A school once intended as the first charter school in Prince William County will open this year as a private institution accepting children from preschool through sixth grade.
Prince William Academy in Lake Ridge, which is undergoing the finishing touches of construction, was envisioned years ago as the charter Prince William Linguistic Academy, providing early instruction in French, Spanish and Arabic as well as core academic subjects.
Samia Harris, already principal and founder of the 150-student private Early Years Academy in Woodbridge, hoped the new charter school would be a place where students who needed to learn English would be taught alongside students who wanted to learn a foreign language.
After two years of negotiations with the Prince William County schools staff and further revisions to the proposal, the School Board turned down the charter school late last year. Board members said that there were too many educational and legal flaws in the plan and that the county had given students enough choices through its specialty programs.
Under Virginia law, school boards have the final say on whether charter schools -- publicly funded but privately run institutions -- can open. Harris's proposal made it further than any other charter school application in Northern Virginia.
Her new private school will house as many as 500 students and charge $6,500 a year in tuition, plus additional costs for before- and after-school care.
"What I hoped for [with a charter school] was to level the playing field," Harris said. "You will have the financially able here, but those who could have benefited and could not afford it are eliminated."
Harris said she's still excited by the new venture. Touring the building last week, she pointed out all the items that were impossible to squeeze into the small campus of the Early Years Academy. The 4,000-square-foot multipurpose room is a particular point of pride in the $3.5 million facility. When it is complete, it will have a rock-climbing wall, a recessed projection screen and advanced sound system for assemblies.
When Prince William Academy opens, the 19-year-old Early Years Academy will stop at third grade, instead of sixth grade as it does now. Parents of younger children can choose either school.
Harris said she doesn't know how many students have signed up yet for the new school. "I'm just concentrating on getting it open," she said.
The new school has attracted parents who were already familiar with her other school, as well as those looking for something new.
Virginia Mihalek of Lake Ridge learned about the school through an advertisement. She said she thought her son, who just finished second grade at Antietam Elementary, a public school, wasn't challenged enough. Joshua, 8, was tested at Prince William Academy and will start fourth grade there.
"I really think it's worth the money, because he's just bored," Mihalek said. "It's a risk, moving him from his friends, but I'm confident he'll like it."
Lori Furr of Nokesville has been an Early Years Academy parent for 11 years, starting with an older child who is now in high school. Her son Anthony, 9, will start fifth grade at Prince William Academy in the fall.
"Anthony's very excited," said Furr, who was also drawn to the school by the curriculum and the opportunities for advancement. "It's certainly going to be an experience."