By Margaret Ward
The school system has long been considered the “crown jewel” of Falls Church City, and with good reason. We have excellent teachers, support staff and administrators, our students are some of the highest performing in the nation, and our parents are very involved and supportive. As a city we are very proud of our school system, and work collaboratively to maintain its high standards.
As a candidate for School Board, I want to highlight issues that go beyond the policy that sets those high standards. While the main goal of the School Board is to help our children become successful students, the ultimate goal is to help those students become successful adults. While the schools offer numerous options to become involved, there is a dearth of social options in the City outside of the school setting. Social interaction is vital at any age, but particularly for high school students, who are learning the nuances of adult social interaction and would benefit from opportunities to develop social skills in safe, close to home venues.
Right now, where do our high school students go to socialize outside of school events? Most likely, they “hang out” at a friend’s house, or stay home and “socialize” on Facebook. Some fortunate ones have vibrant youth groups associated with their houses of worship, others may walk the streets and get into trouble. As a parent, teacher, and School Board candidate, the lack of safe, yet fun opportunities for our high school children to socialize has been a concern of mine for some time. Accordingly, in addition to coming up with ideas myself, I consulted with some George Mason High School students to obtain their ideas. We came up with the following:
• Establish a teen center, where older kids can meet up with their friends, play video games, listen to music, and socialize. While we do have the community center, this is a limited space shared by everyone in the community. The “Teen Center” is usually occupied by children and their parents, or by very young teenagers, and teens aged 15-19 tend not to frequent the Center for that very reason.
• Organize a Saturday night coffee house/poetry slam to exhibit teen talent. This could be sponsored by a local coffee house or, better still, the City can arrange with ArtSpace to host it, and at the same time support a wonderful community resource.
• Build a supervised skate park. Skating is a sport, and it has gotten a bad rap because many of the kids who enjoy skating have nowhere to skate, except the sidewalks and streets. Those kids are going to skate no matter what, so why not give them a safe place to practice their sport? Note: There are plans for a skateboard park at West End Park, but it remains unfunded.
• Encourage the establishment of an ice skating rink. Not only would this provide a social outlet for all ages, it would offer a practice option for George Mason’s growing ice hockey team.
• Build an indoor community pool. This is another option that would not just appeal to teens, but it would also offer a local venue for George Mason’s swim team. Although a pool is in the plan, it is many years from being realized.
• Organize a book club outside of the schools, where teens can meet to discuss books and share refreshments. The Falls Church City library is an excellent resource for this.
• Arrange a community-led teen volunteer organization that would supplement volunteer opportunities offered through GMHS. This could provide not only a chance for teens to use their free time in a positive, productive way, it will also allow them to meet and interact with others who share their interests and talents.
• Internship programs are another way for teens to spend their time productively, while developing more sophisticated social skills. During the Vision Planning meeting this summer, the Chamber of Commerce was receptive to my suggestion to start an internship program for high school students that would afford them the opportunity to experience different types of jobs and careers and help develop those “soft” skills today’s employers seek in their employees.
I do not pretend to know exactly what teens want. Neither can I suggest the logistics of implementing these suggestions or how to pay for them. What I do hope is that this commentary sparks conversation among members of the community and gets them thinking about this issue. Our community, in working together, can help establish legitimate, “cool” and fun activities for our young people.
Margaret Ward is running for the Falls Church City School Board in November.