President’s Visit Re-Kindles Graham Road School Re-Location Concerns

A controversy over the planned relocation of the Graham Road Elementary School in a Greater Falls Church area of Fairfax County flared up yesterday following the high-profile visit to the school by President Barack Obama Tuesday.

A statement from the executive director of the Arlington Boulevard Community Development Association (ABCD), issued following the President’s visit, charged that the decision last year by the Fairfax County School Board to relocate the school could have had racial overtones, a charge adamantly denied by school officials.

While 95 percent of the students at the school are African-American, Latino or Asian and 90 percent walk to the school at its current location, many of them coming from the Kingsley Commons, the new location “was lobbied for by a small group of non-minority parents living proximate to the proposed relocation site,” causing “ninety percent of students to be bussed as a result,” wrote Sharyn Franck, ABCD’s executive director. She said that a petition signed by 500 citizens opposing the move was ignored.

But School Board member Jane Strauss told the News-Press yesterday that the planned move was due simply to the “very small footprint” of the Graham Road (GRES) school’s current location, which made expansion impossible. The new location, the former Devonshire School a half-mile away, has more than twice the space, she said.

“When you make decisions to spend millions to renovate for something that will last 30 years, it is always tough,” she said. “We tried to acquire more land at the current location, but couldn’t.”

The renovation of the Devonshire School, which has been used in recent years as administrative offices for the Fairfax Schools, is expected to begin this summer, said Paul Regnier, spokesman for the school system, and students from GRES will be relocated there beginning in the fall of 2012.

Notwithstanding all that, Obama’s appearance at GRES, where he made a major announcement on his push for another $1.3 billion for his federal education initiative, Race to the Top, underscored the extraordinary achievements at the school in recent years.

Despite the fact that close to 80 percent of students there qualify for free or reduced-price meals, making it one of the lowest-income student bodies in the county, in 2008 “all of the school’s sixth graders met Virginia’s reading standards and 96 percent met math standards,” according to a White House statement.

Departing the White House in a motorcade at 9:41 a.m. Tuesday, the President and Education Secretary Arne Duncan arrived at Graham Road at 9:59. The President walked into a classroom where sixth grade students and teachers Mary Olmsted and Amanda Shopa awaited him and said, “Hey guys, hello!”

He shook hands with all the approximately 30 students and said, “Good to see you.” The two sat on stools in the front of the class and Duncan asked, “Who is never going to wash their hands again!” to a lot of laughter. They began a 20-minute conversation by asking the students about their schoolwork.

The President and Secretary Duncan then moved to an adjacent classroom with a brightly-decorated sign reading, “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Look at the Letters We Know in This Room!” When he entered the room to find news photographers sitting in chairs meant for very young children, he quipped, “You guys look really cute in those chairs.”

In addition to his formal remarks, Obama said the Graham Road school “is one of Virginia’s finest” and “used innovative approaches to teaching.” He added, “Offering our children an outstanding education is one of your most fundamental obligations.”