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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.