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Project Excel Proposes to Expand

Since becoming a Project Excel school in 1999, Halley Elementary School, in Fairfax Station, has seen a dramatic increase in its test scores.

"Test scores in all areas have gone up, much more dramatically in the first two years," said assistant principal Tonya Matz. "There's been a lot of improvement and tremendous support as far as resources. The full-day kindergarten has made a huge difference."

In fact, Halley met its goals in the total average Schoolwide Achievement Index (SAI) for the 2000-01 school year. The SAI provides an index of school achievement based on student scores on the Standards of Learning (SOL) and Stanford 9 tests. At the elementary-school level, schools superintendent Daniel Domenech challenged all the schools to gain five SAI points.

"We're starting to see a much larger percent of students being stronger readers," said Sheila Kearney, principal of Hutchison Elementary in Herndon, also an Excel school. "Test scores have gone up, and our students have become stronger learners."

Project Excel was created in 1999 to provide schools that had a large population of students at risk of failing the required standardized tests, with an enhanced academic program and additional time for learning.

During the 2000-01 school year, 13 Excel schools met or exceeded the five-point goal, and 19 achieved an increase over 1999-2000 levels. On the strength of these numbers, Domenech has proposed to expand the program to eight more schools at an additional cost of $6.7 million in his proposed $1.6 billion budget. Those eight schools are Brookfield in Chantilly, Belle View in Mount Vernon, Braddock in Annandale, Bren Mar in Alexandria, Bush Hill in Franconia, Mosby Woods in Fairfax, Parklawn in Alexandria and Weyanoke in Alexandria.

Last year’s approved budget included $14.2 million for Excel; if this year’s proposal survives budget cuts, the expense will rise to $20.6 million.

<mh>In Need

<bt>"We are one of the top-10 highest-poverty-rate schools," said Parklawn principal Susan Ackroyd. "We’re always looking at how we can help our students. Excel provides additional time and resources."

Excel schools have a maximum class size of 24 students. Each kindergarten teacher has a full-time instructional aide. Each has full-day kindergarten and full-day Mondays; each school uses technology-based phonics instruction for kindergarten and first grades in the form of either SuccessMaker or Waterford computer programs; each will be subjected to school accountability and can adopt the modified calendar.

The program is undergoing an evaluation, with the results to be presented to the Fairfax County School Board in March.

<mh>In Demand

<bt>Ackroyd doesn’t need a report to know she wants the program at her school. She said Parklawn already has full-day kindergarten, but she would like to implement the modified-school-year (year-round) calendar, where students attend school the mandatory 180 days but have the option to continue classes during three-week intersessions.

"In Excel, I hear, they have additional resources like Waterford. When anyone talks about technology and reading, I get hesitant," said Ackroyd, who does have the program on a limited basis at the school for her kindergarten classes. "I was mesmerized at how the teachers were mesmerized by Waterford. There was so much writing and knowledge. I started to raise a fuss. I wanted it for all the other grade levels."

<mh>More Time for Learning

<bt>The schools that are already part of Project Excel credit Waterford and the additional teaching time. Unlike other county schools, Excel schools have full-day kindergarten and have eliminated early dismissal on Mondays, which, along with smaller class sizes, provides more time for learning.

"The full-day kindergarten and full Mondays make the schedule consistent for the students," Matz said.

At Fort Belvoir Elementary School, principal Jane Wilson said the staff sees reading as the foundation, which is why they have chosen to implement the Reading Recovery program, an intensive early-intervention program for first-graders. This year, Fort Belvoir, in Mount Vernon, will also have its own summer-school program, so students can stay at their base school.

She said part of being an Excel school means the teachers and staff have had to become data-driven and analyze test scores to identify strengths and weaknesses in developing lessons for the students.

"We’ve been a Project Excel school from the beginning. It helps to have a full-day kindergarten program,” White said. “Our children are hitting their reading benchmarks. We saw the results on the standardized tests, especially the SOLs."

When Kearney was the assistant principal at Hutchison Elementary School in Herndon, things were different than they are now. Since returning to the school this year as its principal, she has come to enjoy visiting the first-grade classes and asking the children to read for her.

"The stronger readers are the ones we would have been concerned about before," Kearney said. "They are coming out of kindergarten so much stronger."

Kearney said becoming an Excel school has made a difference since she first roamed the school's halls.

"We were able to meet all our targets this year. We’re a Gold Medal school," said Wilson. "We have increased our SAI by five points, and in some cases we were higher."

Kearney, too, said one of the reasons Excel has proved to be successful at Hutchison is the ability for early intervention and the tremendous teacher training for reading and math.

"We used to have little time for instruction. Now we can do so much more," Kearney said. "There’s lots of data analysis and poring over materials, but they are good materials."

James Dallas, assistant principal at Halley, also credits the team concept of teaching for making the program successful. He said the entire staff talks about what the students need academically, and the decisions have eliminated the need to seek outside resources.