School History: Great Falls Elementary School (1980-2010)

Great Falls Elementary School began the 1980-81 school year with approximately 890 students and a new principal, Kay Steiert. Students of the early 1980s eagerly anticipated special annual programs, such as Colonial Day, Medieval Day, International Day, Field Day, and the spring musical. They could also participate in student organizations, activities, and clubs, such as the Student Council Association (SCA), Safety Patrol, band, chorus, strings, the Library Committee, the Audio Visual (AV) Committee, and the Great Falls Times student newspaper.

Photograph of the cover of Great Falls Elementary School’s 1981 to 1982 yearbook. It is a two-color cover with a yellow background and text and image in dark blue. The cover text reads: The Roadrunner, 1981 to 1982. A silhouette of a cartoon roadrunner is in the center of the cover.
Cover of Great Falls Elementary School’s 1981-82 yearbook. During the 1985-86 school year, students reelected the roadrunner as the school mascot after two weeks of pro and con campaigning.

A New Playground

During the 1982-83 school year, a new playground debuted at Great Falls. The playground was built by the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and community members.

Photograph showing a wide view of the entire playground. The structures are made out of wood. The playground has swings and several different types of structures on which to climb and play. Adults can be seen working on various parts of the playground.Three photographs showing various views of the playground. On the left, two male students are standing in front of the playground, posing for the camera. The center picture was taken on one of the climbing structures and looks down on the adults working on another part of the playground. The third picture, on the right, shows a girl coming down a spiral metal slide.

The 1985-86 school year saw the reelection of the roadrunner as our school mascot, the creation of student-designed murals in the cafeteria, and the introduction of a math lab. Students from all grade levels visited the lab to develop a better understanding of math concepts.

Color 35 millimeter slide photograph showing of the front exterior of Great Falls Elementary School. The picture is undated, but is believed to have been taken in the early 1980s. The building is a two-story brick structure with classrooms on both sides of the building separated by central hallways. The main office is located on the first floor near the main entrance. The main entrance doors are covered by a metal awning. A circular driveway curves in front of the building. In the center of the circle is a grassy area. The trees that were planted around the building in the 1950s have grown quite large.
Great Falls Elementary School in the early 1980s. In March 1986, the Fairfax County School Board awarded a contract for a building-wide renewal and modernization of Great Falls. The project was contracted to the Pagano Construction Company at a cost of $1,063,700.

Japanese Immersion

In March 1989, the Fairfax County School Board approved the implementation of the Partial Immersion Foreign Language Program at eight pilot school sites. Great Falls Elementary School was one of three schools chosen to pilot Japanese language immersion. Classes began in the fall of 1989, with more than 90 children in grades 1-3 enrolled in the program at Great Falls. The first children in this innovative program studied English and social studies in English, then learned math, science, and health while speaking Japanese. In October 1990, the Washington Post published an article about the immersion program at Great Falls.

Sensei Chisa Shimamura never speaks English. If students don’t understand, she repeats her words, miming her meaning. When a boy fails to comprehend that she’s asked him to sit down, she extends her hands, palms down, and gestures downward until he understands. Then she repeats the command for reinforcement. Students agreed that reading and writing kanji are the toughest parts. “You’ve got to do them exactly right, because if you do it even just a squiggle off it’s an entirely different letter,” said Erika Starr, 9.

Japanese partial immersion proved so successful that it garnered international attention. In June 1994, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan visited Great Falls Elementary School and toured the immersion classrooms.

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) TV channel Red Apple 21 was on hand to document the royal visit. The resulting 18-minute documentary provides a fascinating glimpse of this auspicious occasion.

Growth and Change

During the summer of 1990, construction began on new classrooms to house the School Age Child Care (SACC) program.

Black and white photograph of a student using a computer work station. The computer is a 1980s era Apple Macintosh.
Great Falls Elementary School computer work station, 1991-92.

In December 1991, the School Board awarded a contract to complete the installation of air conditioning at Great Falls, portions of which had gone without air conditioning since the initial construction of the building in the 1950s.

Sixth grade class photograph taken during the 1989 to 1990 school year. 29 children are pictured. They are arranged in three rows outside the building. The first row is seated on chairs, the second row is standing, and the third row is standing on chairs. The children are underneath the tall trees that lined the front of the original classroom wing of the building.
Mrs. Wilson’s 6th grade class, 1989-90.
Fourth grade class photograph taken during the 1992 to 1993 school year. 29 students and their teacher are pictured. The children are arranged in four rows, and are posed in front of one of the blooming cherry trees in front of the school. The tree is laden with large pink flowers.
Mrs. Casey’s 4th grade class, 1992-93.
First grade class photograph taken during the 1994 to 1995 school year. 23 children and two teachers are pictured. This is a Japanese Partial Immersion first grade class and one teacher is the English teacher and the other is the Japanese teacher.
1st grade Japanese immersion class, 1994-95.

Celebrating 50 Years

After nearly a decade of flat enrollment growth from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, FCPS saw a steady uptick in the number of new students toward the turn of the century. By the spring of 2001, overcrowding had become a serious concern at Great Falls Elementary School.

Afternoon kindergarten class photograph taken during the 2002 to 2003 school year. 28 children and one teacher are pictured. The children are arranged in three rows on risers in front of a plain grey background.
Mrs. Dayton and Mrs. Heflin’s afternoon kindergarten class, 2002-03. FCPS implemented full-day kindergarten county-wide in September 2011.

During the week of May 5-9, 2003, Great Falls Elementary School celebrated its 50th birthday. At the same time, five miles away, construction of Colvin Run Elementary School was nearing completion. The opening of Colvin Run, in September 2003, relieved the overcrowding at Great Falls.

Photograph showing the cover of two Great Falls Elementary School yearbooks. On the left is the cover of the 1993 to 1994 yearbook. It has a dark blue background. In the center is an illustration of a roadrunner seated atop a stack of books, reading a book. Only the top of the roadrunner’s head and its feet are visible behind the open book. On the right is the cover of the 2003 to 2004 yearbook. The cover is white with a red border and features a student-drawn illustration of two female safety patrol students standing next to a flag pole. The girls are raising the American flag.
Great Falls Elementary School 40th and 50th anniversary yearbook covers.

As the first decade of the 2000s wound to a close, construction began on a much-needed schoolwide renovation. The $11.9 million project, contracted to Creative Finishes, Inc., began construction in October 2008 and was completed in January 2010.

Aerial photograph of Great Falls Elementary School taken on September 29, 2008, just prior to the start of renovation.
September 29, 2008, prior to the start of renovation.
Aerial photograph of Great Falls Elementary School taken on April 28, 2009, during renovation. The grass around the building has been removed. Construction of exterior walls has begun on the six-classroom wing of the building where a second story is being added.
April 28, 2009. During the renovation, more than 20,000 square feet of new space was added; including a new media center, new cafeteria, an art classroom, and six additional classrooms.
Aerial photograph of Great Falls Elementary School taken on January 28, 2010, after the renovation was complete. A new main entrance has been built, and a new wing connects the front of the building with the gymnasium and SACC classrooms.
January 28, 2010, after the renovation was complete.