Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: It’s Almost Back-to-School Time, Falls Church

By Justin Castillo

The days are growing shorter and fall is (almost) in the air. It’s back-to-school time.

Falls Church City Public Schools is, however, ending one of the busiest summers ever. Here’s a recap of recent events and a preview of what’s to come.
How are our kids doing? The School Board is reviewing how well we taught our students in the last academic year. While there is always room for improvement, the news looks good. Assessment data suggests that curriculum enhancements are paying dividends: students are demonstrating year-over-year growth that exceeds grade level expectations. In addition, we are looking beyond aggregate statistics to verify that all students are growing to the fullest extent of their potential, and Superintendent Toni Jones and her team have been most helpful in presenting information in that format.
Enrollment: While students are still registering, preliminary information suggests an initial enrollment growth of two – three percent. That translates into a net increase of 50-60 students.

Teachers. Nearly three dozen new teachers are joining Falls Church Schools. Teachers are our most important asset, and the School Board welcomes you to our outstanding faculty.

Jessie Thackrey Preschool is starting its first full academic year. With a great group of teachers and staff, and strong enrollment figures, this will be a top-notch learning environment for our youngest students.

Mount Daniel welcomes over 175 new kindergartners to the class of 2028. For example, first graders ended the year reading on an average of almost a third grade level. They are looking forward to another good year using Benchmark Literacy blended with Jan Richardson techniques for continued personalized learning success.

Thomas Jefferson starts the second year of implementing Benchmark Literacy, which helped to produce good reading results. For example, many third graders at TJ finished the year reading at an average of almost a sixth grade level.

Mary Ellen Henderson: deploys an enhanced STEAM curriculum for all students this year that will include learning to create apps and exposure to coding. Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School will build on last year’s pilot and continue to offer Chinese to all sixth grade students in addition to French and Spanish. And Henderson will offer strings on their music schedule for the first time ever in Falls Church.

George Mason High School is broadening the curriculum offerings with expanded world language opportunities through the Hybrid Learning Center. George Mason High School is working with Northern Virginia Community College to offer a path to an associate’s degree through dual enrollment. The first two such courses are geophysics and American history.

Technology. Falls Church Schools continues to work on integrating technology with our second full year of Personalized Learning. Meanwhile, new tools will allow for increased parental controls over what kids can access. In addition, filtering is being refined to ensure that each school has appropriate level of access controls.

Facilities. A new/renovated George Mason High School has been a long-standing priority for the community, but finding an economically feasible way to accomplish that goal was daunting. That changed with the sale of the water system to Fairfax County and the boundary adjustment that made the 34-acre George Mason-Mary Ellen Henderson campus part of the City.

Nearly two years ago, the Joint Steering Committee began to explore the feasibility of modernizing George Mason and expanding Mary Ellen Henderson. This effort culminated in a decision by the City Council and School Board to issue a Request for Proposal, or RFP, that would produce a proposed project that could be put to the community for a vote in November 2016.

We began the process with a well-attended community visioning session. That was followed by work sessions, public input, and multiple revisions to the draft RFP. On July 30, the final RFP went out soliciting proposals to renovate/rebuild George Mason, expand Henderson and develop up to 30 percent of the site to help finance the school construction.

The RFP sets out several milestones this year. Conceptual proposals are due on October 30. After a committee reviews those proposals, a shortlist of proposers to be invited to submit detailed proposals will be developed by the end of December. Those detailed proposals will be due by March 2016.
While we are disappointed that the Mt. Daniel project has been delayed, it is our hope that the situation will be resolved this fall. A hearing is scheduled before the Fairfax County Planning Commission on September 17. We will keep the community apprised of developments.

The Budget. While budget season traditionally starts in November, we would like to jump start an earlier dialogue about needs and priorities in a tough budget environment for operating and capital budgets. The first step is to identify what we need to maintain success and address areas in need of improvement. Second, we will seek community input. Finally, the School Board has been discussing with the City Council holding a joint community budget event. My hope is that these initiatives will improve the budget process.


Justin Castillo is the chair of the Falls Church City School Board.