Edwin B. Henderson II, a long-time local civil rights activist and founder of Falls Church’s Tinner Hill Foundation, was unanimously voted onto the School Board of the Falls Church City Public Schools by the board Tuesday night. He fills the seat vacated by the resignation of Shawna Russell last month and he will serve through the end of 2021 pending an upcoming November election when that position and three others on the seven-member board will be contested.
The decision was made as the demolition of the old George Mason High School which will clear 9.6 acres designated for the construction of a new West End Gateway economic development project will fill the space designed to generate the revenues to pay for the new high school, which Superintendent Peter Noonan reported Tuesday is “99 percent complete on its interior.”
Henderson becomes the second member of the board appointed by a vote of the existing board this year, as Sonia Ruiz-Bolanos was appointed earlier this year to fill a slot vacated by the resignation of Lawrence Webb last December.
Henderson joins the board as it prepares to make decisions later this month on the new names for the City’s high school and one of its two elementary schools. Last fall in a year marked by a heightened concern for civil rights and the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the School Board voted unanimosly to change the names of George Mason High and Thomas Jefferson Elementary on grounds that the names of both were of men who owned slaves in the era of the American Revolution.
The School Board’s final decision on new names for those will come on April 27.
The volunteer citizen committees that were formed to examine options for new names for the two schools submitted their final reports to the School Board Tuesday night, with Jamie Argento-Rodriguez representing the high school renaming committee of 26 citizen members and Sherry Eckert Witt representing the elementary school renaming committee of 25 members appearing at the virtual meeting before the board to present the final choices of each group to the board, and to answer questions.
The School Board decided to delay its final decision for another two weeks to April 27, giving more time for deliberations and the receipt of preferences from the public.
The choices made by the advisory groups, which the School Board is not bound to choose from, are as follows (along with brief explanations for each provided by the School Board):
The proposed elementary school names submitted are:
• Mattie Gundry Elementary School: This name was selected to honor the pioneering special education educator, suffragist, and community leader.
• Oak Street Elementary School This is the school’s original name, evoking a sense of place and recognizing how trees are important natural elements of Falls Church.
• The Little City Elementary School This slogan has come to symbolize Falls Church in many ways and represents who we are — a small city in the midst of a larger urban area.
• Tripps Run Elementary School The stream runs through the school campus. The name reflects the geographical location and the natural world. Learning about Tripps Run is part of the school’s curriculum.
• Truth & Justice Elementary School These aspirational values are important for all students and adults to learn. This name keeps the initials “TJ” for the school.
The proposed high school names are:
• Meridian High School The meridian is a feature of the globe, and we are educating global citizens. The City of Falls Church is located on the original 1791 meridian delineating the line between Washington, DC, and Virginia.
• Metro View High School This name emerged as people began to visit the school and experience the breathtaking view from the top floor, which takes in a large part of the metropolitan area.
• Metropolitan High School This name highlights the geographic location of Falls Church within the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Although Falls Church is small, we are a key part of something bigger.
• Tinner Hill High School This name pays tribute to the historic Tinner Hill neighborhood and the individuals who stood up against segregation. It promotes the forward-thinking values that we teach students to embrace.
• West End High School This name identifies the high school located in the City of Falls Church’s westernmost area, which will be transformed in coming years with the school campus as a key part.
Generally, choices by the committees took into account avoiding individual names, placemaking, community connection, meaningfulness, avoiding conflict with neighboring schools, and no conflict with the school system’s commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion. Also, names beginning with the letter “M” were given special consideration by the high school committee, because that letter is prominent in existing school logos.
Witt suggested that there may emerge groups in the community who will “get organized around certain names,” and opposition has already been expressed for the one committee-suggested option to name the elementary school for an individual.
Board member Phil Reitinger questioned the exclusion of any proposed options mentioning the name of Falls Church, which the high school naming committee explained was due to “outrage” expressed by some in Fairfax County because of its conflict with the county-based Falls Church High School. He wondered if that was sufficient grounds for excluding the name as an option, but Argento-Rodridguez said there was an effort to avoid “contention.”
She said despite the lengthy discussions held in her group, the five names finally submitted were “without objection” by anyone on the committee.
In the selection of Henderson to join the board, former chair Greg Anderson said that “there were so many well qualified candidates” that it made his decision difficult, but in addition to Henderson’s role in the community over years, he also brings a history as a teacher in a K-12 classroom.
Current chair Shannon Litton also cited that point in addition to Henderson’s role as founder of the Tinner Hill Foundation and connections to the history of Falls Church. She and board member Reitinger commented about the “many qualified applicants” who put their names forward for the appointment.
In another major move at Tuesday’s School Board meeting, it adopted the first ever policy speaking directly to diversity, inclusion and equity issues. In the introduction to the policy, the preamble reads:
“Falls Church City Public Schools will address, eliminate, and prevent actions, decisions, and outcomes that result from and perpetuate racism…This requires a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and to identifying and addressing practices, policies, and institutional barriers, including institutional racism, that perpetuate opportunity and achievement gaps.”