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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Falls Church HS in dire need of renovation, parents tell school board

A light fixture ready to fall
A Fairfax County school board hearing on the school system’s capital improvement program (CIP) Monday night was dominated by parents and students who spoke about the urgent need to renovate Falls Church High School.

A parent advocacy group, UPROAR (United Parents to Renovate our Academic Resource), was formed to urge the school board to address these problems as soon as possible. So far, the groups online petition has 526 signatures. 

Many parents expressed disappointment in the FCPS “renovation queue,” which puts the school in 45th place among 63 schools in line for renovation. That means, with FCPS budget limitations, FCHS isn’t expected to be renovated until 2024.

The day after the hearing, UPROAR founder Lynn Petrazzuolo reported that Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer of the FCPS Department of Facilities and Transportation Services, has asked his staff to tour FCHS. “This is just the first step in getting the improvements FCHS deserves,” said Petrazzuolo said. “We are on our way. It is not going to be quick but we are finally being heard.”

At the CIP hearing, speaker after speaker listed the substandard conditions students and teachers must deal with every day, such as these problems cited by Holly Williams, president of the FCHS Band Aides booster club: “extreme variations in temperature due to failing HVAC systems, science labs with obsolete and often broken infrastructure, and  inadequate space for growing music and arts programs.”

Despite its physical problems, William said, “FCHS is a great school” that prepared her children for the rigors of college, and her oldest son is thriving at Virginia Tech. She urged parents with younger children: “Don't let the neglect of the county and school board keep you from sending your children to our school.

Kelly Haynes, a junior at FCHS, listed additional problems, including holes in the ceilings, insect infestations, disgusting bathrooms, broken locks on bathroom doors, and inadequate-sized bathroom stalls.

A restroom sink
Haynes said she has had to take tests “in ridiculously hot classrooms,” and in one classroom there’s a dangling light fixture that could come crashing down on students’ heads at any time. And then there was this incident: In the cafeteria, one of Kellys friends “felt something move on her arm. When she looked down, there was a huge cockroach crawling up her arm. She screamed. I kicked it off the table and stomped on it. We lost our appetites.”

Her mother, Kristin Haynes, an active member of UPROAR, said, “I used to believe that all students in FCPS would be treated equally and fairly but I do not feel this happening at Falls Church. After seeing physical discrepancies between our building and other FCPS high schools, I’m shocked and dismayed.”

Petrazzuolo told the school board, FCHS “has been permitted to deteriorate to a level that is unacceptable for our students.” She cited studies that showed the condition of facilities has an impact on student achievement. “However, we are faced with the situation where anything we do to somewhat fix our school now might possibly jeopardize our ability to move up on that queue,” she said.

“Fairfax County has to find a way out of the pattern of letting schools fall into complete disrepair before clawing their way back up a renovation queue,” Petrazzuolo said. “There are too many aging schools and not enough money. Maybe we should consider creating more facilities that are ‘nice enough’ instead of building a few amazing schools that will probably deteriorate to a similar state of disrepair in 20 years due to a lack of maintenance funding.”

Day Leary, a Falls Church teacher whose children attend the school, called the queue a “broken system” that ignores the needs of FCHS because of a cycle that is out of control:  “We are under-enrolled, so we can’t get renovated, so parents take their kids to other, over-crowded schools, so we are under-enrolled.”

Melody Cariello, a counselor at FCHS, took issue with statements by Tistadt at a PTA meeting last week that indicated enrollment and capacity were the big factors in determining a school’s place in the renovation queue. Those factors make up only 10 percent of the evaluation criteria, she said. The quantity and quality of core instructional spaces and the age and condition of the facility are actually 60 percent of the criteria.

Several people talked about how the poor condition of FCHS has hurt its image. Cariello meets many students and families who were considering moving to the area but had heard that FCHS is a “ghetto” school. FCHS actually is “a peaceful and diverse school with amazing students doing amazing things every day,” she said. “Yet I believe it has been a struggle for Falls Church to overcome this stereotype mainly because of our building conditions.”

FCHS senior John Mai said: “It hurts when others look down upon you. It hurts when you visit other schools in Fairfax County and see how privileged their schools are while noticing how underprivileged yours is in comparison.”

It isn’t just about having a nice school. There are legitimate health concerns, said Mai, who noted the school is full of cockroaches, peeling paint, and mold. “It’s about caring for your community and taking responsibility.”

Mai also addressed Eric Welch, who was in the audience, and who has applied to run a charter school just down the road from FCHS. “The proposed charter school would benefit 450 students. Restoring FCHS would benefit 1,500 or more students. The choice is clear,” Mai said. Welch told the school board he supports FCHS parents’ efforts to get the school renovated.

Also at the hearing, a couple of parents spoke about the need to address overcrowding at Bailey’s Elementary School. Suzie Phipps, the school’s volunteer coordinator, noted the school already has one modular unit and 16 trailers and is projected to add 400 more students within the next five years.

Bailey’s PTA President Christine Adams suggested that the renovation of the nearby Woodrow Wilson Library—slated to begin this summer—include classrooms and multi-purpose space that could be used by the school.


  1. Please remember, as you read about the disrepair at FCHS, that it is a GREAT school. We send kids to UVa, VT, Princeton and lots of other great schools. Several of the current high school principals in the area are FCHS graduates. FCHS allows our kids to have opportunities to participate in whatever they want and succeed, from the culinary school to winning “It’s Academic” and shooting rockets as 1 of 2 winners of the Student Launch Initiative NASA grant. Our kids, and parents, work hard to excel despite the physical condition of the school.

  2. I visited the High School last night to attend a meeting and I was pretty shocked to see the state of the school. It does need fixing and I applaud the volunteers who are leading this effort.

  3. How can Eric Welch be Executive Director of a charter school that doesn't exist, hasn't been approved by Richmond or the School Board? Who is paying his salary?