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Votes

Schools Improve Accreditation Status

Still Room for Improvement

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. "They are very diverse schools with populations typically considered at risk."

The City of Falls Church, by comparison, has only four schools — two elementary, one middle and one high — so while the populations may be similar, the smaller school system has the resources to dedicate to the students it deems most at risk.

"We only have about 2,000 students. We have about 20 percent in special education and 20 percent below the poverty level, but the actual numbers are larger in Fairfax County," said Harriet Hanlon, City of Falls Church Public Schools testing director. "In a high school of 800 students, for example, at most 50 students didn't pass the SOLs the first time. We can focus on those 50 students."

Hanlon said the actual numbers can make a difference. The city for example, could have five or six children in a 125-student class that don't speak English, while in Fairfax County the ESOL program supports more than 18,000 students in 175 school settings.

IN THE CASE 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."

Regardless, in many cases, the students attending the alternative schools are not required to pass the SOLs to graduate but have to take the test anyway. Under the state regulations the SOLs are not a requirement for students over age 20 or those who were first-time freshman before the 2000-01 school year.

Gernat said officials from all three county alternative schools have been working with the state Department of Education to try to have different criteria for accreditation apply to these special schools. She said she would also like to see the students be able to take the SOLs when they actually finish the course, as the tests are meant to be administered, possibly online.

"We're alternative schools, and we do things differently than other schools," Gernat said.

They also do things differently from the rest of the state. While a few other jurisdictions have alternative high schools, Fairfax County is the only one that permits open enrollment on a year-round basis. The county's alternative high schools are also the only ones that essentially do not have an age limit for their schools, although the average age is between 17 and 22.

"Our students are very bright," Gernat said. "They just haven't had a fair, level playing field."

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 Excel program made a difference at Hutchison, said principal Sheila Kearney. The program has provided the Herndon school with such added resources as a full-day kindergarten and full-day Mondays, Waterford computers — technology-based phonics program — in kindergarten, 15:1 ratio in classrooms and a SOLs resource teacher.

"It does make a big difference," Kearney said. "With Project Excel the support from Fairfax County is tremendous."

Kearney said the additional support has allowed her school to create a reading resource team, made up of an ESOL resource teacher, Chapter I teacher, SOL resource teacher, reading teacher, special education teacher and herself, which analyzes the students' statistical data, focusing on math and English/reading, and creates individualized plans for intensive intervention for every student deemed to be at risk of failing the SOLs.

"Just because a child is in a program, it doesn't mean the problem is solved," Kearney said. "We make sure somebody in this building is doing something individualized for every child who needs it."

Under the intensive intervention, the student would remain in his 90-minute core SOL class except for about 20 minutes, when the student is pulled out for structured, intensive instruction in problem areas in a one-on-one setting. Kearney said the aim is to try to keep the students in a class with their peers as much as possible, rather than singling them out for longer periods of one-on-one attention. The primary goal is for all students to be completely literate and be mathematical thinkers, she said.

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."