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Parents to Weigh In on Advanced Academic Shifts

Fairfax County Public School community meetings come after school board members, parents say plan seemed a "done deal."

As Fairfax County Public Schools looks to add more Advanced Academic Program Centers and address overcrowding at some that already exist, it is reaching out  to parents and community members impacted by a potential shift — an outreach put in place after parents and some school board members claimed the system was moving forward without a proper engagement process and the  restructuring was a "done deal."

The primary focus of the meetings — scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday in the Kilmer Middle School cafeteria for children in Clusters 1, 2, and 3 (which includes Vienna, Falls Church, Annandale, Herndon and McLean) — is "a readiness check to see if individual schools and their parents are ready for this change for the coming school year, or want to defer the change to the 2014-15 school year," school spokesman John Torre said wrote in an email to Patch.

Students in grades 3 through 8 are placed into Advanced Academic Program (AAP) Centers centers across the county each year through a central screening and selection process. They offer students a full-time "highly challenging instructional program" (Level IV) that focuses on problem solving, decision-making and higher level thinking, as opposed to the part-time advanced services (Level III) each school offers in the four core subject areas.

Some parents say FCPS' willingness to reach out to the community is a shift from messages they have already seen from leaders, which indicated the system would forge ahead with restructuring, moving some AAP students, during the upcoming school year.

Some school board members, including Patty Reed (Providence) and Sandy Evans (Mason), pushed during a Nov. 12 board forum to get the issue on the board's Dec. 10 work session so the community — including board members — could be included in the process.

"There are cost issues, there are significant policy issues — overcrowding problems usually [prompt] a boundary study," Reed said at the forum. "We need to all take a deep breath, have a work session, get information on the pros and cons and a rationale for the timing. I really want to make sure everyone feels a part of the process and to reiterate this is not a done deal."

Reed told Patch she was disappointed in how this plan, and the implementation of online math textbooks, were introduced.

"Citizen input and board input both need to happen early and need to have a citizen role, and in both of these examples, it hasn't happened. And it's a governance issue," Reed said earlier this month. "I can't believe that my colleagues aren't as angry as I am. Who is in charge here?"

Mixed Messages

Last spring, the system formed an AAPP Task Force "to explore the best ways to provide advanced academic services in all FCPS pyramids to ensure that all students have access to these services," Torre said in an email to Patch.

The task force recommended increasing the number of AAP Level IV centers across the county, specifically at the six pyramids — Annandale, Edison, Falls Church, Marshall, South County and Robinson — without an AAP center, which requires some students to travel out of their pyramid or cluster to attend them, Torre said. 

The task force is also recommending the 15 FCPS middle schools without an AAP Level IV center create one, Torre said.

An initial recommendation by the task force projected the system could make the changes over five years, but overcrowding at Haycock (Cluster 1, McLean pyramid), Louise Archer (Cluster 2, Madison Pyramid), and Hunters Woods elementary schools (Cluster 8, South Lakes pyramid) had officials talking this fall about transferring some Haycock AAP students to a new AAP center in the Marshall High School pyramid by fall 2013, including some of those who had just been moved from Louise Archer in Vienna, parents said. Other adjustments would take children out of their schools without an option to stay, parents said.

School officials say no plan has been finalized, but more than 135 parents who have rallied around the issue in a group called Parents for AAP Equity say it was presented to them as a "done deal."

Mary Ruppert, an organizer of the group and a parent at Haycock Elementary, said the internal task force plan was posted on the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted website in September. At an October meeting at Haycock about the school's renovation, though, Ruppert said Cluster 1 Assistant Superintendent Marty Smith and school board member Janie Strauss (Dranesville) "announced the movement of 140 Cluster 2 students out of Haycock next year as basically a done deal," Ruppert told Patch.

"They promised it to the Haycock parents as a way to ease their overcrowding burden in order to entice them to stop trying to 'pause' their renovation. (They have been arguing that the new school will be too small and wanted FCPS to pause its plans to apply for zoning for a larger building)," Ruppert wrote.

Parents showed up at a school board work session last month holding signs against a quick reorganization, some of them reading, "Our children are not numbers." They told Patch they feared the plans had already been made too quickly and without adequate community input.

"The parents that I am working with (a group of about 135-140) are NOT saying no new center ever," Ruppert wrote in an email to Patch. "What we are saying is that our children's education should not be disrupted by an unnecessary transfer. Children should be grandfathered where they are to finish their elementary education. A new center should be built one year at a time so as not to overwhelm a new school. The parents want input to help build the center and make sure it truly is a good center, not something that is just a pro forma center. "

This week, Ruppert said in an email to Patch the group is "thrilled that FCPS listened to us and is doing some community outreach.  We're not thrilled that it is so little, so quickly, and so poorly organized," she wrote.

Moving Forward

Some of the concerns the system cited in an email about this week's community meetings were "space availability, facility readiness, teacher training, quality of the new program, timing of the change, and community readiness for such a change," the message read.

Additional recommendations made by the task force Nov. 13, which will be presented at community meetings this week and to the board Dec. 10:

  • "Implementation of any change at the elementary level will begin with incoming third graders. No current AAP Level IV center elementary student will be moved, unless parents opt to do so."
  • "Opening of AAP Level IV centers at middle schools will begin with incoming seventh graders (except for middle schools with grades 6 – 8, then begin with rising sixth graders). No current AAP Level IV center middle school student will be moved, unless parents opt to do so."
  • "Pupil transfers and sibling placements will continue to follow the process outlined in Regulation 2230."

Those recommendations address some parent concerns about grandfathering, but other worries include bell schedule changes — which would particularly impact the 66 percent of elementary school-aged children with two working parents — high-quality assurance and adequate space.

"We want there to be adequate space in the new centers, so we're not merely moving the problem or kicking it down the road," wrote Louise Archer parent Brian Heller in an email to Patch.

"One public meeting for hundreds of parents is not meaningful input (especially not after the Task Force has crafted its recommendations); We need true 2-way dialogue, before any recommendations are determined," Heller wrote in a handout he prepared for this week's meetings.

To implement some changes by the upcoming school year, board members would need to vote on changes by January 2013, the system says.

"We need to stress the fact these aren’t just numbers they are individual children, and it impacts people’s lives," Reed said.

Community meetings will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Westfield High School Cafeteria (Clusters 6, 7, 8); at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Lee High School Cafeteria (Clusters 4 and 5); and at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Kilmer Middle School Cafeteria (Clusters 1, 2 and 3).

See also:

Louise Epstein November 27, 2012 at 12:25 PM
FCPS central is checking the box on community engagement with these three meetings. Will FCPS staff will admit to the parents that their internal documents, produced in response to FOIA requests, indicate that they intend to "blend" middle school Center and open-admission Honors classes?
Steven Greenburg November 27, 2012 at 01:27 PM
I really hope this is not a 'checking the box' exercise, as (Ms. Reed eloquently stated) people's lives are greatly impacted by decisions of this magnitude. Beyond the important issues raised by the parents in regards to community input, overcrowding and grandfathering, there are quality of instruction issues involved (teachers in Level IV centers require specialized training and need time to prepare for that; the program needs to be well planned and implemented on a 'sane' timeline) that the teachers and parents also care about. Relieving overcrowding is a real problem that needs addressed in the short term, but restructuring your entire AAP program is not the immediate solution, and hasty decisions (think math online, most recently) to 'fix' one issue may result in others. If they vote to make an AAP change this dramatic in a month, then we will certainly know whether the community dialogue sessions were a 'box checking exercise'. We are grateful that the parents identified this and brought it to the attention of the school board and broader public. The teachers had not been consulted meaningfully on these potential changes, either. We appreciate Ms. Ruppert's and the other parent's advocacy on this, and will continue to work with them on this issue; we all want what is best for our children. Steven L. Greenburg President, Fairfax County Federation of Teachers AFT / AFL-CIO #2401
Beverly Jurenko November 27, 2012 at 01:32 PM
I do not understand how having three two-hour meetings, grouping clusters together and addressing the elementary school and middle school AAP plans at the same time, could possibly equate to real community involvement. Please slow down, FCPS! There is no need to rush an AAP Center reorganization. More centers does not mean better centers. Let's think this through and make sure that all middle school AAP kids are treated equally. Eliminating the AAP level of instruction in middle schools without 'critical mass' is not fair to kids who can't stay at centers that offer distinct AAP classes. The curriculum may be the same on paper, but the delivery, in most classrooms, will likely be very different. That's not equity.
Laurie Dodd November 29, 2012 at 05:58 PM
"More AAP Centers does not mean better centers!" I could not agree more. Students in current AAP Centers at FCPS benefit by learning from teachers trained in gifted education, surrounded by other students who are equally advanced. Many middle schools simply will not have a sufficient number of qualified students and teachers to implement a solid program. Trying to push this plan through over just a few weeks does a disservice to the students and families FCPS is here to serve. Slow down and think about what is needed for an EFFECTIVE program.
Karen November 29, 2012 at 09:00 PM
"More AAP Centers does not mean better centers! I absolutely agree with Beverly and Laurie! FCPS has posted AAP enrollment projections for all middle schools: http://www.fcps.edu/is/aap/pdfs/expansion/PlanforMS.pdf Projected AAP Center enrollment at Poe MS in Year 3 is 33 students. How can such a new AAP Center have "equal quality" with an already established AAP Center with two, three, or even four hundred students?

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