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Accreditation Scores Improve But Some Local Schools Lag Behind

Seventeen more schools in the Fairfax County Public Schools system achieved fully accredited status from the Virginia Department of Education, based on results from the 2001-02 Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. The school system now has 163 schools at fully accredited status, up from 146 last year. However, five were given provisionally accredited, meets state standards status; 12 were provisionally accredited, needs improvement; and three were accredited with warning. The figures include the elementary, middle and high schools; the three alternative high schools; the adult high school; and selected special education centers.

Overall, the school system achieved an 89-percent fully accredited rate, while the statewide percentage was 64. Nine schools achieved a 100-percent accreditation pass rate in at least one core area, and of the 20 Project Excel schools, 10 are fully accredited. All of the system's general education middle and high schools are also fully accredited except two, Sandburg Middle in Mount Vernon and Mount Vernon High.

While the figures show an improvement over last year's 75 percent, the closest jurisdictions to Fairfax County, the City of Falls Church and Loudoun County, achieved a 100-percent fully accredited status. The difference, said schools superintendent Daniel Domenech, is pure numbers.

"How do you compare a school system? We are one of the largest school districts in America, and we have more diversity and children in poverty in larger numbers than those systems do."

OF THE 20 SCHOOLS that received less than fully accredited status, nine are part of either the Mount Vernon or West Potomac pyramid. The remainder are spread out among eight of the total 23 pyramids.

In addition, all three alternative high schools — Pimmit Hills in Falls Church, Bryant in Alexandria and Mountain View in Centreville — as well as the Woodson Adult High School in Fairfax and the Kilmer Center in Vienna, which is a special education center for children that are moderately to severely disabled — fall into this category. Bryant, Mountain View and Riverside Elementary in Mount Vernon are the only schools to be accredited with warning.

"There is tremendous diversity and poverty in those schools," Domenech said of the 20 schools, where in some cases the number of students in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program or students receiving free or reduced-priced lunches can reach 90 percent.

Of the alternative schools, which cater to students 17 and older who are seeking their high-school diplomas but don't succeed in a traditional setting, it also could be timing. The state mandates the SOLs are to be end-of-course tests administered at certain times in the spring and fall. Fairfax County's alternative high schools, however, have an open enrollment policy that accepts new students every two weeks on a year-round basis.

"Our students come to us at all different times of the year with different types of knowledge levels," said Barbara Gernat, principal at Mountain View. "It's supposed to be an end-of-course test, but for our students it’s not the end of course for them. They may not have been with us that long."

ONE OF THE RESPONSES from the county school system has been the creation of Project Excel, which provides increased time for learning, an enhanced academic program, and school accountability at selected schools with large numbers of students who are at risk for failing standardized tests. There are currently 20 Excel schools, and Riverside Elementary is the only one accredited with warning. Four Excel schools — Cameron Elementary in Alexandria, Hutchison Elementary in Herndon, Mount Eagle Elementary in Alexandria, and Westlawn Elementary in Falls Church — achieved a 100-percent accreditation pass rate in at least one core area.

"Project Excel has shown tremendous success," Domenech said. "It should be in all the schools."

The superintendent said the problem is the school system does not have the funds to establish the program everywhere. The program cost the school system $14 million in FY ‘02. About 12,377 students were served by the program last year. In FY ‘03, the program was proposed to expand to an additional eight elementary schools, but because of budget constraints it was approved to be phased in at only two schools, Parklawn and Weyanoke, both in Alexandria. As it turns out, Parklawn was provisionally accredited, meets state standards, and Weyanoke received provisionally accredited, needs improvement, by the state this go-around. The most expensive component of the program, said Domenech, is the full-day kindergarten.

The county school system has a few years to bring all its schools up to fully accredited status. However, no one is quite sure what happens if the schools don't reach that mark.

"By 2007, all schools have to be fully accredited," Domenech said. "What does it mean if they're not? Beats me."