Fairfax County school board members said Monday they weren't ready to commit to an expansion of the school system's Advanced Academic Program Centers until there was broader discussion about the goals of the plan and whether a restructuring would address them — along with a more comprehensive view of the future of the program and the county’s vision for it.
The majority of the board agreed at a work session Monday it would likely need to address the overcrowding at three of the system's elementary school Level IV Centers — Louise Archer, Haycock and Hunters Woods — in time for the 2013 school year.
But how the board will proceed from there isn't clear.
The recommendation this fall from a task force led by Joyce Van Tassel‐Baska, a national expert in gifted education, was to add elementary centers to the six pyramids without them, and also creating centers at 15 middle schools.
Many members said Monday they were uncomfortable fully implementing the program in 2013, saying the system had not yet fully answered important questions — such as costs, building capacity and educator readiness — nor addressed some larger issues, including the goal of advanced academics, how students were being served by the program and whether they were being identified and placed as well as they could be.
Some members said they'd like to explore expanding centers for the 2013 year on a case-by-case basis, based on what buildings and staff could handle.
Others wanted to hold off until the next school year to continue the discussion, notably, after a new superintendent is in place.
"I really don’t think that we've thought this through. I appreciate that folks want to be innovative… but we need to make sure that it's done thoughtfully, that our stakeholders are involved and our resources are being used wisely," board member Patty Reed (Providence) said.
Board chair Ilryong Moon (At-large) said he would develop a new business item to place on the board's Dec. 20 agenda, based on Monday's nearly four-hour discussion.
After a work session in mid-January, the issue will come to a vote at the end of the month.
The informal decision to at least slow the pace of the process was a victory for many parents Monday who exceeded the fire capacity in the board's meeting room in Falls Church, holding signs to support positions that ranged as widely as those held by the board.
Many of them turned out by the hundreds earlier this month to protest what they called a "done deal" to restructure the county’s Level IV program in time for the 2013 school year — and say they felt they'd been cut out of the process.
That anger, at times, has overwhelmed other discussions about the issue in a broader context; board members said Monday they felt they needed a better understanding of gifted issues and how the program was working across the county, and where they wanted the program to go in the future.
"There has been zero conversations amongst ourselves as a board or amongst ourselves with staff about the direction of AAP in this school system," Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said. "We are planning first the solution before we’ve ever established what the problem is, without ever establishing what the priorities are.”
Beyond the issue of overcrowding is how the system identifies gifted students.
There are Level IV centers in 24 elementary and 11 middle schools across the county; approximately 16.6 percent of all third- through eight-grade students are served by the program, staff said, up from 6 percent in the 1999-2000 school year.
“We can't be growing at 300 percent over the next decade,” board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said.
Many parents like the idea of accessing the service in their own community, but many also worry if schools have the capacity to act so quickly and whether teachers would be prepared to teach higher-level classes in the areas they were needed.
"I don’t believe we have a one-size-fits-all school system and when I look at AAP, our approach should not be one either," Ryan McElveen (At-large) said, also noting at such a "great time of uncertainty across the county, the idea we would roll out such a massive expansion with all those unknown variable is somewhat problematic."
Some schools, Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) argued, do support the addition of a center, and the board shouldn't prohibit that from happening if they're ready to accommodate it.
Schultz suggested perhaps the board had "created a circumstance that has allowed the system to expand beyond what we're capable of delivering," she said. "At this point in time, therefore, we owe the greatest amount of deference to the people who are already in the system while we go ahead down the road and plan strategically."
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