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J.E.B. Stuart teacher Eric Welch hoped to open a new school serving at-risk children by fall 2013, but he’ll have to wait.

On Oct. 25, Welch’s plans to install the first charter school in Fairfax County were delayed by a unanimous School Board vote defer a decision on the alternative school.

While the vote delays the school’s potential opening by a year (applicants are now looking at fall 2014), Welch said the deferral was at his request so that the board of directors for Fairfax Leadership Academy can establish funding, a budget model and answer some community concerns voiced in the past year during the application process.

“More time allows us to take a broader look at this to figure out how it can be implemented,” Welch said. Fairfax Leadership Academy was hoping to get a three-year, $600,000 start-up grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The academy received notice it did not get the grant in early October, just weeks before a scheduled School Board vote on the charter application.

Without an established pipeline of funding, “we recognized the best thing for us and the School Board would be to take more time to reassess our proposal and consider various ways on how we can implement it,” Welch said. “The School Board and many community members value what we're proposing and want to see it implemented...”

Over the past year, Welch has led an effort to open Fairfax Leadership Academy, a small 450-student (at full capacity) charter serving students in grades seven through 12. The goal, said Welch, who is one of several educators involved in the project, is to provide at-risk students with greater resources, currently not available within the public school system, such as a year-round school calendar, longer school days and smaller class sizes to bolster their achievement.

Fairfax Leadership Academy was proposed to serve students living in the Falls Church, Bailey’s Crossroads and the Annandale attendance areas.

The school’s advocates were looking at the currently vacant Graham Road Elementary School as a potential location for the charter. Graham Road was approved for closure by the School Board in May 2008 and students were later moved down the road to a larger site.

During Thursday’s School Board vote to defer the proposed charter, board members voted to nix this site as an option, saying the school was closed because it was considered a poor site for a school and also because its proximity to public high schools was a concern voiced by community members who opposed having the charter in that area.

“When these parents say they need [Fairfax Leadership Academy], you should be asking, ‘What is their school not doing that Falls Church is doing, and how do we replicate the Falls Church [High School] model in other schools’” said parent Lynn Petrazzuolo during a public hearing on the proposed charter held earlier this month. Petrazzuolo was one of a number of members of UPROAR (United Parents for Renovating Our Academic Resources), which is a parent-led advocacy group pushing for renovations to Falls Church High School, who spoke at the hearing. These parents said they were concerned with the charter’s proximity to their school, which provides some additional services — such as the AVID program — for at-risk students.

Welch said Fairfax Leadership Academy’s plans were never dependent on approval of using Graham Road Elementary.

“That location became a proposed location because of availability … I think the Graham Road building could have served as a good location, but our charter school application stated that we would be willing to consider other locations if the School Board wanted that,” he said. “I don't as of yet see this meaning we would move to a completely different part of the county, but we are open to discussions with the School Board and district officials on this.”

Location will be one of several topics of discussion held by Fairfax Leadership Academy leaders over the next several months, he said.

During their vote last Thursday, School Board members said the charter application had merit but also needed further detailing before gaining approval.

“There’s a great deal of interest in my district in the Fairfax Leadership Academy and its goal of helping at-risk students,” said School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason District), who represents the Falls Church area where Fairfax Leadership Academy was proposed to serve. “I’ve heard from many constituents who strongly support this approach to providing added support for some students who need more help to succeed … I’ve also heard from many at Falls Church High School who fear the current proposal and specifically its location will drain the schools’ students who are already succeeding there. And those concerns need to be taken seriously and addressed as well.”

By deferring rather than rejecting the proposal, Evans and fellow school board members are allowing the applicant to revise its application and answer questions raised during the application process, which began more than a year ago and gained the state Board of Education’s approval in April 2012.

“It’s innovative. It’s precedent setting for here,” School Board member Patty Reed (Providence District) said of FLA’s proposal for a charter.

Welch said of the board’s vote, “The School Board's statement last Thursday demonstrates they value our proposal and recognize our school district should consider how such innovation can be implemented as a way to help reduce the achievement gap.”

He said FLA leaders will likely reapply to the U.S. Department of Education for a start-up grant.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com