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City of F.C. Schools Start Tuesday, 46 Registered at ‘Pop-Up’ Sites

Falls Church City Public Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan (right) displays a Native American “dreamcatcher” that he presented to the principals of all the City’s schools (left) at the system’s annual convocation Tuesday prior to the opening of the school year next Tuesday. (Photo: News-Press)

In a first-time approach, the Falls Church City Public Schools undertook a proactive approach to sign up students for the coming school year. Teams went out with “pop-up” sites last weekend at Berman Park, across from The Fields, a subsidized apartment complex for lower-income citizens, and the F.C. Community Center, where a lot of youth free play goes on, to help insure that the fewest possible number of children miss the opportunity to attend school this fall. Forty-six students were registered as a result.

The initiative was taken, F.C. Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan said at the system’s pre-school year convocation this week, to go beyond the achievements of its K-12 system-wide International Baccalaureate curriculum, 100 percent high school graduation rate and outstanding SOL test results (90 percent and above in all categories).

There remains, he said, a great concern for extending the cultivation of a “caring culture” in the City’s schools to “closing the gaps” to overcome the “structural inequality by race, class and gender” and to extend “equity and justice to all our kids.”

“So, it is not OK for any student to be marginalized, allowing some to miss the mark,” he said. “Our goal must be to widen our lens. School is one part of the ecosystem of the disenfranchised, and it must provide hope and the promise of betterment. This confronts us as a moral imperative.”

Noonan’s remarks were to the annual pre-school year convocation for all the employees of the entire Falls Church system, including all of its teachers (22 of whom are new this year) held at the George Mason High School auditorium Tuesday morning.

As the Falls Church City Public Schools’ classes for the 2019-2020 year are set to kick off this Tuesday, the tone and focus for the year were set at the annual “welcome back” breakfast and convocation for all system-wide employees at the George Mason High School gym and auditorium Tuesday.
Moving into the year 2020, it was impossible for the FCCPS leadership to avoid using the term, “focus” (a perfect 20-20 eye test score, get it?), to highlight its theme, “Sharpening Our 2020 Vision.”

Its four-fold theme — “We Are IB, Caring, Closing Gaps, and Building Together” — was articulated by Dr. Noonan over the course of the three-hour event that began with a modest buffet breakfast line in the old gym, affectionately known as “The Pit,” down the hall from the auditorium where all the formal presentations began with a performance by the George Mason High’s jazz band.

With a large, deep hole located just outside the facility, the result of 5,000 truckloads of dirt having been removed to date where the new GMHS school is under construction on former practice fields, Noonan reminded everyone that next year at this time, the new high school will be near completion (set for opening in December 2020), and that occasion will mark the final time the Pit and the auditorium will host the annual convocation before they are demolished.

“Here’s to our best year yet,” F.C. School Board chair Erin Gill said in welcoming Tuesday’s crowd, and F.C. Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly said, “This is a bona fide historic moment.”

The system’s new assistant superintendent and chief academic officer William Bates, who began in his new role Aug. 1, exclaimed that the Falls Church system is the best to offer International Baccalaureate curricula from kindergarten through the 12th grade in the entire U.S., in addition to being the only one in Virginia. He also cited the announcement made last week that the system topped the 90 percentile in all Standards of Learning test disciplines, and that the high school has a 100 percent graduation rate.

With all the construction and improvements made to the system, from the Thackrey Preschool to the Mt. Daniel Elementary, to Thomas Jefferson Elementary, to Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School and GMHS, and the summer’s relocation of the central office to its new S. Washington site, “for the first time in 20 years, there is no one in portable classrooms” among all the system’s 2,750 students.

The system represents the “gold standard,” said Beth Gilley of the system’s counseling and legal services partner, and Ferrell Kelly, president of the Falls Church Education Association, and Debbie Hiscott of the Falls Church Education Foundation, the non-profit that has donated $1.2 million to the system in the last five years, promised a good year ahead.

In her remarks, Connelly cited three women role models from Falls Church, including Mary Ellen Henderson, the educator reformer who compelled the Fairfax School system to improve the condition of then-segregated schools for black children and after whom the middle school is named, Matty Gundry, who founded a Virginia Training School in 1899 and also ran it for 50 years in downtown Falls Church, and Harriet Foote Turner who worked at a 24,000 acre plantation encompassing Falls Church in 1851 who was supposed to deliver a dozen slaves from the port at Alexandria and instead ran off with them to freedom in the North.

Thirty-one teachers and staff members were singled out for milestones in their service to the system, marking 15, 20, 25 and 30 years of service.

Carol Seaver, a TJ Elementary counselor marking her 30th year, recalled when she first came to work in the F.C. system, having received offers from both the Fairfax and Falls Church systems.

She said her first day on the job was also the first day of kindergarten for her daughter, and when she called to ask if she could be a half-hour late to take her daughter to her first day, the person at Fairfax said no, and when she then called Falls Church, the person said, “Of course, it is very important that a parent be with a child on her first day.”

With that, she chose Falls Church’s system. Having moved from her previous job on the idea that she didn’t want to keep a job for more than three years, well, that was 30 years ago.

Noonan’s remarks began with the notion of “essentialism,” or “the disciplined pursuit of less” aimed at discerning the right thing, for the right reason and the right time to create the “highest point of contribution.”
For the F.C. system, he said, it is grounded in the “American dream,” that binds us all, through which the struggle to overcome structural inequalities and the traumas caused by the inhibitors they present are met with resilience and strength.

In terms of where the system needs to go, “We are a million miles from where we ought to be” with regard to “students on the margins,” he said.
But the commonality that everyone shares is in the notion of dreaming for that better tomorrow. To represent that, Noonan concluded his remarks by presenting the principals of each of the system’s five schools with Native American “dreamcatchers,” which according to lore, are used to trap and dispel bad influences and allow good ones to filter through.

Recognized for hitting milestones of service to the system, in addition to Carol Seaver at 30 years, were Kevin O’Dowd and Kathryn Smolarek for 25 years, Julie Bravin, Annette Folks, Ronnie Henderson, Aracely Paez, Alejandrina Sanchez-Martinez, Holly Shaffle, Norma Sorto and Maggie Webster at 20 years.

Honored for marking 15 years with the system were Lori Audi, Robin Borum, Susan Cassidy, Eng Chaun, Norma Contreras, Al DiFazio III, Jan Garrett, Deirdre Haft, Bryan Harris, Jennifer Jayson, John Kingsley, Steve Knight, Liz McCarthy, Peter Mecca, Lisa Mueller, Jeanne Seabridge, Shelly Skomra, Beth Stoffel, Shey Wakeley and Yuling Zhang.