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Parents to Weigh In on Advanced Academic Shifts

Fairfax County Public School community meetings come after school board members, parents say plan seemed a "done deal."

As Fairfax County Public Schools looks to add more Advanced Academic Program Centers and address overcrowding at some that already exist, it is reaching out  to parents and community members impacted by a potential shift — an outreach put in place after parents and some school board members claimed the system was moving forward without a proper engagement process and the  restructuring was a "done deal."

The primary focus of the meetings — scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Westfield High School Cafeteria (Clusters 6, 7, 8) — is "a readiness check to see if individual schools and their parents are ready for this change for the coming school year, or want to defer the change to the 2014-15 school year," school spokesman John Torre wrote in an email to Patch.

Students in grades 3 through 8 are placed into Advanced Academic Program (AAP) Centers centers across the county each year through a central screening and selection process. They offer students a full-time "highly challenging instructional program" (Level IV) that focuses on problem solving, decision-making and higher level thinking, as opposed to the part-time advanced services (Level III) each school offers in the four core subject areas.

Some parents say FCPS' willingness to reach out to the community is a shift from messages they have already seen from leaders, which indicated the system would forge ahead with restructuring, moving some AAP students, during the upcoming school year.

Some school board members, including Patty Reed (Providence) and Sandy Evans (Mason), pushed during a Nov. 12 board forum to get the issue on the board's Dec. 10 work session so the community — including board members — could be included in the process.

"There are cost issues, there are significant policy issues — overcrowding problems usually [prompt] a boundary study," Reed said at the forum. "We need to all take a deep breath, have a work session, get information on the pros and cons and a rationale for the timing. I really want to make sure everyone feels a part of the process and to reiterate this is not a done deal."

Reed told Patch she was disappointed in how this plan, and the implementation of online math textbooks, were introduced.

"Citizen input and board input both need to happen early and need to have a citizen role, and in both of these examples, it hasn't happened. And it's a governance issue," Reed said earlier this month. "I can't believe that my colleagues aren't as angry as I am. Who is in charge here?"

Mixed Messages

Last spring, the system formed an AAPP Task Force "to explore the best ways to provide advanced academic services in all FCPS pyramids to ensure that all students have access to these services," Torre said in an email to Patch.

The task force recommended increasing the number of AAP Level IV centers across the county, specifically at the six pyramids — Annandale, Edison, Falls Church, Marshall, South County and Robinson — without an AAP center, which requires some students to travel out of their pyramid or cluster to attend them, Torre said. 

The task force is also recommending the 15 FCPS middle schools without an AAP Level IV center create one, Torre said.

An initial recommendation by the task force projected the system could make the changes over five years, but overcrowding at Haycock (Cluster 1, McLean pyramid), Louise Archer (Cluster 2, Madison Pyramid), and Hunters Woods elementary schools (Cluster 8, South Lakes pyramid) had officials talking this fall about transferring some Haycock AAP students to a new AAP center in the Marshall High School pyramid by fall 2013, including some of those who had just been moved from Louise Archer in Vienna, parents said. Other adjustments would take children out of their schools without an option to stay, parents said.

School officials say no plan has been finalized, but more than 135 parents who have rallied around the issue in a group called Parents for AAP Equity say it was presented to them as a "done deal."

Mary Ruppert, an organizer of the group and a parent at Haycock Elementary, said the internal task force plan was posted on the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted website in September. At an October meeting at Haycock about the school's renovation, though, Ruppert said Cluster 1 Assistant Superintendent Marty Smith and school board member Janie Strauss (Dranesville) "announced the movement of 140 Cluster 2 students out of Haycock next year as basically a done deal," Ruppert told Patch.

"They promised it to the Haycock parents as a way to ease their overcrowding burden in order to entice them to stop trying to 'pause' their renovation. (They have been arguing that the new school will be too small and wanted FCPS to pause its plans to apply for zoning for a larger building)," Ruppert wrote.

Parents showed up at a school board work session last month holding signs against a quick reorganization, some of them reading, "Our children are not numbers." They told Patch they feared the plans had already been made too quickly and without adequate community input.

"The parents that I am working with (a group of about 135-140) are NOT saying no new center ever," Ruppert wrote in an email to Patch. "What we are saying is that our children's education should not be disrupted by an unnecessary transfer. Children should be grandfathered where they are to finish their elementary education. A new center should be built one year at a time so as not to overwhelm a new school. The parents want input to help build the center and make sure it truly is a good center, not something that is just a pro forma center. They are taking families in our area out of two of the most highly regarded centers, so we should be moved to an equally good center, not something they throw together in a few months."

This week, Ruppert said in an email to Patch the group is "thrilled that FCPS listened to us and is doing some community outreach.  We're not thrilled that it is so little, so quickly, and so poorly organized," she wrote.

Moving Forward

Some of the concerns the system cited in an email about this week's community meetings were "space availability, facility readiness, teacher training, quality of the new program, timing of the change, and community readiness for such a change," the message read.

Additional recommendations made by the task force Nov. 13, which will be presented at community meetings this week and to the board Dec. 10:

  • "Implementation of any change at the elementary level will begin with incoming third graders. No current AAP Level IV center elementary student will be moved, unless parents opt to do so."
  • "Opening of AAP Level IV centers at middle schools will begin with incoming seventh graders (except for middle schools with grades 6 – 8, then begin with rising sixth graders). No current AAP Level IV center middle school student will be moved, unless parents opt to do so."
  • "Pupil transfers and sibling placements will continue to follow the process outlined in Regulation 2230."

Those recommendations address some parent concerns about grandfathering, but other worries include bell schedule changes — which would particularly impact the 66 percent of elementary school-aged children with two working parents — high-quality assurance and adequate space.

"We want there to be adequate space in the new centers, so we're not merely moving the problem or kicking it down the road," wrote Louise Archer parent Brian Heller in an email to Patch. 

"One public meeting for hundreds of parents is not meaningful input (especially not after the Task Force has crafted its recommendations); We need true 2-way dialogue, before any recommendations are determined," Heller wrote in a handout he prepared for this week's meetings.

To implement some changes by the upcoming school year, board members would need to vote on changes by January 2013, the system says.

"We need to stress the fact these aren’t just numbers they are individual children, and it impacts people’s lives," Reed said.

Other community meetings are at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Lee High School Cafeteria (Clusters 4 and 5); and at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Kilmer Middle School Cafeteria (Clusters 1, 2 and 3).

See also:

Fairfax Watcher November 27, 2012 at 02:47 PM
"DONE DEAL"?? What a surprise....this is the FC School Board ! Its their way or NO way. They act like the sun rises and sets on them...FC can't exist without their schools - just watch the budget drills that will soon begin! "Above the Law and Below the radar"!!
Angela Smith November 29, 2012 at 12:02 PM
This is a farce that there is public input. FCPS tried to pretend they are taking community input but at the meeting no questions are allowed, yes thats right NO questions. No discussion or dialog with community members. A few slides of powerpoint with no details and then tell the parents to talk among themselves, write up inputs and leave the papers on your way out. What a SHAM
Louise Epstein November 29, 2012 at 12:55 PM
The School Board has 12 members, and they vary in their willingness to disagree with the Superintendent and his staff. It's unfair to assume they're all bad. This county-wide policy proposal was developed by Superintendent Jack Dale's staff. They expected, based on documents provided in response to FOIA requests, that at least 7 School Board members would rubber stamp a new policy without looking too closely. After the FOIA'd documents were made public, however, parents began to realize that FCPS central staff's proposal was premised on a multitude of erroneous factual assumptions. It also disregarded the research summary prepared by the one outside expert who participated on the FCPS staff committee. Nonetheless, FCPS staff are trying to ram their policy proposal through, and cover up the warts with deceptive labels. For example, FCPS staff and certain School Board members refuse to explain how FCPS would "blend" middle school Center and open-admission honors courses, as mentioned in internal FCPS documents. Instead, they tell parents every middle school would have a "Center" and avoid defining what those Centers would look like. Hopefully, at least 7 School Board members will realize that they were elected to set policy, and will vote at their December 10th work session (which is open to the public) to set this flawed proposal aside for extensive review.

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