News

New Superintendent Dr. Jones Kicks Off F.C. School Year at Convocation

Plethora of New Hires, Classes Begin Tuesday

As the famous slogan on the sign outside the long-standing animal clinic at Seven Corners used to read, “Love is a four-legged word.” In Falls Church, it translates as “Love is a four-school system.”

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A RARE OPPORTUNITY TO find the busy principals of all four City of Falls Church schools in a moment of repose together came Tuesday morning at the annual convocation marking the start of the new school year, held at George Mason High’s auditorium. In the front row were (left to right): Mason High Principal Ty Byrd, Jefferson Elementary Principal Bob Palermo, Mt. Daniel Elementary Principal Kathy Halayko and Henderson Middle School Principal Seidah Ashshaheed. (Photo: News-Press)
Plethora of New Hires, Classes Begin Tuesday

As the famous slogan on the sign outside the long-standing animal clinic at Seven Corners used to read, “Love is a four-legged word.” In Falls Church, it translates as “Love is a four-school system.”

All four City of Falls Church public schools are abuzz with activity this week as the full contingent of teachers and staff are preparing their rooms, undergoing some professional development, and otherwise operating in high spirits awaiting the start of the new school year right after Labor Day this coming Tuesday.

Fairfax County schools and schools in the District are already well underway, but the school year has always begun after Labor Day in Falls Church, and what makes this year special is an unusually-large contingent of new teachers and support staff and, of course, a new superintendent, Dr. Toni Jones.

Dr. Jones, coming in from Oklahoma, has been working full tilt all summer, stepping into the shoes of the highly esteemed, just retired Dr. Lois Berlin. Dr. Jones, among other things, is enjoying the fact that she left Oklahoma just in time to avoid the record high temperatures there all this summer.

She made her formal debut at the annual Falls Church schools’ “welcome back” breakfast and convocation for all the system employees Monday morning at George Mason High School. The convocation featured a theme this year, “Little City, Wide World,” to highlight the amazing diversity of nationalities the students in the system.

Many come because the Falls Church system is recommended by the U.S. State Department to foreign diplomats, and for good reason.

As Falls Church’s new School Board chair Pat Riccards told the convocation Monday, of over 21,000 high schools in the U.S. that participate in the coveted International Baccalaureate (IB) program, Falls Church’s George Mason High ranks eleventh, and of the 10 ahead of Mason, nine are magnet, charter or merit schools, all with selective admission.

(For the curious, the only open admission public school ahead of Mason in the entire U.S. is South Side High in Rockville Center, New York).

Riccards told the teachers and staff Monday, “Ultimately, the measure of schools is all of you. You are why we are successful and entrust our children to you.”

Jones told the assembled that one of the most impressive things she’s found about the Falls Church system is its focus on academics. “They are very important here, but there’s a great athletic program, too,” she said.

Following a short video of an amazing number of students offering greetings in their native languages, Dr. Jones said that, being from Oklahoma, she knows pig-Latin, and her husband is an Aussie.

Jon Pepper, a veteran teacher at Mason, spoke representing the Falls Church Education Association, as did Ira Kaylin representing the Falls Church City Council. Kaylin said “the success of the schools is synonymous with the success of the City,” and that everyone on the City Council shares that view.

Among the VIPs recognized were Lou Olom and Jesse Thackrey, founders of the school system.

Special attention was paid to teachers and staff marking special milestones in their careers in Falls Church, including 22 marking five years, 22 marking ten years, ten marking 15 years, five marking 20 years (Sara Blake, Syda Chansombat, Bridget Dean-Pratt, Yolanda Jordan and Eduardo Molina), three marking 25 years (Marco De Las Casas, Mary Kelly and Janet Weber), and two hitting the amazing 30-year mark (John Ballou and Ann Gordon).

Ballou, who has designed and staged countless student productions as head of the Fine Arts Department, invoked the names of legendary influences on the system, from Nancy Sprague to George Toms, Mary Lou Tatum, Cay Wiant, Michael Hoover and Tamara Ballou, his wife of 24 years. Both Ballou and his wife, who retired after 24 years of teaching in 2002, were winners of the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher awards. Ballou also noted that all three of their children went through the Falls Church system from start to finish.

“I’ve participated with thousands of students who have performed here,” he said, and he also works with the school’s highly competitive robotics team.

Dr. Jones said, “I appreciate longevity, especially in a world that reinvents itself on a constant basis.”

An unusually large number of brand new employees to the system were also welcomed by the principals of the schools where they’ve begun working this week. Dr. Jones introduced ten new employees working systemwide; Mt. Daniel Elementary Principal Kathy Halayko introduced 12 new hires; Thomas Jefferson Elementary Principal Bob Palermo introcued six new employees; Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School’s brand new principal, Seidah Ashshaheed, introduced 16 new people; and, George Mason High Principal Ty Byrd welcomed 13 new people. Of the total, 19 are folks who are continuing with the system in new positions.

One new hire, who will be teaching English at Mason, is a graduate of the F.C. system, Peter Laub, who is also a former employee of the News-Press.

Monday morning’s event featured a new wrinkle in its use of a Twitter Board, a large screen above the stage showing a stream of live Tweets offered by people in the audience.

Dr. Jones, in an interview with the News-Press at her office Friday, said she loves living the City, dining at its restaurants, shopping at its Farmer’s Market and enjoying the “culture of the City.” She and her husband are also becoming familiar with the area, with their attendance on the National Mall for the fireworks on July 4 being a highlight.

“We’ll do that again next year,” she quipped.

She said she’s been extremely impressed with the quality, energy and enthusiasm of the system’s staff. “They are phenomenal, I sincerely mean it,” she said. “They focus on what they are asked to do and have very high-level skills. They are dynamic, work hard and laugh a lot.”

But she said she fully expects the budgeting process for the coming fiscal year to be challenging. “There are no presumptions about anything now, but I look forward to the process,” she said.