Guest Commentary: Reshaping Our Schools for the 21st Century

September 12, 2013 9:37 AM0 comments

By Lawrence Webb

As students return for another school year in the City of Falls Church I am excited about starting a community conversation about the facility needs of our top rated school system. This year begins with the completion of the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School (TJ) renovation project which relocates fifth grade back to TJ and allows the eighth graders to return to Mary Ellen Henderson (MEH).

With the success of the TJ renovation project, we have created some breathing room as our school population continues to grow and now is the time for us to do a comprehensive review of facilities needs to meet our increased school age population. Hypothetically there have been several discussions surrounding the creation of a new high school but to date nothing has occurred. For example, during my tenure on City Council I recognized we had an unrealistic place holder in our CIP budget which simply identified the need yet there was little effort to act.

Over the last few years it has become apparent that the majority of our schools’ growth is happening during the early stages of a childhood education (pre-k – 5). Recognizing this influx, leadership has worked to address this growth with an addition to TJ, as well as renovating the Cherry Street property to house the pre-k program. The current school board has requested $2,000,000 in the CIP to help renovate and bring this facility up to code. As we continue to think of ways to improve our resources we should also consider expanding the usefulness of Mount Daniel. Currently $6,000,000 has been earmarked in the CIP to support this type of review at Mount Daniel. The City and school recently met with Fairfax County officials to discuss potential plans as the jurisdiction will have a role in approving any type of improvements or expansions at the site.

Subsequently we must work on putting together a plan for a 21st century George Mason High School. Students that graduate from George Mason are still some of the best and brightest that I see as I recruit across Northern Virginia. However, when I go to Mason and visit other schools in the region I know that we can do better for our students by creating a learning environment that’s worthy of their academic achievements.

One of the ways to move forward in this endeavor would be the passing of the water referendum this fall. An important and critical part of the settlement agreement states that the land Mary Ellen Henderson and George Mason occupy would become a part of the City of Falls Church as opposed to its current location in Fairfax County. Down the road this decision will become very crucial in developing a plan in terms of a new high school. As the community prepares to make a decision I support the water referendum but encourage residents to participate in upcoming forums and ask questions to find out how we ended up in this position and how the city schools could benefit from this agreement.

Building a new high school will be a multiyear plan and will need first and foremost the support of the Falls Church community because it is going to cost real dollars and before we can make any of this happen we need to make sure that we have the support of the community.

This is a time when the Falls Church way really means a lot. It will not be easy or come cheap if we want to take our schools into the 21st century. We know our citizens are smart and engaged and we need to bring them in early to allow them to provide input as to how they would like a new school to look.

As stakeholders I believe we also need to ask GM students and teachers what they would like to see in a modern facility as they will be the benefactors. As a civically engaged citizen I choose to run for the school board because of my deep commitment to education. Working professionally in higher education for the last 12 years, I am committed to making sure students are prepared to compete in a global community and believe this opportunity will allow me to share my expertise in preparing our students.

I ask for your support on November 5 to assist me in continuing my work in strengthening our students to be the best in the Commonwealth. I hope that you would lend your support to those who are also on the school board ballot as we begin the tough work of reshaping our schools to build a greater standard for the 21st century.

 


Lawrence Webb is former member of the Falls Church City Council and is running for the F.C. City School Board in November.

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