- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2000

HAYES, Va. Victory Academy, Virginia's first public charter school, is giving a second chance to about 50 Gloucester County students who would otherwise have fallen through the cracks.

Charter schools have taken off in the District of Columbia, where the range of choices goes from back-to-basics schools to schools that specialize in educating black male students.

But Maryland and Virginia have been slower to come around.

The 20 eighth-graders, 20 ninth-graders and 12 students working toward a general equivalency diploma (GED) at Victoria Academy don't have discipline problems and aren't learning-disabled. What they are is unreached by the regular schools, says Shirley Cooper, the coordinator at Victory.

"They have programs for gifted students, they have programs for special education, for automobile mechanics, for the chorale folks. But you have not provided a program for that average [student], normal but not motivated and sometimes with an attitude," Mrs. Cooper said.

That, she says, is what Victory can provide.

Last week, a Maryland Senate committee failed to act on a bill that would have let charter schools apply for federal funds, and Northern Virginia localities have moved slowly, with Prince William County announcing it won't establish charter schools and other school boards still deciding.

Victory, which occupies two offices in an office park in Hayes, an hour east of Richmond, opened as an alternative education program for the 1998-99 school year, and was approved as a charter school this year. A second charter school, the Blue Ridge Technical Academy, should open in the Roanoke area in the fall.

The key to running the school, said Mrs. Cooper and Wayne Fox, an administrator who handles disciplinary matters for the county school system, is class size, flexibility and parental involvement.

But the key for getting students back in shape for learning is structure. Students wear a loosely defined uniform a shirt with a collar and khaki pants. They record what they did and what they learned every day in a binder called their "agenda." They work on their study habits.

"A lot of students can do the work, but they get lost in a class of 25 or 30," Mr. Fox said. So Victory caps its classes at 10 students, meaning teachers know exactly how far along with the lessons each student is. If individual students are slow with any concepts, they will make them retake the lessons as many times as necessary to make sure the students learn them.

Students at Victory begin their day at 8 a.m., have four hourlong classes in the morning in science, math, English and history, have lunch, then spend the afternoon in tutoring or at physical education. They use the same textbooks and cover the same lessons as students at Gloucester High School, where they will return after Victory.

The tradeoff, though, is students at Gloucester earn seven credits while students at Victory only earn five.

Victory students are required to pass the state's Standards of Learning tests, and Mrs. Cooper says she wants to be optimistic about her students' chances. Still, there's the option of applying for a waiver if the scores just don't cut it.

County budget officials said the small class sizes mean it costs more to educate a student at Victory that it would at Gloucester High School. How much more, though, is tough to pinpoint since certain overhead costs are shared.

Victory's operating budget is $262,000 this year. The funds are mostly from the local school board, but this year, the school received a $20,000 grant from the state, and has earned a $100,000 federal charter school grant that will be part of next year's $268,000 operating budget.

Mrs. Cooper gets the most out of the two offices she has converted to schoolhouses. Her computer lab serves as the cafeteria and the assembly hall. And she gets the most out of her staff, including her secretary, a parent of a student who doubles as the school bus driver.

The real challenge for most of Victory's students isn't succeeding at Victory, though. It's adjusting to 10th grade back at Gloucester High School.

"I'm afraid of getting there and the teachers being a pain in the butt and [I'll] end up failing," said Kim Ward, 13, and eighth-grader who said she's gone from D's and F's to A's and B's this year.

One of the biggest problems before was teachers who couldn't spend enough time making sure every student got the lesson. "If half the class got it and a few didn't, they just go on. They don't care," she said.

Fear of life at Gloucester is a sentiment many of the students at Victory share.

"It's just one high school with 2,000 kids, and you can't learn anything," said Matt Hall, 16, who failed the ninth grade at Gloucester before coming to Victory.

Some of the students said they would refuse to go to the high school.

Jean King, the principal at Gloucester, said some of the students from the previous class have adjusted, and others haven't.

"Most of them, I would say a majority, that come back from Victory Academy adjust and do well. There's a minority that don't do well," she said.

Margaret Greene, who teaches ninth-grade math at Victory, said some of the students they tracked from last year's class have made a remarkable turnaround, and some are even now on track to go to college.

Still, Mrs. Cooper and the school's staff acknowledged transitioning back to Gloucester was a big challenge.

It's one reason Mrs. Cooper said she'd like to expand Victory to include a 10th grade, just to give students an extra year's help and confidence before sending them back into the mix at Gloucester. But she said she won't go beyond that, arguing Victory's strength comes in its small size.

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