WHEN APPLICATIONS for charter schools come up for review, the worry generally is whether the founders of the proposed school have prepared a sound educational philosophy and practices. So it’s a little odd, perhaps even perverse, that Fairfax County’s debate over what would be its first charter school is focused on whether the institution would be too successful. Such wrong-headed thinking overlooks student needs and stands at odds to a school system that sees itself as the cutting edge for education strategies.
Eric Welch, a teacher at Fairfax’s J.E.B. Stuart High School, is spearheading the effort to establish the Fairfax Leadership Academy, a seventh-through 12th-grade school aimed at high-risk, low-income students. Borrowing ideas that have proven effective in boosting student achievement, organizers have proposed a full-year school calendar, extended-day schedules, intensive college preparation and small learning communities, with just 75 students in each grade.
“All great ideas,” one school official told us. But opponents worry that the school would be so attractive that it would draw students and other resources from nearby Falls Church High School. Falls Church has issues that have caused it to be under-enrolled, but closing off viable, exciting education options — particularly for students who need them most — is no way to address the school’s problems.
“I am a teacher, not a charter-school person,” Mr. Welch told us, relating how he came to the realization that the achievement gap that separates the county’s white and minority students would persist without new solutions. He sees the academy, which would have the flexibility to pilot ideas, as a pioneer for the school system in providing new strategies and resources to address that gap.
So impressed was the Virginia Board of Education with the school’s application that it gave its unanimous approval in April. But state law gives ultimate authority over charter start-ups to local school boards, which — judging by the dearth of charters in Virginia — wrongly see the competition from public charters as a threat. If the Leadership Academy offers a useful new option, Fairfax school officials should embrace it — and if Falls Church needs help, they should address that issue, too.
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