More than 100 parents, teachers and activists turned out Tuesday night for an informational meeting about the Fairfax Leadership Academy, which would be the first charter school in Northern Virginia if it’s approved by the county school board in October.
The gathering, held at Fairfax County Public Schools’ Gatehouse office building, was meant to introduce the community to the proposed 7th-12th grade school. And certainly some parents were there to learn about the idea. But the meeting also became something of a protest venue for parents from Falls Church High School, who have argued that the Fairfax Leadership Academy will drain students and resources from Falls Church, delaying a badly needed renovation.
Some parents wore green and gold Falls Church T-shirts to the meeting; others planted yard signs outside Gatehouse proclaiming support for Falls Church. “Go Jaguars!” the signs read.
“We’re not trying to stand in the way,” said Falls Church parent James Stocking after the meeting. “We’re just trying to do the right thing for our community.”
Backlash from Falls Church will be one of the key issues that the school board must address as it considers whether the charter school should go forward.
But equally pressing is the persistent achievement gap that divides affluent, white and Asian students from their poor, black and Latino peers. Proponents of the Fairfax Leadership Academy say that the charter school model, which allows for more flexibility and experimentation than a traditional public school, will give the county a new way to attack that stubborn gap.
“It’s important we look at the greater good for the community,” said parent Suzie Phipps, whose children attend Bailey’s Elementary, a diverse school that draws from some of Fairfax’s poorest neighborhoods. When the Fairfax Leadership Academy presented its idea at Bailey’s earlier this year, Phipps said, one parent stood up and thanked God for the possibility of an alternative that might work for his child.
The Fairfax Leadership Academy is headed up by Eric Welch, a J.E.B. Stuart High teacher. He was accompanied Tuesday night by two of the school’s board members — Catherine Buffaloe, a special education teacher at Hayfield Secondary, and Anthony Terrell, an assistant principal at Fairfax High.
Together they outlined their plans, taking pains to emphasize that the FLA would be a public school run by educators who have a long history in the Fairfax system.
“These are FCPS people,” Welch said, speaking of his board. “Our commitment to FCPS is as strong as we can get. We’re not an outside group that’s like a company trying to come in.”
Welch said the idea for a charter grew out of teachers’ desire to reach kids who were falling through the cracks, including poor children and immigrants learning English as a second language. The charter school would prepare those students for college through longer school days (eight hours instead of 6.5) and a longer school year (206 days instead of 183), as well as dual-enrollment courses, which would allow high school kids to begin earning no-cost credits at Northern Virginia Community College.
The school would enroll about 450 students, making it far smaller than the county’s other 7th-12th grade secondary schools. Lake Braddock and Robinson, for example, each serve more than 3,500 kids. The smaller size and extended time in school would allow for different kinds of educational experiences, Welch said, such as service learning and career exploration — i.e. partnering with local businesses to introduce kids to how academics can be applied in the working world.
Ideally, innovations that are successful at the charter school can be introduced into other public schools in Fairfax, Welch said.
Under Virginia law, FCPS would be required to give the charter school the same average per-pupil funding as any other school in the system. But a charter school has more freedom to seek outside funds than a traditional school, and Welch said he and his team are hoping to win a $600,000 federal charter-school start-up grant. They also plan to raise at least $250,000 from businesses and foundations.
The local business community, Welch said, is “itching to do more for schools.”
The charter school would be required to open its doors to any and all comers, with a lottery if the number of interested students exceeds available space. That’s led to some concern, particularly from Falls Church, that the school will end up attracting students who are already excelling instead of its target population of the hardest-to-reach kids.
Terrell said the school hopes to create the right pool of students through targeted marketing to neighborhoods where students are struggling. “This is something that we believe deeply in and what we say is what we mean,” he said. “The Fairfax Leadership Academy is for the most needy students, the students placed most at risk in our community.”
The school has drawn support from several local politicians, including state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), who serves as the charter school’s lawyer; Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax) who serves on the school’s board. Both were at Tuesday’s meeting, along with school board members Patty Reed (Providence), Sandy Evans (Mason) and Ted Velkoff (At Large).
Audience members were invited to submit questions on notecards, and Barbara Hunter — assistant superintendent for communications — chose which to ask publicly. (The rest, she said, will be answered in an online FAQ.)
The format meant that the tension between Falls Church parents and charter school supporters was kept largely under wraps. But near the end of the session, there was an eruption of emotion over a question about the impact of the Fairfax Leadership Academy on Falls Church.
The proposed location for the academy is what is now Graham Road Elementary, about a mile from Falls Church High. Falls Church is already under-enrolled, and parents are worried that a nearby charter will draw even more students away. Lower enrollment could push off renovation of the 1960s-era high school, whose facilities are crumbling and unsightly.
“That’s not why we created the school, to funnel kids from Falls Church High School. We fully support Falls Church High school being renovated,” Welch said. He asked parents not to “stand in the way of this, because what we’re trying to do is provide resources for kids that can hopefully be a model for your kids.”
Someone in the audience began clapping in support, triggering a retort from a Falls Church parent: “We’re doing really well!”
Someone else called out that Falls Church had already been pushed down the renovation priority list three times. “If we wait much longer, the school’s not going to be standing!”
Welch was also asked to address how the charter school would ensure diversity, if it is targeting a certain group of students.
“There is a fear, and I see that fear — if you do a charter school you’re going to segregate schools,” Welch said. “Let’s be frank: Fairfax County is segregated. There are neighborhoods that are segregated, there are schools that are segregated. It’s by real estate, it’s by the way our schools are set up… nationally, we know that. What we’re trying to do here is provide an option to students and to families who are not thriving in the conventional school, to say maybe this model will suit you better.”
The meeting ended shortly thereafter.
The charter school has already won endorsement from the state board of education. This summer, its application will be reviewed by a committee staffed by Fairfax school system employees.
“Our job is to be neutral and review the application in a fair and unbiased manner,” said Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko.
The committee will make a recommendation to the county school board by September 20. Then that board, which has ultimate authority over the charter school’s establishment, will hold a public hearing before taking a final vote on October 25.