Board to Consider First Charter School

Board to Consider First Charter School

Application Rises Many Questions

It all started after the Fairfax County School Board voted not to continue with a pilot program that was teaching children with autism using the principals of Applied Behavior Analysis, better known as ABA, in fiscal year 2003 when the money for the pilot would run out.

The members of a nonprofit group, PACE, Parents for Autistic Children’s Education, had campaigned vigorously for the continuation of the program, but with tight fiscal restrictions, the board opted to go with a hybrid program that incorporated several concepts of ABA, as well as other teaching methods.

At the same time, the state was completing legislation that would require school divisions to accept charter school applications, giving PACE a new possibility. At a work session Nov. 10, PACE representatives, the School Board and schools staff worked on the charter school application submitted by the group to open the PACE School, co-located in existing elementary schools, to serve 60 students ages 2 to 12 using the methods of ABA. If approved by the board, the school could open as early as July 2004.

The number of students identified with the primary label of autism has grown from 235 in 1997 to 662 in 2002 in Fairfax County, according to state figures. "We expect the number to be in the 700s in FCPS now," said parent Randy Nicklas in a presentation to the board. "We feel PACE has put together a program that will excel."

The proposed first-year budget for the school is $2.4 million, or $40,403 per pupil per year. The money will come from pass throughs from the school system, PACE fund-raising and federal grants. The school is expected to run at a $60,000 deficit the first year, which PACE committed to covering.

MONDAY, HOWEVER, staff members raised issues concerning legal obligations, budget, human resources, transportation and governance, which they say still need to be worked out. PACE had been working closely with staff since submitting its first draft in July. In addition, some PTAs of the proposed "host" schools have mounted an e-mail campaign objecting to the proposal, said various School Board members.

PACE and schools staff have tentatively identified Rolling Valley in Springfield, Sunrise Valley in Reston, Oakview in Fairfax, Oak Hill in Herndon, Cub Run in Centreville and Hayfield in the Alexandria area as host schools.

"It would be an overlay, we will not have our own building. We will take advantage of available space," Nicklas said. "All the schools have been identified by FCPS. It’s important to be co-located so the students capable of inclusion can be included. That’s the law."

THE PACE SCHOOL would use a 1-to-1 instructor-to-student ratio with one certified special education teacher for every 10 students. The rest of the instructors will be the equivalent of the instructional aides the school system, paid on an hourly basis with no benefits. The school calendar is proposed to be 207 days long, using a modified-calendar method and implementing five intersessions, with 28-hours of 1-to-1 instruction per week per student. The breakdown proposes 40 beginners, 15 intermediate and five advanced spread out into two classrooms at each host school, with five students per class.

The proposal calls for a director and assistant director overseeing the charter school. The director and PACE staff will be responsible for the special-education programs at the charter school, while the host principal will be responsible for safety and the facility and will be included when it comes to inclusion. All charter school staff will be Fairfax County public school employees, with the PACE School Board of Directors, made up of parents, having some say in the hiring of the director and oversight of the program. Ultimately, however, Daniel Domenech, the schools superintendent, and the School Board, have governance over the charter school if disputes between PACE and the host school arise.

"I like to think of our proposal less as a new school and more of a parent-initiated program," Nicklas said.

MOST STAFF CONCERNS center around what happens if the charter school fails and around the costs.

"To date, we have not identified any grants for charter schools that PACE would qualify for. Most are for facilities," said Deirdra McLaughlin, the school system’s chief financial officer. "In this budget, they cut it pretty close. There is no funding for overtime or extra hours, no funding for substitutes. Could this budget work? Yeah. It’s doable, but there’s no room."

Scott Campbell, another PACE parent, said the group has identified federal grants, which the charter school could qualify for and help off set the start up costs.

"At this time, we do not know how much they are," Campbell said. "But there are federal funds specifically available for all start up costs. On average, they’re $100,000 to $150,000 per year."

McLaughlin said there would not be significant staffing savings because the school system would still have to staff its special-education classrooms at current levels in most cases, even though there could be fewer students. For example, she said a preschool autism class is staffed with a teacher and two instructional aides for five students. If two of those students attend the PACE school, because of staffing ratios, the class would still have to have the one teacher and two aides for the three remaining students.

BUT ESTIMATING EXACT costs is difficult for either side, because of the uncertainty of the charter school location, and the make up of the student body. Nicklas said 85 potential families have been identified for enrollment, but in the end no one can say where the students will come from until they actually open the school.

The uncertainty has also raised red flags for the transportation department, which would have to make sure the students can get to the charter school and home again.

"Out of the six schools identified, only one has a special-education program [that requires special-education buses] and that’s Sunrise Valley," said Tom Italiano, transportation planner for the school system. "Cub Run has a preschool and the other schools are where there is no special-education transportation presence."

He said until the school system knows where the charter school students are coming from and where they are going, it is hard estimate the transportation impacts.

The School Board will hold a public hearing on Monday, Nov. 17, with a decision anticipated Nov. 20. However, at the work session, Board Member Tessie Wilson (Braddock) indicated more time may be needed to work out the differences