A mascot was chosen, and new signs were printed. The gym floor logo, marquees and placards were stripped or replaced in recent months. Fresh band and cheerleader uniforms had arrived. And, on Tuesday, high school students in Falls Church finally walked into a newly renamed school.
Cheerleaders raised pompoms in the air, and band members played a fight song, marking the first day at Justice High School — formerly known as J.E.B. Stuart High School — and the start of the school year in Fairfax County.
They were among the tens of thousands of public schoolchildren across Northern Virginia who returned to school this week and the several thousand more who are scheduled to begin after Labor Day.
But for Julia Clark, a senior at Justice who was part of the effort to rename the Falls Church high school, the first day took on more significance.
The school was renamed in October, following a drawn-out, contentious debate that divided community members and alumni. Those who supported a new name argued the school should no longer be named after Stuart, a Confederate general who fought to preserve slavery. Opponents decried the effort as a costly attempt to rewrite history.
Clark, a descendant of slaves, said imagery of Stuart in the school’s weight room and hallways made her feel ashamed.
“Students of color are placed in places where they feel discomfort at a constant rate, and a lot of times, these students of color are told to disregard that discomfort — don’t rock the boat, don’t make a difference,” said Clark, 17. “That my community is responsible for making a true difference . . . makes me really proud.”
In January, students chose wolves as the school’s mascot to replace the raiders. School officials estimate it will cost about $428,000 to replace fixtures, equipment and clothing with a new name and logo. Donors have contributed about $91,000, said Debbie Ratliff, a Justice parent who has helped raise funds to offset the cost.
Students in Fairfax County, the state’s largest school system, began school before Labor Day for the second consecutive year, bypassing a state requirement known as the Kings Dominion law that prevents school from starting before the holiday.
The school system, which has more than 190,000 students, qualified for a waiver because it closed schools for weather an average of eight days in five of the past 10 school years.
Prince William County, Manassas City and Manassas Park City also received waivers from the Virginia Department of Education to return to school this week, while students in Arlington County and the city of Alexandria are expected to begin classes Tuesday.
Three new schools opened in Loudoun County last week, including the Academies of Loudoun, a $125 million campus intended to attract top students andhouse high-caliber science, technology, engineering and math programs.
Another STEM-focused campus, Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School, is scheduled to open in Alexandria next week. The city school system, which has contended with a growing student population, is also exploring fixes to high school overcrowding.
Elementary school students across Virginia will enjoy more recess this school year, thanks to a new state law allowing local school boards to devote up to 15 percent of state-mandated instructional time to recess and count it toward instructional time.
School systems in Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Arlington have opted to require at least 30 minutes of recess for elementary school students. In Loudoun, kindergarten students must have 40 minutes of unstructured play each day.
This is also the first year the state will rate schools based on a new accreditation system approved by the state’s Board of Education in November. Under the previous system, schools’ accreditation was based almost entirely on pass rates of the Standards of Learning tests.
Schools will now also be assessed on standards including overall proficiency and growth in English, math and science. Ratings will also take into account absenteeism and, for high schools, dropout rates and college or career readiness. Accreditation ratings are expected to be released in September.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described a new state law on recess for Virginia elementary school students. This story has been updated.