hours of instruction per week as of this fall, but they face the possibility of their staffs being replaced if they do not show improvement in three years. Castro and Baroncelli support Project Excel, and Castro thinks it should be expanded to all Mount Vernon elementary schools.

If the reputation of Mount Vernon schools does not improve, residents will continue to leave for more affluent areas of the county, Lorentzen says. "We need to raise our level of academic achievement so we can help stabilize these communities," she said.