It’s an idea that’s almost too fantastic. You would go to school at Thelma’s, the mother lode for ice cream in Great Falls.
But that’s exactly what a group of Great Falls parents are hoping to do in September, 2004: open a private school for elementary-school children on undeveloped property behind Thelma’s Store on Colvin Run Road.
Its focus will be “an excellent academic program with a strong moral foundation” and emphasis on environmental stewardship, said Amelia Clark, president of the board of directors.
It will start with two classrooms, kindergarten and first grade, in modular classrooms. Each class will be limited to 15 children.
For four years, Clark said , the school will remain at that location, growing by one class each year as the first grade grows up. A lease is now being negotiated with Nest Estates, LLC, which owns Thelma’s.
After four years, the school could renew its lease for two more years, completing enrollment with 90 children, or move to a new location.
AS THE SCHOOL GROWS, its board will seek a permanent location in Great Falls for a K-8 school with a minimum of 10 acres of land to accommodate athletic fields, said Clark.
The group introduced its concept to a gathering of community residents and civic leaders at the Blue Oasis Cafe on Colvin Run Road last week.
The school will be independent of any church but would have “the blessing, but no financial support,” from the Virginia Episopal Diocese, Clark said.
It is being called “Great Falls Episcopal School” as a working title. Because the acronym is identical to Great Falls Elementary School’s another permanent name will likely be chosen.
Clark described the school’s board of directors as “committed to the Great Falls community.” She said members want the school to have a spiritual component to give children a moral base, but make it inclusive.
Environmental stewardship will be the focus of the curriculum, along with core moral values.
The school will encompass two things that Thelma Feighery loved, said Clark: children and education. She held a graduate degree in psychology from George Washington University, something unusual for her time.
THELMA, THE PROPRIETOR of the store with her husband, Frank, from the late 1940s until her death in 2001, had a daughter, Suzy, who was disabled and stayed with her in the store.
Since her death, the store has remained in operation and still sells ice cream, a year-round favorite for people in Great Falls and beyond.
Panthea Mohtasham, the present owner, said the store is slowly being refurbished.
Tom Macy, who serves the proposed school’s board as a financial adviser, said the property, a total of 3.6 acres, is divided into 1.5 acres that are zoned commercial, or C-8. The rest is residential.
Because the school would be contained on the commercially zoned property, it could be developed “by right.” Water and sewer tie-ins are already available. The building would not be visible from the road, Clark said.
The modular building and a gravel drive and parking lot would be removable when the lease expires, so the property could be restored to its original condition, except for removal of several trees. The group plans are to preserve most of the trees, said Clark.
A playground between the classrooms and the parking lot would be fenced. Originally, the group’s desire was to refurbish the brick residence next to the store for use as a school. But it was built in 1929, with very low ceilings and no sprinkler system, and adapting it for commercial use under modern building codes would be prohibitively expensive, said Clark.
Macy said the board is presently consulting with Fairfax County zoning officials and will probably seek waivers for streetlights and turn lanes, which are generally opposed by the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA).
BECAUSE THE SCHOOL wants to offer before and after-school programs, traffic will be staggered and is not expected to have a significant impact on Colvin Run Road, which GFCA president emeritus Eleanor Anderson termed “a newly minted Virginia byway.”
Clark and Macy said the board is sensitive to the GFCA’s concerns. “This is a very fluid process. We had to make a first cut on placing the buildings on the property,” Macy said. “We’re not here to cause problems. We’re here to educate children.”
Anderson, herself educated in an Episcopal school, called it “a wonderful tradition. I commend you for your effort,” she said after the presentation.
“Thelma loved children, and she loved education. This is a nice fit,” said Clark.
Two “learn-more” meetings about the school are scheduled at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 8, and Wednesday, July 23, at the Great Falls library. A “family fun day” is planned at Thelma’s from 2-5 p.m. on Sunday, July 27.