Beginning this school year in Falls Church, the newly renovated Mount Daniel Elementary School will have a new principal, students who misbehave may be disciplined differently and students caught using drugs or alcohol will face stiffer penalties and a new counseling program.
As for any major new academic initiatives, the 1,244 students returning to the city's three schools this year will mostly find "the same old good stuff," said George Thoms, the senior high school principal at George Mason Junior-Senior High School.
The relocatable classrooms are gone from Mount Daniel, now that the renovation of the building has been completed. Students returning there will find most classrooms improved and new spaces for music, art and physical education. They also will find Mary Peterson, a former teacher with Arlington schools, who has succeeded Mary Ellen Shaw as the principal. Shaw was promoted last year to assistant to the superintendent of schools.
The relocatable classrooms have not traveled far. About 107 second-grade students, about 25 students more than usual, are enrolled this year at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, forcing some classes to spill over into two mobile classrooms. School officials hope to expand the building within two years.
Teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other employees at both city elementary schools are being trained to look for alternative ways to discipline unruly students instead of relying on traditional punishments, such as sending those students out of class.
"We found, generally, that a punitive solution may work in the short term but not in the long run," said William Thomas, principal at Thomas Jefferson.
Alternatives include defusing the student's behavior by resolving the reason the child is acting out. For example, if a child interrupts a lesson in an attempt to get attention, a teacher might continue the lesson, but make the lesson more intimate for the student by addressing the child by name and standing near the child.
In this way, the teacher would recognize the student without giving that child undue attention or allowing the child to further interrupt the class.
The School Board, following up on a request by a Parent-Teacher-Student Association, hired a drug prevention coordinator to teach substance abuse awareness classes and counsel students caught using drugs or alcohol.
The board recently toughened its policy against the use of drugs or alcohol, ruling that first-time offenders should be suspended and considered for counseling. Previously, only repeat offenders were punished. A survey of high school students last year revealed that about 60 percent had consumed hard liquor, about 50 percent had smoked cigarrettes, about 30 percent had used marijuana and about 5 percent had used cocaine.
Unlike guidance counselors, who refer students suspected of substance abuse to outside agencies, the coordinator is a trained nurse who also will guide a student to recovery by monitoring the child's progress.
The most significant change at George Mason may come at the end of the school year, when voters will be asked to approve a project to expand and reconfigure the old, cramped facility. City officials expect to place a $12 million bond referendum for the project on a special ballot next spring.
Although "the cost of doing this project looks pretty severe," and funding cuts from the state "look pretty severe," said Jeffrey Tarbert, chairman of the School Board, "I think the citizens are very supportive of the schools and we hope they'll pass the referendum."
Until then, the faculty at George Mason is continuing a multiyear effort to create a separate identity for middle school students, or sixth- through eighth-grade students, within the building they share with the high school.
For example, eighth-grade students who behave responsibly this year will be allowed to congregate during breaks in a social lounge reserved especially for them.