As F.C. Schools Open, Early Signs Of a Cooling in Enrollment Growth

PARENTS WAVE GOODBYE to children embarking upon their first day back to school at Falls Church City Schools Tuesday. Initial reports showed lower-than-expected enrollment after the first day.  (Photo: John Wesley Brett/FCCPS)
PARENTS WAVE GOODBYE to children embarking upon their first day back to school at Falls Church City Schools Tuesday. Initial reports showed lower-than-expected enrollment after the first day. (Photo: John Wesley Brett/FCCPS)

Another school year commenced for the City of Falls Church with the beginning of classes at the City’s four highly acclaimed schools on Tuesday, and Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones was upbeat about the smooth start in comments to the News-Press late Tuesday.

Of course, the one item that has everybody holding their breaths as the year begins centers on enrollment figures, and that’s because in recent years they’ve exploded so furiously, taxing the system to the max. The news as of last night, however, is that the numbers appear to be coming in somewhat below expectations, though it is too soon to tell for sure.

Realities of the flat larger economy could be beginning to counterbalance the reputation of the school system, some surmise, even as enrollment growth pressures come from recommendations provided by the U.S. State Department and other agencies.

Official enrollment numbers passed onto the state of Virginia for funding formulas are not calibrated until Sept. 30, because there is always a lot of flux in the early numbers as families make last minute decisions based on their child’s adaptation to a new environment, or are late getting in from a vacation, and other variables.

But enrollment growth pressures in recent years have resulted in continued demand for use of temporary classroom trailers even where new construction to expand the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School has been completed.

The newest expansion project, proposed for the Mt. Daniel Elementary School, will be conditional on the passage of a bond referendum this November, and pro-school forces are just getting their acts together to convince the Falls Church citizenry that passing the referendum is in their and the public’s interest.

While a contingent is expected to be set up with a booth at the upcoming Sept. 13 Fall Festival and Taste of Falls Church, a public meeting has been set for Tuesday, Sept. 30, aimed at being a more formal launch point for that campaign. While the school board and school system are restrained from taking sides in the referendum, overtly, they will be providing information on exactly what conditions are like now at Mt. Daniel, and what passage of the bond referendum would provide.

The plans are, with the OK from voters, to add 65,820 new square feet onto the Mt. Daniel site, while keeping another 21,316 square feet.

Also at the Sept. 30 forum members of the team that has been assembled and meeting weekly to come up with a plan for the highest and best use of the 39 acres that was transferred to City ownership as part of the sale of the City’s water system to Fairfax County will be present. The committee includes representatives from the Planning Commission, School Board, City Council and Economic Development Authority, in addition to City Manager Wyatt Shields and Dr. Jones.

The big news on that front has been the announcement that highly-regarded Urban Land Institute will participate in a study of the best uses of the land. There are two components to what needs to be planned there, one being the disposition of the two schools on the site, Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School and George Mason High School, and the other being the potential for commercial development for the portion of the land nearest the West Falls Church Metro station.

That deliberative process promises to be among the most fascinating and bursting with potential for the City, although all the meetings to date have been held in the wee hours of the mornings and therefore with very little public participation or awareness.

Meanwhile, first fruits of efforts to make “safe routes to schools” a reality for students was ready for the start of this school year, as striping is in place at the intersection of Parker and Kent Streets where a student was injured in an accident last year.

The striping extends the curbs at the intersection, shortening the length of the walk across the street. By next spring, it is planned for the striping to be replaced by concrete curbs.

While classes began on Tuesday, earlier events involving teachers and staff revealed a lot of energy and optimism for the coming year. On Aug. 18 a new teachers orientation day included lunch at the brand new Hilton Garden Inn and swag bags of gifts from over 30 local businesses. The Falls Church Education Foundation was a key player in the day’s events.

Then last week, the annual School System Convocation at the high school auditorium honored teachers and staff who’d reached milestones in their service to the system, led by Margaret Ohr, honored for 35 years of service working in the system’s central office.

Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones emphasized the importance of maintaining cutting edge educational capabilities to prepare students for the technological challenges of the 21st century.

The potential cooling off of the rapid growth in school enrollment, it was noted, could be a reflection of a cooling in the rate of single family home sales in the City of Falls Church over the year before.

City officials have stressed that the growth in enrollment comes primarily from single family homes, and not from rental or condominium units.