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Parents: 'Stop and Think' Before Restructuring Advanced Academics

In final Fairfax County Public Schools outreach meeting about proposed AAP changes, parents tell officials the process seemed too rushed.

At a meeting Thursday night about a proposed restructuring of Fairfax County Public Schools' Advanced Academic Centers, parents echoed concerns shared by county parents at other input meetings this week: how administrators would ensure the quality of new centers, if the proposal was really a long-term solution for overcrowding and whether schools have enough room to handle  an influx of students, among others.

But the feeling among parents that the system had already made a decision to restructure the county’s Level IV program in time for the 2013 school year — that they'd been cut out of the process — at times seemed to overwhelm issues within the plan itself.

Though school officials reiterated during a brief presentation Thursday that adding elementary centers to the six pyramids and creating a Level IV center at 15 middle schools was only a proposal, and school board members would ultimately choose how to move forward, many parents still felt like the plan was rushed and lacked transparency.

Parents were not on the system's initial task force, they said, and weren't directly notified about its findings or the proposals that grew out of them; they should have been brought in at the beginning of the process instead of toward the end of it, they said. And even as the system works to collect input ahead of a Dec. 10 school board work session on the proposal, parents say they’re struggling to get all the answers and information they need.

They also took issue with the format of the meeting, which broke parents into small groups and asked them to submit written feedback instead of addressing group questions in a larger setting.

"I want to know when this all started and why we weren't notified when it started," one parent stood up to yell from a crowd of at least 200 Cluster 1 parents, some of whom waved signs, in Kilmer Middle School's cafeteria, earning applause and spurring more charged speeches.

"I understand passions are running high around this topic but I just want to ask everyone to be courteous and respectful so we can have some high quality and productive discussions here," said Barbara Hunter, the assistant superintendent for communications and community outreach.

"I don't think this process is respectful at all," said one man, taking over the microphone at the front of the room when parents were directed to break into small groups.

The meeting broke Clusters 1, 2, and 3 into three separate rooms at Kilmer; combined, the rooms were filled with hundreds of parents who came to give feedback. Schools spokesman John Torre said the system received 76 group submissions, from parents grouped by school, and about 190 individual submissions — the highest response officials have seen all week.

Officials are scanning each response sheet onto the FCPS website and will also create summaries, all of which will be presented to the school board at its Dec. 10 work session. Torre said the responses would be available to the public online sometime next week.

Because the proposal would start phasing rising third and seventh graders into newly created centers in 2013 — adding a grade each year thereafter over five years — the school board must vote on the proposal sometime in January.

The board could also choose to delay a restructuring until 2014, a choice that resonated with those who also questioned whether it was fair to make any major changes in the final months of Superintendent Jack Dale's tenure.

Students at elementary school AAP centers would be grandfathered into their current schools, but rising third graders and middle school students would be placed in their newly designated center, according to school documents.

What grandfathering means for the three schools dealing with overcrowding — Haycock, Louise Archer and Hunter Woods elementary schools — isn't clear.

But if it's not part of a plan the school board adopts, one parent predicted it will "have a mutiny on its hands."

Ensuring Access, Equity, Quality

The schools' goal, said Craig Herring, director of prek through 12 curriculum and instruction, is to provide better equity and access in the level IV services the system offers, so every student can benefit from the advanced learning many of their peers already enjoy.

Still, it's the timeline that to some parents felt rushed.

A restructuring of such a large system doesn't "happen all at once," said Spring Hill Elementary School parent Astrid Tisseront, who said she would prefer starting a few centers next year and seeing how they fare before proceeding with others.

"I just don't see how we can create a new center in a matter of months," Tisseront said.

Sherry Jin, of McLean, said she was worried there weren't enough teachers trained or comfortable with teaching a center's curriculum, noting certification "was different than experience."

Herring said teachers at existing AAP centers would have the ability to transfer to a newly-created program. Some teachers are AAP certified but not at a school that offers a center; others are just shy of certification and could complete it quickly, Herring said.

Newly created centers would not blend AAP students into honors classes, Herring added.

Others worried it seemed simply a way of kicking a larger space problem down the road.

"Overcrowding is coming no matter what happens," Shrevewood Elementary School parent Lee Cloutier said. "Building more schools is something that needs to happen."

Finding Space

Space was another aspect of the system's proposal in which parents lacked confidence, despite Herring's assurance all proposed centers would complete a "readiness checklist" before opening.

Some parents were frustrated they didn't know exactly what that entailed, or what readiness really means.

Part of the readiness checklist involves building capacity, said Kevin Sneed, director of design and construction services.

That’s something residents can view online with a new capacity dashboard launched last week, which shows space availability at every school in the county.

Data for next year won't be available online until next spring, but Sneed said his team would do site assessments at each proposed center to determine whether it could handle extra students with the space it had, or, if modulars or trailers would be necessary.

With the schools' population growing at the largest rate seen in years, some modulars and trailers would be necessary in certain areas regardless of whether this proposal moves forward, Sneed said.

“It’s hard to believe that a school could absorb that many students at once” one Spring Hill Elementary School parent said, noting beyond the strain an influx would put on classrooms, population growth also affects spaces like gyms, cafeterias and libraries – as well as after school activities like Science Olympiad or Math Counts.

Not everyone had issues with the proposal, though. Some Vienna Elementary School parents thought the middle school proposal worked in their favor.

“I like the idea of being able to send my daughter to Thoreau where all her friends go," said parent Monica Cramer, who would otherwise have to send her daughter much farther down the road to Luther Jackson Middle School.

“Keeping our kinds in town schools is nice,” said Courtney Johnson VES. “This just allows us to stay within our community”

See also:

Parents to Weigh In on Advanced Academic Shifts

Parents and Faculty Discuss Planned Expansion of Advanced Academic Centers

Parents Demand Answers at Advanced Academic Meeting

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