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Excel Excelled?

Principals point to progress amid shifting demographics.

After an hour listening to the School Board discuss statistical results of Project Excel, county principals shared anecdotal evidence they felt was just as telling.

"Excel is a choice for me, a passion for me," said Sheila Kearney, principal of Hutchison Elementary School in Herndon. "We need time, resources and focus."

"When schools are able to respond with additional time and support, that's when academic achievement came through," said Andrew Camarda, principal of London Towne Elementary in Centreville.

"Sometimes gains you see do not show up in test scores," said Lori Morton, principal of Riverside Elementary in Alexandria.

"This has been a phenomenal experience for me as an administrator and a teacher," said Deborah Tyler, principal of Pine Spring Elementary in Falls Church. "We all believe all children can learn. This made us prove it."

PROJECT EXCEL, initiated by Superintendent Daniel Domenech in the spring of 1999, was designed to improve achievement at the 20 county elementary schools with the lowest scores on the initial Schoolwide Achievement Index. Enrollment of students receiving free or reduced-price meals and students receiving English for speakers of other languages was the highest in these 20 schools.

Under the program, which cost more than $15 million last year, the county increased instructional time and lowered class size, implemented full-day kindergarten, technology-based phonics and eliminated early closing on Monday. Schools were expected to show annual progress on the Schoolwide Achievement Index, a tool developed by the school system that combines SOL and Stanford Achievement results to reveal measurable goals for individual schools.

"Yes, it's full day kindergarten, yes, it's extended Monday, yes, it's what we all have had to do — and it's also giving us information to let us know what our students are not learning," said Kearney.

THE OFFICE OF PROGRAM EVALUATION gave its report evaluating the first five years of the program during the Board's worksession on Monday, Feb. 9.

"If expansion of the Excel model is intended, consider focusing on schools with high percentages of ESOL and FRM [free-and-reduced-meal] students, since these students showed the greatest academic increases," according to the report.

Domenech zeroed in on a table in the report which showed the number of first-grade students receiving both free and reduced-price meals and ESOL services increased from 108 in 2000 to 423 in 2003 in some Project Excel schools, while the score in reading comprehension improved from 552.9 to 564.4 in this population during the same time period.

"I think slight improvement is a miracle when you think of the demographic shifts. There are schools that have gone through incredible demographic shifts, as did the entire county, and achievement continues to go up," Domenech said.

Some of the 20 schools, including Glen Forest Elementary in Falls Church, changed to year-round school calendars. Approximately 50 percent of Glen Forest students receive ESOL services and 85 percent of students go home to families that speak languages other than English, said principal Theresa West.

"Students don't have loss of learning that happens over the summer," West said. "Project Excel has been incredible for us."

Project Excel is funded in the proposed FY 2005 budget to continue in 20 schools, plus partial implementation in 10 more.