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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Falls Church HS not scheduled for renovation until 2024

A sink in a chemistry lab
Falls Church High School hasn’t had a major renovation since it was built in 1967 and isn’t scheduled be upgraded until 2024.

More than 100 parents came to a meeting at the school on a bitter cold night Thursday to express their frustration with school officials for failing to put FCHS on a faster track for renovation. The meeting was organized by a group called UPROAR (United Parents for Renovating our Academic Resource).

UPROAR co-founder Lynn Petrazzuolo showed the audience slide after slide depicting the grungy, and in some cases, unhealthy, condition of the learning environment: Chemistry labs with outdated and nonworking equipment and poor ventilation; poorly equipped classrooms that lack overhead projectors and wiring to support the necessary technology; and a music department with insufficient practice space and lockers that are too small for instruments.

The restrooms have stained floors, missing tiles, undersized toilets, partitions that are too low, and stained sinks. A couple of parents at the meeting said their kids won’t even go to the bathroom at school.

The locker room for visiting teams has a moldy ceiling, missing tiles, exposed pipe, and broken areas covered with cardboard and duct tape, Petrazzuolo said. It has group showers “like we had in high school, but which are no longer acceptable.” The athletic trainers’ room doesn’t even have a working ice machine, and the weight room doesn’t have hot water. Everywhere you look, there is mold, insects, and peeling paint.

“This is the face of our school. This is what visitors see,” she said. “When our large population of disadvantaged students visit other Fairfax County schools, they wonder why their school is not good enough,” a FCHS English teacher added.

It’s not just about having a school that looks nice; there are real educational and health concerns. Petrazzuolo cited statistics showing “a correlation between building condition and student achievement and behavior.” Studies have shown “test scores are lower in schools in poor condition.”

Teachers have complained about unreliable temperature control that results in classrooms that are either “burning hot or freezing cold,” she said. The room for students with physical disabilities is so cold students have to be draped in blankets; in other rooms, the air conditioning doesn’t work and the doorknobs are too hot to touch.

So with all these substandard conditions, you’d think FCHS would be first in line for renovation. You’d be wrong. The school is actually 45th among 63 schools in the “renovation queue.” Considering the Fairfax County Public School’s (FCPS) budget, that means FCHS won’t be renovated until 2024.

That’s become schools that are overcrowded are given priority for renovating, and FCHS is under capacity. Meanwhile, hundreds of students transfer out of FCHS every year because of the school’s poor condition. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Principal Cathy Benner.

Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer of the FCPS Department of Facilities and Transportation Services, told the audience the annual budget for facilities projects  is $155 million, while it needs $205 million to $210 million.

To set priorities, Tistadt said, a consulting firm has established the renovation queuem, which is based on “completely objective criteria that prevents the process from becoming politicized.” When there are two schools in the same condition, he said, there’s a “compelling, logical argument” that “the school that’s overcrowded should get renovated first.”

The renovation queue will be re-evaluated in 2013, and Tistadt told the audience “it will be to your advantage” if the data show an increase in enrollment. But a looming charter school proposal has raised concerns that enrollment could actually decrease at FCHS.

The proposed Fairfax Leadership Academy would be housed at the FCPS building that will become vacant when Graham Road Elementary School moves to a new facility. If the FCPS school board approves the charter, FCHS parents and administrators worry it would draw students away from their school. If that happens, Tistadt acknowledged, FCHS “could actually drop in the queue.”

One parent complained that FCPS would divert funds to the charter school that could be better spent renovating FCHS. According to Tistadt, FCPS would not provide any funds to renovate the Graham Road building. Per-pupil funding from FCPS would, however, follow students to the charter school.

Many parents at the meeting expressed frustration with the poor conditions at FCHS. One parent called it “completely unacceptable” that a school should have “third-world standards” in one of the richest counties in the United States. Another asked the FCPS leaders in the room if they “would want to work in a building” with substandard conditions. One woman said her daughter sometimes has to wear a coat in class and her allergies have gotten worse.

“Health and safety issues should be addressed immediately,” Tistadt said, but “there is a big difference between aging, unsightly conditions and unhealthy conditions.”

School board members Sandy Evans (Mason) and Patty Reed (Providence) told the audience they agreed FCHS is long overdue for renovation and urged parents to take their concerns to the other board members.

Several FCHS parents are expected to speak to the school board about the sorry state of the school at a hearing on the FCPS Capital Improvement Program on Monday, Jan. 9. The hearing, at Luther Jackson Middle School, starts at 6 p.m.


  1. Clearly the Determining Renovation Requirements part of the CIP is flawed. FCPS needs to admit that and move Falls Church to number 1 in the renovation queue. Both the SB members and every member of FCPS administration should ask themselves - would I want my child to endure through conditions like that or would I work under those conditions?

  2. Several years ago, it was rumored that FCHS was in the renovation queue for 2013. It has only been within the last year that parents heard that had changed. Can anyone validate that rumor and find out why/when that was changed?

  3. Falls Church HS was originally built as Whittier Junior High, and is much older. The school was built before 1967. Falls Church High School moved into the building in 1967.

  4. The renovation queue is revised every 5 years. Take a look at the current queue online and be sure to look at the details of the "independent, impartial" reviews for all of the schools. You will be amazed at how unfair the process is. Without a Principal and parents advocating for the school it was allowed to be overlooked. Not anymore! Ms. Benner and UPROAR are getting it done.

  5. Bypass the school board and start the pressure raining down from above! Write to VA Senator Dick Saslaw and plead for his assistance and pressure on this matter!

  6. It has been clearly demonstrated that the Mason District children are not even on the radar of the school board. I guess it is time to take a hard look at O'Connell and the other options. With one party politics there is no means at all in this county to protest in a meaningful way. Not even your vote counts, there are so many drones that don't think for themselves, they continue to elect and re-elect the people that perpetrate things like the FCHS situation on us.

  7. Agree the Democrat one party rule leaves you no alternative avenue. Another good reason to vote Republican at the local level. Good luck looking into alternatives to FCHS. With the exhorbitant property taxes we pay we get this? Scrap it all, issue vouchers, cut my taxes, and get a few charter schools in here to get the public schools to learn from.

  8. As a father of a 2-year-old, I really dont have a dog in this fight...yet. But I would ask why don't residents take things into their own hands, instead of waiting for the county to get anything done? I'm not talking about going to a school board meeting and complaining in order to try and squeeze out more funds from an ever-shrinking finite budget. If there are enough concerned parents, which there seems to be in this case, why don't they organize and do the repairs themselves. I'm sure the district is full of professional contractors, plumbers, electricians, etc with children who go to FCHS. Even if they don't have children, people generally have a giving spirit when it comes to worthwhile endeavors such as this. These folks could volunteer their services to perform needed repairs and renovations. And I'm sure if these people went to the necessary suppliers for the materials (i.e. Home Depot), they could be persuaded to contribute such supplies.

    Can you get all the renovations done at once? No. But maybe you do one or two projects every year, and within a few years you've greatly improved the conditions. Heck, this could become an on-going relationship between local merchants/tradesmen and the school.

    Will this be easy? No. But would it be better than waiting for a politician to act with funds they don't have? Definitely. It just takes people who care to step up.

  9. Interesting post - when Newt Gingrich recently proposed getting kids involved to help save money and learn the value of work by doing minor tasks like sweep the floors and clean whiteboards/blackboards the liberals called him a Nazi who wanted child labor. Anyone that has lived in Asia will tell you the kids there stay after school and clean it up. Makes you have pride and more likely to keep things clean if you know YOU will have to clean it up and not paid full time janitors while you play Xbox at home.

    I'd be reluctant to lift a finger as I already pay WAY too much in taxes and think fiscal management is in order. That said this is a valid suggestion others should consider...or at least not pooh-pooh unless you can come up with a better suggestion to the problem yourself. Like the "do-it-yourself" initiative rather than expecting the government to do everything.

  10. The father of the 2-year-old writes an interesting post. Unfortunately, FCHS parents are not necessarily typical of the county in general. You see, FCHS is a majority minority school. My middle class kids were called "rich" by their peers. Many of their peers' parents worked three jobs and a lot of the students held down jobs to help their families out. In a school where kids' parents don't have free time to see them in sporting events or plays, where are they supposed to find the time to help fix up the school?

    As recently as 3 years ago, my daughter was the only teen (of 10) on our street who attended FCHS. Other teens were sent to county academy programs, IB at Marshall or Stuart, private high schools, or home schooled. When only maybe 10% of the "rich" kids attend a school, the neighbors don't show any interest in improving it.

  11. This is what happens when you buy into the it takes a village concept - nothing. It becomes everyone's responsibility - and nobody's.

    The government should do this with all the taxes we pay! The money is there somewhere if you just look, tons of waste is there. Cut a few library hours for example. Most folks are moving towards downloading books on e-devices. That cuts down a bit on the need to heat, light, and pay folks to work in that space. Many more examples like this but bureaucracies take on a life of their own.

  12. Nice idea - father of 2-year old - and we DO fix, build, and improve the school with our time, sweat, and donated supplies. You will learn this as soon as your child enters the school system.

    The school system is not going to permit a parent (even if they are licensed) to rewire a school, or install new fixtures in a bathroom. Do you really believe we wouldn't have done it already? That would be so much easier than trying to get "the system" to fix the facility.

  13. I am glad to see the FCHS community take action on this issue. If they took a look in the mirror, they would recognize that they sat idly too long - accepting the fact that they had a school with weak administrators, an inactive PTA, and disinterested School Board members whose interests lay elsewhere.

    It's not that Mason District schools get ignored. Stuart has been renovated and a brand new Glasgow MS was built just a few years ago, while Falls Church HS simply languished. More power to them for finally waking up. They should let the School Board and the Board of Supervisors know that it's not in the county's interests to let FCHS become known as a "ghetto school," particularly when neighboring jurisdictions like Arlington have plans to build a brand-new Wakefield HS to serve that county's lowest-income students.