County board to consider first charter

Prince William County could become the ninth jurisdiction in the state with an operational charter school should the School Board pass an application Wednesday night.

The board will consider the application submitted by Samia Harris, who hopes to charter a school called Prince William Linguistic Academy, specializing in Spanish, French, Arabic and English as a second language. The proposed budget for the school is about $3.5 million.

A charter school is an alternative public school with goals set forth by the founder’s management committee of teachers, parents and school administrators. Under the supervision of the School Board, the committee has the freedom to choose from policies and regulations in mainstream schools.

There are eight jurisdictions in Virginia with charter schools in operation, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

Harris’ experience as an immigrant is the driving force behind the charter application, she said. She came to the United States and Canada from Egypt in 1973. Fourteen years later, she opened Early Years Academy Inc., a preschool, and Prince William Academy Inc., an elementary school. She is both the founder and principal of both schools in Dale City.

“It is because of my heritage that I want the children to speak other languages and bridge the gap in the culture,” Harris said.

Her goal is to bring all students up to federal standards of learning within three years, according to the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act.

Students who speak English as a second language would be required to take three hours of ESL courses daily. Students who speak English as their primary language will also be required to take three hours of language-intensive courses daily. The three-hour block would be used by taking an hour and a half of English followed by an hour and a half of Arabic, French or Spanish.

After those three hours of language, students would continue with other core subjects.

The charter school would serve about 500 kindergarten to sixth-grade students and teacher-to-student ratios would not be less than one to 20.

Students would have all-day kindergarten and there would be no early dismissals. The school would be supported by funds from the school division’s budget.

Harris’ application was previously rejected at an Oct. 2 School Board meeting when Pamela Gauch, associate superintendent for instruction, questioned the vagueness in the application’s staffing selections and finance strategies. The application lacked details in the educational program, pupil performance standards or curriculum, as required by regulations, according to the review committee’s report, according to Gauch.

Lucy Beauchamp, School Board chairwoman, said she is a supporter of charter schools although some of the charter’s strategies used in outlining curriculum and finances are unclear. It was only about a year ago when the School Board agreed to consider charter school applications.

Should Harris’ charter be approved, Prince William Linguistics Academy is scheduled to be built in Hedges Run Office Park, between Cotton Mill Drive and Commission Court in Lake Ridge. It is scheduled to open in September 2003. If approved with conditions, the School Board will set guidelines for the management committee in order to move forward with the charter process.

The School Board can also revoke the charter at any time if the school is not adhering to regulations, such as budget guidelines, Beauchamp said.

“I want to know that when we grant a charter, it has every chance of success. I don’t want to be that first school division that revokes a charter in Virginia,” Beauchamp

Staff writer Jennifer Brennan can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 123.

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