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A longtime Fairfax County Public Schools teacher is leading an effort to establish a small charter school in the Falls Church area to bolster achievement among at-risk students.

The proposal outlines plans for a school serving 450 students at full capacity in grades seven through 12. The school, which would be called the Fairfax Leadership Academy, would offer courses on career building skills and college prep, in addition to the standard curriculum, said teacher Eric Welch, who would serve as the school’s executive director and chair its board of directors.

Plans also call for longer school days — eight hours compared to seven in regular high schools — and a year-round academic calendar, raising the number of in-class days from 183 to 206.

The planned opening date for the charter school is Aug. 12, 2013.

“The initial discussion began about two years ago, when the modified calendar got taken away because of budget cuts,” said Welch, referring to the year-round academic calendar used to help increase achievement in schools with high numbers of low-income students. The extended calendar was cut during the 2010-11 budget talks to save money.

“That modified calendar allowed us more academic time, about two weeks,” Welch said. “We’re running out of time in the school system to do stuff like [college prep and teaching career building skills].”

Cuts to the modified schedule fueled Welch’s search for alternatives to the existing public school structure. However, the teacher admits, starting a charter school was not something he saw himself doing.

Welch is a J.E.B. Stuart High School teacher and coordinator for the high school’s Advancement Via Individual Determination program. Known as AVID, the program aims to increase college preparedness among students who are racial minorities, come from low-income homes or who would be first-generation college students in their family.

“Charter school isn’t really our priority. Our priority is to give the kids more time,” Welch said.

For some public educators the term “charter school” carries a negative connotation and the perception that money would be taken away from public school students to serve a selected group of students receiving greater services in smaller schools.

“That reaction is generally my reaction and the reaction of many in my group,” Welch said. He leads a group of 17, who will serve on the school’s board of directors. Most of the group members are current or former educators, several of whom have or have had children in the Fairfax County Public School system.

Besides Welch, current school system employees include Shawn DeRose, director of student activities at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology; Anthony Terrell, an assistant principal at Fairfax High School; Angelina Prestipino, a member of the school system’s administrative support staff; Kurt Mills, a program manager in the school system’s Office of Out of School Support; Bailey Triplett, a social studies teacher and AVID coordinator at Poe Middle School in Annandale; and Catherine Buffaloe, a special education English teacher at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria.

Five other board members are former or retired county school system educators.

Former Mason District School Board member and current state Del. Kaye Kory (D- 38th dist.) also is among those serving on the charter school’s board.

“Previously, I would have said there is no reason for a charter here,” Kory said. But times have changed.”

Funding cuts to the school system because of recent economic turmoil have resulted in diminished services to students, impacting those at-risk students the most, she said.

In 2010, Kory was among those in the Virginia General Assembly who approved of changes to the state’s rules, which aimed to promote the establishment of new charter schools. The legislation was backed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and then-Virginia Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson, both avid supporters of charter school programs. Since Virginia began allowing charter schools about 13 years ago, four have been established, none of which are in Northern Virginia. The 2010 change in the state’s charter school rule gives the Virginia Board of Education a voice in the application process. Charter applications are first sent to the Board of Education, which works with the applicant in refining their proposal. Depending on the application, the board then forwards its recommendation to approve or deny a proposal to the local school board. If the local school board decides to deny an application, it must provide in writing— reasons for denying applications.

Since Virginia began allowing charter schools about 13 years ago, four have been established, none of which are in Northern Virginia. The 2010 change in the state’s charter school rule gives the Virginia Board of Education a voice in the application process.

Charter applications are first sent to the state board, which works with the applicant in refining their proposal. The board then forwards its recommendation to approve or deny a proposal to the local school board. If the local school board decides to deny an application, it must provide — in writing — reasons for denying applications.

Kory said she has reached out to many of the current Fairfax County School Board members, who, according to her, said they would be for a charter school if it provided increased services while not siphoning off money from the existing public school system.

If the charter school gains School Board approval, Welch said it would apply for grant money, including a $600,000 federal start-up grant for charter schools, which is allocated during the course of three years.

“This has to be approved by the Fairfax County School Board and it’s a part of the school system. We’re not going to be taking funds away from the schools,” said educator Shawn DeRose, who would serve as the vice chairman of the new school’s board of directors. “The key component of this charter school really focuses on the idea of a full-year calendar. We really believe the achievement gaps can be closed. However, it is going to take more [school] time.”

DeRose is the director of student activities at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a governor’s school for science, technology, engineering and math.

“We kind of met on Sundays [about two years ago] and started talking about our frustration with the budget cuts and the real impact we’ve seen in student achievement,” DeRose said of where the idea for a charter school came from. “Our first reaction was ‘We’re not charter school people.’… Virginia really has a charter school [policy] that is really charter in name only.

In Virginia, charter schools are a part of the public school system and subject to public school standards, such as employee compensation and annual Standards of Learning exams. Public school systems must provide charter schools with funding to the level of the per-pupil spending available to students in public schools. Additionally, public schools must provide approved charter schools with a facility if the one chosen by the charter school is not being used for educational purposes.

Those serving on the Fairfax Leadership Academy’s Board of Directors are proposing to use Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church as its facility. Graham Road is scheduled to close at the end of this school year. Students who normally would attend Graham Road will be moved to the Devonshire administrative building, which is being renovated to become an elementary school.

School Board member Patty Reed (Providence District) represents students in the Graham Road Elementary School attendance area.

She said she has been meeting with Welch and other Fairfax Leadership Academy members to discuss the school and what it may offer.

“The charter school concept is new to Fairfax County,” Reed said of the proposal. “We all have much to learn about what it is and is not, and we should seize this opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogues and public discourse.”

She added that taxpayers will likely have a lot of questions about how adding a charter school would impact the public school system’s budget.

“As an avid believer in innovation and constructive change, I welcome the opportunity to consider this charter school proposal,” Reed said.

One application for a charter school has been brought before the Fairfax County School Board, said charter school liaison Jim Johnson. The school, which aimed to provide additional services to autistic students, was proposed in 2003 and the proposal was withdrawn at the applicant’s request.

“It would be very hard for me to categorize anything as typical because we’ve had so few applications,” Johnson said of the process of reviewing charter school applications. School system staff is working with the Fairfax Leadership Academy, he said, and would not take a position on charter schools.

Welch said the goal is to bring the proposal before the School Board in January. Once the proposal is submitted, Superintendent Jack D. Dale will form a review panel of about five or seven administrators, including Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko.

Before becoming superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools, Dale opened the first charter school in Maryland while serving as the Frederick County superintendent of schools. Moniuszko also has a charter school background, having served on a charter school board in South Carolina before coming to Fairfax County.

Fairfax school system spokesman Paul Regnier said school staff have a neutral view of charter schools, and the applications approval could rely on ensuring regular public school students do not lose funding because of the charter school.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com