The Prince William County School Board ended a busy year in June, enacting changes that will affect everyone from kindergarten children just starting classes to students nearing the end of their time in public school.
Elementary school students will no longer go home early on Thursdays and will take part in a block scheduling program designed to give each child a standard amount of instructional time in reading, math, social studies and science. Half of the county's poorest kindergarten students will attend class all day, a change that school officials hope will eventually lead to all-day kindergarten throughout the county.
Older students who are having trouble in school may be diverted into a program run by the new Office for Student Management and Alternative Programs (OSMAP), which is intended to provide an option for students short of expulsion or long-term suspension.
And the county again is opening a number of new schools in the fall to deal with population growth.
"This has been an incredible year," said board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large).
Elementary school students will be affected by many of the changes. Their school day will now be divided into eight 45-minute blocks, with younger students spending most of those blocks studying language arts. Older students will have more time dedicated to science and social studies. At least one block a day will be devoted to programs such as art, music or physical education; classroom teachers will use this block as planning time. The elementary school day will also be a half-hour longer.
"It really is a big step forward in terms of instructional time," said School Board member Grant Lattin (Occoquan). Other counties were providing more time in class than Prince William, "but we were expecting our kids to accomplish as much."
The all-day kindergarten program, which would affect more than 700 students at the county's 18 Title I schools, received funding when the state gave more money to the schools than the county originally planned.
Title I schools are given more federal money because they have a large population of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Several schools were already trying extended-day programs on their own, and "the results they got were just amazing," said board member Julie C. Lucas (Neabsco). Her district has six Title I schools.
"Too many students start off without all the tools they need to be really successful," she said. The longer day should give those students a boost, she said.
The OSMAP program, another major change, is intended to slow down the flow of students headed for expulsion. There will be space for 360 high school students at a night program at Forest Park High School and an all-day program at an office complex near Stonewall Jackson High School. An additional 120 middle school students will be housed at New Dominion School.
"I dreaded every time we had to expel a student," said board member Betty D. Covington (Dumfries), a former elementary school principal. "Our purpose is to educate every child."
No transportation will be provided for the high school program, although the school system intends for students to take advantage of the county public transportation system, OmniLink.
Other changes will be more visible, namely the opening of three elementary schools and two high schools.
"When I moved to this county 11 years ago, the idea of any schools north of I-66 was kind of strange," said board member Don Richardson (Gainesville). Now Battlefield High School will be there, opening along with Freedom High School, which is not far from the Northern Virginia Community College campus in Woodbridge.
In addition, the county is opening a second "traditional" school modeled after the successful Pennington School in Manassas. Porter School, not far from Rippon Lodge, held a lottery because so many people wanted to enroll. Williams Elementary, not far from Potomac High School, and Ellis Elementary, next to Stonewall Jackson High School, are also opening in the fall.
Even with an active year behind them, board members and Superintendent Edward L. Kelly say they have several issues to tackle in the fall. Kelly said he would like the county to reexamine its physical education program. "Too many kids are out of shape," he said.
Board member Denita S. Ramirez (Woodbridge) said she wants the junior-year research paper required of all students to be eliminated as a graduation prerequisite. Board members have promised to take up the issue in the fall, "which leaves me with hope," she said.
Starting and ending times for schools are also a major topic. Six schools this year are ending at 4 p.m., and parents say that with long bus rides their children might not make it home until 5 p.m. or later. "We still have a lot of challenges in front of us," Richardson said. "How are we going to deal with the fact that it's a monumental task to transport 70 percent of our students?"
Beauchamp is waiting for the Standards of Learning test results to come in this summer. The tests are administered by the state, and schools must have a 70 percent pass rate to remain accredited. She said schools have worked hard this year to improve scores. "Even if they don't make it all the way to accredited, they're going to make so much progress," she said.