As the “Campus Process Working Group” of the Falls Church City Council and School Board continue to mull the daunting options for development of the 38-acre George Mason High School property, the Schools’ new interim superintendent, Dr. Robert Schiller, elaborated the concept of “K-16” education in an exclusive interview with the News-Press this week.
Schiller’s contribution could have a profound impact on decisions the working group, the respective bodies it represents, and the Falls Church voting public, will make in the coming months. The pressures to renovate or rebuild, or a combination of both, the high school are growing as explosive enrollment pressures are impinging on the entire City of Falls Church public education system.
Schiller’s extensive career in education – from leadership positions in the sprawling Los Angeles School System to Baltimore’s and many more – was considered a winning attribute by the F.C. School Board in its decision to call him out of retirement in Florida to accept the interim role. The board preferred him to a caretaker in these important decision-making times.
The concept of “K-16” education proposes a new kind of integration that is already occurring for 21st century education across the nation, Schiller told the News-Press. It is rooted in getting away from seeing the completion of the 12th grade of high school as an end point.
“Society is demanding at least two more years, and is more and more advancing the concept of lifelong learning,” he said. “The concept is more of a continuum to two or four or six years of post-high school education.
This is already happening at George Mason High, where there are programs for its students to attend credit classes at the Northern Virginia Community College, for example.
But what makes the topic particularly relevant in the present situation for Falls Church is the presence of the Northern Virginia Graduate Center next to the high school campus. Ostensibly a grad center for Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, the building is considered highly underutilized, and moreover, the sale of the land on which it sits by the City of Falls Church in the early 1990s was with the promise that a second educational building would also go there.
“It’s all about how people will learn, and work for that matter, in the future,” he said, “and to recognize the implications of that for how we move forward with a new school facility now.”
For example, he noted, there is a lot more flexibility being demanded of students of all ages, and while there will always be a need for a core high school facility to permit the socialization process of 15-to-18-year olds, to interact with peers and develop teamwork skills at a place called school, it may not be that those students will need to operate, or do best, in that environment for more than two or three hours a day.
He said this region provides “marvelous transitional opportunities” for hybrid forms of education that students can benefit from. “We need to be flexible and nimble in approaching that,” Schiller said. “In deciding how to proceed with a new school, no one wants to say we only covered a piece of the pie in what will be outdated in 20 years.”
“It may be that we will need to cobble a new school around other student obligations, and to ensure it will be as flexible in 20 or 40 years, to fill this role.”
The proximity of the Grad Center is only one component of what makes this region unique for this, he said. There is the massive Northern Virginia Community College system, the exploding Inova Health Systems that includes Inova-owned properties in Falls Church, the enormous potential for commercial growth that could feed into the Urban League’s concept for the campus site of an “agora” mixed educational and commercial center, and the Metro station that underscores the reality that the location is only miles from Washington, D.C., “the center of the world.”
“Program space can be dovetailed with community needs and higher education opportunities and needs,” he said, citing as an example the case of Florida, where students who earn degrees from two-year community colleges are automatically granted enrollment in four year state universities.
This also addresses the issue of affordability of higher education, he said, where community colleges can offer “an ease of proximity” to allow students to multi-task with jobs and career training in addition to a liberal arts and science education. “The cost of living away from home to go to school is a real factor to consider,” he said.
“We need strategic thinking,” he proposed. “How does Falls Church envision itself in this context?”
He also cautioned that interest rates are now beginning to rise, which could impact on the cost of a new school even compared to only a few weeks ago.
Also at issue is the plan spearheaded by City Council member Karen Oliver to tax the public in order to set aside $6 million in the City’s unassigned fund balance to appease the New York bond rating agencies to build a $115 million new high school. It could run afoul of a public referendum that will need to pass next November after that tax has been applied in part, but before a shovel has gone into the ground for school construction.