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Fairfax County Advanced Academics Study Takes Shape

Board members wrestle with community surveys, system expansion as they give nod to staff study, which will be completed in June.

The Fairfax County School Board is continuing to weigh what advanced academics mean to the system, authorizing a scope of study Thursday night it hopes will provide better information about how and where services are delivered now — both in the county and across the country — and how that might improve in the future.

The study was spurred by a discussion last fall on whether the school system should expand its Advanced Academic Program Centers, a move many vocal parents said needed further analysis and community dialogue.

While the board voted in January to expand the centers to three additional elementary schools this fall, to relieve overcrowding, they stopped short of expanding across about a dozen and a half more elementary and middle schools in time for the next school year, pending the outcome of the survey they authorized Thursday.

The report, which will study the entire continuum of advanced academic services, is expected by June 10. Board members noted they were looking for recommendations on "potential expansion," and hesitated to say that was the course they'd take before they could review the information collected over the next few months.

It will require consultants that could cost the board anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000, said Sloan Presidio, assistant superintendent for instructional services.

To view a draft of the scope of study, click here.

Presidio said he'd like to work with consultants from George Mason University, both because of their familiarity with the system as well as their expertise in gifted education and experience generating the kind of community surveys board members requested Thursday night.

The eight-page scope of study outlined 10 school board requests from previous work sessions and matched them with four areas of focus: current identification procedures, quality of program services, curriculum and instruction, and teacher certification and professional development — one focus of parent advocacy groups at outreach meetings this winter.

About 430 teachers are state certified to teach at AAP centers, Janie Strauss (Dranesville) said Thursday. The report could offer a better glimpse at where those teachers are: some certified teachers have chosen to work at schools without centers, while other educators are already teaching in AAP classrooms and working toward the certification, she said.

The four focus areas will include a look at how advanced academics have evolved in Fairfax over time, how many families fight their children's eligibility or opt out of the services, how many students give a center critical mass and how consistently the services are delivered school to school, among others.

The study will also include a survey — the contents of which were a sticking point for board members Thursday night.

Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) advocated for a survey for teachers, parents and administrators that weren't served by AAP.

A center "affects every classroom in a building, it affects the community feeling of a building," for AAP and non-AAP students alike, Hynes said. "And if you're looking at putting centers in a building we need to know that."

She noted such a study might better pinpoint why some families opt out of services, or how students in different academic programs interact within the same schools.

Board members first split 6-6 on the issue, but ultimately voted against it.

They did endorse a survey of teachers and administrators who were not directly dealing with AAP centers, to better gauge how they affect a school's environment, curriculum and instruction. 

Many board members said they viewed the AAP review as a two-part process: getting study results and using them to answer some "bigger picture questions."

Among them, Patty Reed (Providence) said, how and if the system should offer advanced curriculum to a wider number of students, or whether current centers have become watered down.

"I think that's the kind of thing we need to throw out and address. That's a perception," Reed said. 

Kathy Smith (Sully) said she hoped to use the study to engage community members as early as next fall; Ryan McElveen (At-large) said he wanted to make a decision no later than next January. 

"As a school system of our size and our reputation, we should actually have the answers to a lot of this," Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said. "This is responsible what we've now asked for. I think it's what we should have been doing, and I think we're now going to get [these answers]." 

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