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The Apprehension of the Charter School Movement in Fairfax County

The Apprehension of the Charter School Movement in Fairfax County

July 29, 2016

When Fairfax Leadership Academy was endorsed by the Virginia Board of Education, the future of charter schools in Fairfax County became a little bit brighter. The founder of Fairfax Leadership Academy, Eric Welch, is a longtime Fairfax County public school teacher and administrator who works at JEB Stuart High School. Welch coordinates Stuart’s college readiness program, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), that prepares students in their pursuit of higher education. His work in bettering one of the lower-performing high schools in Fairfax County has been a constant effort. Through his work, Welch noticed a significant population of his students were underserved with the traditional public school system. So he did something about it.
When asked why the charter school movement was necessary for Fairfax County, Welch had the following to say, “We needed to try something new. It’s a big school, the amount of [English learners] we have is only growing. We still have low graduation rates. With the same structure, same teachers, we can only do so much. The school district itself did not allow us to try anything new.” JEB Stuart’s students aren’t performing nearly as well as other schools within Fairfax County. Graduation rates have been on the decline, achievement gaps are glaring, and the school is simply overpopulated. Stuart had about 1,800 students in 2008, but as of 2015 they had over 2,000 students. Students who are English learners make up about 30 percent of Stuart’s enrollment. The growing amount of students stretches resources thin, requiring repurposing teachers’ lounges and computer labs into classrooms. The issues with underperformance and over-enrollment is only growing worse. Eric Welch, alongside other JEB Stuart teachers, proposed the Fairfax Leadership Academy, a charter school dedicated to year-round college prep. The curriculum would cater to English learners and help them pursue higher education and employment. Fairfax Learning Academy would offer a longer school year, which would help students retain information, increasing their chances of educational success. For many, the traditional public school curriculum does not focus on developing a future career. At this charter school, teachers would connect their student to internships through the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, which has already signed on to offering career-oriented programming for the charter school. This would allow for students to set career goals in line with their real-life experiences. Welch and his fellow charter school advocates attended a local School Board meeting, where 48 supporters of the proposed charter school voiced their support of Fairfax Leadership Academy. Teachers, parents, and locals spoke on how the proposed school would alleviate overpopulation and how the school would benefit the students. With almost unanimous support from the community, this appeared to be a practical solution. But even with this support, the Fairfax Leadership Academy still needed to gain approval from Fairfax County Public Schools. Even though the school was endorsed by the Virginia Board, in Virginia, the local school board must choose whether or not they will allow a charter school in their system. They can also defer the decision, which is exactly what Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) chose to do. While Fairfax Leadership Academy could potentially fix many issues (i.e. graduation rate, overcrowding, college readiness, etc), the local school system viewed the proposed charter school as more of a risk than a solution. Rather than re-allocate funds to open the new school as a strategy to close the district’s stubborn achievement gap, Welch said FCPS only focused on the extra budget item. To leave the traditional school system is intimidating for many reasons. When referencing the local school district’s opinion of his charter school, Welch said, “Bottom line of the school district, they were afraid of these costs. They were afraid of opening up the can of worms. And the problem is we would be successful. They would say this is a good idea, but… there’s always been a fear of trying new things. For local school districts, this change scares them. They were not ready to make that step.” The traditional operation of public schools has been the norm for over a century in school systems like Fairfax County. Deviating from that original system is intimidating, but also evokes a serious fear of, “What if this IS successful?” The current state of schools like Stuart, facing overpopulation and underserving at-risk English learners, desperately needs a solution. The solutions to these problems could easily be within Fairfax Leadership Academy, if they’re only given a chance and motivated individuals, including long-time educators like Eric Welch, are trusted to put their energy and knowledge to work.

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