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Educators, Advocates Rally Around Proposed Charter School

At public hearing, critics say Fairfax Leadership Academy would take away resources, duplicate services.

In a nearly year-long discussion about a proposed charter school designed to target at-risk students, its advocates and opponents have played a tug-of-war for supporters ahead of a Fairfax County School Board decision on the application.

On Tuesday, it appeared for the moment Fairfax Leadership Academy advocates had the advantage, as most of the nearly 50 people who spoke at a public hearing about the issue — among them, parents,immigrants, former students, business leaders and several teachers — urged the board to vote later this month in favor of the charter school, saying the county had the chance to be a national leader in finding a new way to address its achievement gap.

"As educators, we are always looking for ways to work together to create better public schools. We all want to find solutions to improve education. The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers won't back down to challenges that impact our students," said Steve Greenburg, president of FCFT, whose 4,200-member union formally endorsed the plan last month.

The proposal, created and backed by J.E.B. Stuart High School teacher Eric Welch and fellow FCPS educators, business partners and state lawmakers, would put a charter school for grades seven through 12 in the former Graham Road Elementary School site off Arlington Boulevard.

The goal: to provide extended learning, through both an eight-hour school day and a 206-day school year, a smaller learning environment, wrap-around services to students and families, and individualized and workforce-oriented programs — focused on dual enrollment, mentorship, career exploration and service learning — to the county's most at-risk students; generally, those from low-income and minority families.

If approved, it would open Aug. 12, 2013, with grades 7 and 8, expanding by one grade each year. Creators envision 450 students at full capacity.

But the charter school does have its opponents, including a committee of Fairfax County Public Schools staff who made a recommendation to deny the application Sept. 14 and cited insufficient funding for desks and other materials, renovations and upgrades, staffing, and concerns about certain parts of the curriculum. Staff recommended the application not be approved unless its concerns could be addressed by Dec. 1. 

The board can establish a charter school regardless of the opinion, or whether those needs are addressed. It will hold a work session on the application Oct. 15, and is expected to approve or deny the application at its regular meeting Oct. 25.

FLA submitted a letter and responses in an attempt to address the concerns Sept. 24. 

Earlier this year, the Virginia Board of Education endorsed the application for FLA, which would be the fifth charter school in the state and the first in Northern Virginia. It has already received support from Del. Kaye Kory (D-38th District), state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34th), who is serving as the group's counsel, Del. Barbara J. Comstock (R-34th) and the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

"It's about time for FCPS to take the leadership that it should," said Kory, a former school board member and current state delegate, who also sits on the academy's board of directors.

Minorities and those who use free or reduced meals, speak English as a second language, have disabilities or come from impoverished homes aren't being served the way they could within the system, the school's creators say: Less than half of the students who attend high school in eastern Fairfax County, where low-income and minority populations are rapidly growing, enroll in four-year institutions after high school.

Kory said 69 percent of students considered impoverished finish high school in four years: The academy would be a place where students who have traditionally struggled could better connect with adults and more clearly see a future beyond their present circumstances.

"We fall short when it comes to having flexible models with which to educate our students. Too many of them are falling through the cracks," said Christine Adams, whose fifth-grader at Bailey's Elementary School has more than 200 classmates designated as homeless and another 800 who speak English as a second language, she said.

Of the handful of opponents who spoke at Tuesday's public hearing, a common concern was the school would siphon away resources that could be used for FCPS' other needs. 

Members of the Falls Church High School community, who have lobbied FCPS for a better spot in the schools renovation queue through the advocacy group United Parents for Renovating Our Academic Resources, said they worried the charter school would hurt their ability to get repairs.

Speakers Tuesday also worried it would negatively impact the diverse community the school has built by drawing students away and duplicate programs — namely, AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), part of the system's College Success Program — already serving at-risk students in their current schools.

As of Tuesday night, more than 600 residents had signed the group's online petition against the proposed charter.

Welch, who teaches AVID and social studies, said it was out of his inability to reach all students with AVID that he began to create the idea for the charter school: The program only serves about a hundred kids per school, he said, leaving three or four dozen at each school, each year, who could be benefiting from similar programs, but aren't.

"We don't want to hurt the system, we're trying to bring in new ideas," Welch said.

Opponents also took issue with the school's location at the former Graham Road Elementary School site, which they said school officials evacuated in part because of its poor condition. Resident Vincent Forcier worried an area deemed dangerous by the Virginia Department of Transportation, particularly for pedestrians, would be worsened by the increased traffic and influx of inexperienced teen drivers.

But that concern wasn't enough for some in attendance, including Christian Deschauer, the Vice President of Government Relations at Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, who said the school would help the area's future workforce, which he called the second largest concern in the area behind transportation.

"Please don't let a building or a location stop this idea. If it's the right thing to do, let's find another location. Let's make it happen," he said, telling board members not to hesitate in asking the chamber for help or support.

Welch, who said he recognizes certain logistics need to be worked out, is optimistic.

The turnout, he said, "shows a lot of people who feel our gap is out there and we need to do new things ... it's a resounding message that we really have to think about some other models."

"We have a great school system so we should be able to show the country how we handle [this problem]," he said. "This isn't going to solve it by itself but it shows we're willing to put everything on the table."

This article has been updated to reflect the number of ESOL students at Bailey's Elementary.

janet otersen October 11, 2012 at 07:09 PM
This school will have smaller class sizes and offer the mentoring program that a regular size high school just can't provide. You guys are being selfish. If a new school was opening up down the street for "troubled" teens who are failing all their classes and getting into trouble, you guys would be on board with the "competition". Heck, you guys would be ushering those kids out the door and cleaning out their lockers for them. Be honest, at least.
janet otersen October 11, 2012 at 07:17 PM
These numbers came from a FOIA'ed ducument. If you provide me an email, I will send to you. SOLs are BS---the pass rate is pathetically low and the kids get retakes so most end up passing them eventually. I have never seen AP/IB participation rates by school and race--please reference source. Also, how the heck does a high school know if a kid went to college or not? Survey? A transcript was sent? That is not evidence of attendance. I also don't buy the principal's statement that 40/45 dropouts returned to their country. I will verify that figure with VA DOE. Let's be accurate with the facts.
VonZipper October 11, 2012 at 07:46 PM
Janet - Sandy Evans has a good friend in you. But, facts are facts, and she has been absent, noticeably, from the FLA initiative when it comes to FCHS. You are a Lee High School parent and do not have first hand knowledge of meetings at FCHS with the Board on FLA, discussions with Penny Gross, discussions with Morizuko, Dean Tisdadt, discussions on resource issues with State Senator Saslaw Congressman Connolly, etc, etc, etc . And I'll bet you were not in the audience at the budget public hearing when Tina Hone called FCHS a "raggedy old school". You are not a member of the Falls Church pyramid and could not possibly know the details of all the resource issues that face FCHS. .. Finally, it's insulting to be called "selfish" when FCHS parents have not been given a "voice" in this issue. Nobody, nobody, worked with us, has included, approached, had discussion, or asked FCHS to particpapte in any FLA initiative. The only thing we heard, and I am quoting was "Falls Church Parents, do not get in the way of this initiative" by Mr Welch himself at the Gatehouse event earlier this fall. Please let me know when you would like to meet with FCHS parents to fully discuss this ? - I would be happy to call the PTSA and invite you over. - Sandy Evans, Patty Reed, and Penny Gross have all been invited over too - but failed to show. Hmm , sSeems like they too did not "want FCHS parents to get in the way"
JD October 11, 2012 at 07:49 PM
"Ms Otersen- Just to be clear - the student population at FCHS is currently 1678. We house the Physical Disabilities program for this end of the county which is about 150 of that number. 19 percent of the failures you cite were PD and Category B special education students. Agreed there is much work to be done with these kids to help them achieve success. Many of our ESL kids are doing well; however, we have a significant number who have significant language barriers that slows their progress. All of this is a matter of record. Much has changed since 2009-10 making your statistical argument irrelevant. Lastly, I suppose I do have an ego but it is bred in confidence gleaned from many years as a school leader and educator. It is anchored by a strong belief in my school, students, staff and school community which is why I feel compelled to address falsehoods offered as proof that FCHS has failed our kids. Of the 45 dropouts last year, nearly 40 of them returned to their countries. I haven't seen an FLA plan to address that dynamic. But as I have said many times to Eric Welch - I believe in FCPS and will do what I can to help any program for any child that i believe has merit. I just can't as the Principal of FCHS let our school be the sacrificial lamb or our students be guinea pigs for a program that has a noble concept, but no real solution at its heart. Please come visit our school and meet the staff and kids. I would love to show you FCHS."
JD October 11, 2012 at 08:00 PM
Then why aren't we ushering those" troubled kids out the door"? Because kids are not easily so identifiable as "good or bad" nor are they as disposable as you imply. Many of "those kids" are my sons friends and team mates and I don't think he or other FCHS students would take kindly to seeing their class mates and neighbors yanked out of their school simply because they are low income minorities.
janet otersen October 11, 2012 at 08:08 PM
I know Sandy only thru her actions as a SB member--that is all--I like her very much, She is an honorable person. FCHS is not this unique school that you portray--they have the same challenges that many schools have. As far as your raggedy old school goes, I testified-all by myself-until my friend Mike Grasso joined me for MONTHS against FCPS spending $130 million on an office building for themselves. Go read my testimony. I got help from CAPS and we went to The BOS--mostly Pat Herrity led the charge and we got it voted down. So if you want to thank someone for keeping $130 million in the CIP coffers for school renovations--thank me. I led the charge against VGLA--for years I was a one man band talking about the damage it does for our ESL and SPED kids. Thankfully, a man in Richmond, J Butcher and some negative press we generated on the topic pushed the VA GA to end the dreadful practice. I co-founded a group called Fairfax zt reform--due to our efforts and our friend D St George at The Post we finally got FCPS to reduce suspensions/expulsion--reducing the number by nearly 35%. Now when an 8th grader brings her acne meds to school she doen't get kicked out of school for two months while morons at Gatehouse decide her fate. Please do not question my integrity or track record in dealing with kids who are at risk. I don't need to walk the halls of FCHS to see what is going on--its the same at Annandale, Mt Vernon, Lee, Stuart, Hayfield- they all need help.
Vince Forcier October 11, 2012 at 08:24 PM
Your comments show a complete lack of knowledge about the the Falls Church HS community. We have at least established that you live well outside the pyramid, so your ignorance is understandable. Perhaps ushering troubled teens out the door is a priority for you, perhaps it is even a goal of parents at the schools your children attend. Your "Be Honest" can only be interpreted to mean that you think most parents think this way, how sad for you and your community. At Falls Church HS, ALL students are an important part of the community. Our commitment to offering the absolute best to them is what make Falls Church HS what it is. If your attitude is the norm, I now understand why people are surprised at Falls Church HS parent's commitment to maintaining this unique culture.
janet otersen October 11, 2012 at 08:33 PM
Nice try distorting my words...my advocacy is clear on protecting these kids. You guys are the ones who continue to complain about ONE THING over and over. That this school will "raid" your school of the talent, true or not true? Do I need to cut/paste your quotes? You only care about keeping the kids that make your school look good in the stats book. You have said over and over that FLA will not take the true "at risk" kids but only kids who are already motivated from engaged families. You all are the ones who have never shown a care for the struggling kids in this tug of war--not me.
Vince Forcier October 11, 2012 at 08:35 PM
Yes, actually you do need to walk the halls, you need to talk to parents who have been at the school for 10 years. Please read the FCPS study of this charter proposal. The question is not whether these kids need help. It is a question of whether the FLA charter school is a real solution for those most in need, or a duplication of existing services. I have seen some of your opinions about FCPS. I have to ask; are you willing to recognize when someone is doing something right? Or is everything broken and in need of your prescribed fix?
Vince Forcier October 11, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Your ignorance on the subject is starting to embarass. I know few parents in Fairfax County that are less concerned with stat books than FCHS parents. Those that pay attention to such things often pupil place out, those that decide to give FCHS a go quickly learn how meaningless the stats are. Again, you may be projecting what you believe all parents believe. It is sad.
janet otersen October 11, 2012 at 08:47 PM
Oh, I don't understand Falls Church HS???????? One of you pupil placed your own kids out of this school that you say is so wonderful---wonderful for OTHER people's kids and the other one of you is worried about traffic!!!! Good Lord....and you attack me for calling you self serving.... Daly understands why parents transfer their children to “better” schools, having had her two oldest children “pupil-placed” at Woodson High School because FCHS had a rocky patch with a couple of inadequate principals. Vince Forcier, a Falls Church parent who lives close to Graham Road Elementary School, is concerned that a new high school, with insufficient parking and poor ingress and egress, would create more traffic congestion at the Route 50/Graham Road intersection, which is already one of the most dangerous intersections in the county.
JD October 11, 2012 at 08:56 PM
Janet, Then why wasn't isn't FLA designed to help those kids who are most at risk? It is not. It does not have the extensive ESOL and LD support at risk kids needs. Nor does it provide transportation to the entire county. Thus FLA is selective just like a private school.
Vince Forcier October 11, 2012 at 08:57 PM
Again, live here, send your kids to FCHS, then regale us with your clearly superior opinions.
Vince Forcier October 11, 2012 at 09:00 PM
Who is attacking who here. You start by attacking the principal, then you accuse people of selfishness and assert that we are eager to jettison troubled teens.
JD October 11, 2012 at 09:20 PM
Janet, First of all. One of my children attended TJ and one was pupil placed at Woodson after a year of private school. Cathy Benner was not the principal when my older two attended fcps and I knew there were many serious problems with the previous administrators at FC. Both of my older children also attended the GT program at Frost so they were not socially connected to FCHS as well. However my youngest child attended Luther Jackson and chose to attend FC. I have been amazed what a great match it has been for him despite the disparities that exist there in resources and facilities. I have also learned alot about the benefits of a small diverse school. He is thriving, challenged and and is living in the real world. I am happy he is there now but also agreed to send him because I felt the change in leadership with Cathy Benner was a huge improvement. As a parent I made the best decision for each of my children at the time. I do however have regrets that my 3 children did not all go to their neighborhood school. I now believe under Cathy Benner's leadership FCHS has the potential to be an amazing school for all students.
Helen Z October 11, 2012 at 09:27 PM
Well, you're making Vince's argument for him, but you also forgot one important thing about him in your attempt to discredit him: "Vince Forcier, father of FOUR children who either have attended or are attending FCHS, and he knows it is a great school."
Vince Forcier October 11, 2012 at 09:34 PM
Thank you for making light of my neighbor's safety and traffic concerns. I spoke to this issue because as the only person present, and a neighbor of the site, it was a subject no one else would likely cover. I was trying to present useful information to the school board that they may not hear from anyone else. I am sure that those who know me know that this is not my only concern, or even the most important to me. My goodness, you make me sound so one dimensional, I am starting to dislike myself.
janet otersen October 11, 2012 at 09:37 PM
Everything I have read about FLA says they will target at risk kids who struggle academically. Please reference where they say they will target high achieving kids. This school should be for kids who would likely fall thru the crachs at a larger high school. I would not support a school that is intent on raiding other high schools of their strongest students-regardless of FRM status. Pupil placement is reserved for unique situations only. It should not be abused by parents who don't like their local school principal.
Vince Forcier October 11, 2012 at 09:55 PM
Janet, I understand your statement above about FLA. I would encourage you to read the FCPS analysis of the FLA proposal. They have basically come to many of the same conclusions that local parents have come to about the likely enrollment at FLA. This is one reason they have recommended that it be rejected in it's current form. Many people have been wowed by the marketing material provided by FLA only to raise questions after a deeper analysis. I know that these discussions get rather heated, but those of us knee deep in this issue have seen our concerns validated after the sizzle is gone and people start tasting the steak. What we know immediately from living in the community, other people have realized after they dig into the issue. Vince
PJ October 11, 2012 at 10:04 PM
You make some very good points here, and the way you define the different paths students can take (i.e. academic, college, career motivated, or failure) I agree with. However, I'm afraid that according to FLA, career motivated students are considered failures. To them, everyone who doesn't go to a 4 year college is considered a failure. In this case I feel that your observations are absolutely correct, it's just that you misunderstand Eric Welch's plan. Another thing, you seem to be basing alot of your comments on a misconception that the CHARTER school is the entity that will be deciding who goes to what school. On the contrary, this responsibility goes to the parents. Who do you think is more likelier to fill out an application-- parents that don't understand English and are worried enough about supporting their families or a well-off family that's looking for a way to pull ahead of the competition with these "smaller class sizes" and "mentoring programs" that "a regular high school just can't provide"?
janet otersen October 11, 2012 at 10:08 PM
Unfortunately, after years of BS from FCPS staff, I don't have a high regard for their analysis. I can cite dozens of incidents where FCPS staff was less than truthful on a topic. Most organizations gather facts, analyze, then come to a thoughtful conclusion. FCPS does the opposite--they tailor their "facts" to accommodate their predetermined conclusion. This school and any potential funding should have ZERO impact on the needs of FCHS. Principals, unfortunately have to march/act like good little soldiers in FCPS land to stay in good graces so they don't get to raise a stink and say "HEY, I'M dying here-send me more resources!". It is a perverse process which means schools who often need more staff/resources don't get it due to politics. Same could be said with your CIP problems. When they closed Clifton and told us they saved us $12 million-they spent $14 million renovating the schools who received the Clifton kids. SOCO MS could have waited if they properly districted the kids when the high school opened--there are 900 empty seats at neighboromg schools. You keep telling me to butt out since I don't live in FCHS--you are wrong. we are all connected--what happns at one school--impacts another. Don't be so naive.
Vince Forcier October 11, 2012 at 10:32 PM
Please read the analysis before you reject it out of hand. I am sure that FCPS does not fail at everything they do. That their analysis is supportive of the position of many local parents should compel you to at least read it before arguing against it. I don't think I asked you to butt out. I asked you to state your experience with the pyramid in question, and suggested that it may affect the accuracy of your analysis and they weight I give it. I stand by that. I agree that we are all in this together. I however do not take such a negative position on our school system. They have done an excellent job with my 4 kids, I consider the education my children received equal to, and in many ways better than, my Catholic school education.
Vince Forcier October 11, 2012 at 11:10 PM
I do think FCPS could do with a couple of nuns at each school. That is one thing I would keep from my experience at Catholic school.
janet otersen October 11, 2012 at 11:12 PM
Ok, here is my analysis of their analysis: 1. Were there any members from the community on this review committee? If not, why not? Looks like an inside kill job 2. The facilities arguments are bogus. We spent how much renovating The Plum Center (an old crappy school on Edsall Road) for Adult Ed? $10 million? When we have how many schools with classrooms---200? Yet we can't possibly spend money on needed renovations at Graham Road? Absurd. 3. SPED ratios?? Are they serious? Name me one high school that has the appropriate QUALIFIED SPED staff to accommodate the population. One. Look around at all the inexpensive IAs with no SPED background who are now in the classrooms as SPED teachers/aides. Hundreds of unqualified staff. 4. Lottery will not guarantee 60% FRM status---oh well.....how is that TJ admissions process coming along that they have been tweaking for 10 years now. They expect these guys to be exact. Denying a kid admission because they aren't poor enough is crazy. I question a lot of the FRM eligibility data anyways--nobody verifies the applications. 5. I suppose this school should raise some money privately but I have no problem with FCPS kicking in a few mill to get it off the ground. We just spent 410 mill on online textbooks that many kids aren't using...what the heck. This is a work in progress and will take complete community support--common ground can be found. Investing and preventing a kid from dropping out yields $127k to the taxpayers.
Vince Forcier October 11, 2012 at 11:20 PM
Well, It seems your mind is made up. If a few minutes reading a report this detailed left you only finding evidence for your already entrenched position, i do not think this is a productive debate. If I felt as negatively about FCPS as you clearly do (from this thread and others you have been involved in) I would move heaven and earth to move or send my kids to private school.
janet otersen October 11, 2012 at 11:49 PM
Vince, it is you who are most firmly entrenched in your opinion that this school is not needed. What would satisfy you? If this school operated in the Route 1 corridor where it was out of your area? Does FCPS not need a school for at risk students? Since 1300 drop out each year, you can't say these schools are doing everything right, can you? I have stated that this school should exist for the purpose of saving souls. You refuse to acknowledge that any need even exits-- Which I find amazing given that 180,000 kids are served. FCPS employs hundreds of people to sing their own praises--no more cheerleadres are needed. we must always strive to raise the bar here and address our shortcomings. I'm not negative--I am the voice for kids who have not been to the FCPS Promised Land for one reason or another. I offer no apologies.
PJ October 12, 2012 at 01:10 AM
No one is saying that their isn't a need or a problem when it comes to at-risk students. FCPS's biggest need is not a school for at-risk kids, but a revamp of the current schools to prevent many of the at-risk kids from becoming at-risk. I also think that, if FCPS were to create the charter school, it would serve the county much better if located away from Falls Church, which is already doing extremely well in addressing it's at-risk students. We may not agree when it comes to the potential success of Eric Welch's proposed charter school, but whether it is a huge success or failure, it will serve at risk students better if located in a place where the at-risk students aren't being served as well as they are served at Falls Church.
VonZipper October 12, 2012 at 10:05 AM
Hmm....show me where I said "unique".........? I am happy for you that you feel you saved 130 million for the CIP. I hope Herrity gave you an award. But the CIP has nothing to do with FLA....and I am not talking about that. And, I never questioned anything about anyones track record about dealing with at risk kids..... The facts remain, Sandy Evans does not support FCHS. Goodbye
JDG November 02, 2012 at 01:36 PM
Isn't for at risk kids that FCPS has Bryant and Mountain View alternative high schools plus elementary and middle school alternative learning centers?
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