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School Bells Ring Sept. 3

Local schools gearing up for new critical thinking programs.

It’s that time of the year when school bells across the region begin ringing … families are doing last-minute back-to-school shopping for supplies and clothes, the days are getting shorter, fall sports are at practice and children are playing outside until dusk. It won’t last much longer.

Fairfax County Public Schools start the school year on Tuesday, Sept. 3, possibly the last year the county will be required to schedule the school calendar year after Labor Day.

Fairfax County Public Schools’ new initiative is to develop 21st century learning skills among its students.

Several Vienna-area elementary school administrators shared “what’s new” at their schools.

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Lisa Pilson, principal, Westbriar Elementary School

Lisa Pilson, principal, Westbriar Elementary School:

“The big news out of Westbriar for this school year is that the school is now an Advanced Academic Program center for eligible students from grade three and up. AAP-eligible students from Freedom Hill and Stenwood will feed into Westbriar. Westbriar joins Vienna elementary school Louise Archer as AAP centers.

The advanced academics center gives the school a different feel because we’ll have new kids transitioning from neighbor schools. I think all of our students will benefit from having a center here.”

Also new this school year is a curriculum that infuses science and social studies for all of Westbriar’s grade three through six students.

“Getting both an Advanced Academics center and the infusion program are big things for Westbriar. Our technology specialist, advanced academics specialist and resource teacher, as well as classroom teachers, will be working to broaden critical and creative thinking skills in science, technology, engineering and math [STEM].”

Westbriar’s student population is growing and in February of 2013, the school added a fourth kindergarten teacher. This year, kindergarten begins the year with four teachers. The school has more than 600 children registered for this school year.

Westbriar offers extracurricular FLEX foreign language programs of French, Chinese and Spanish paid for the school’s PTA.

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Dylan Taylor, assistant principal, Cunningham Park Elementary School

Dylan Taylor, assistant principal, Cunningham Park Elementary School:

“CPES provides Spanish during the school day for its FLES program. During the summer, the school opened its library one afternoon a week for students. Approximately, 40 families stopped by every week and kids were allowed to check out as many books as they wanted.”

Taylor said the school is focusing on fostering critical thinking skills and pushing student “empowerment” for students to “discover what challenges they might be facing.” Students set their own goals, guided by their teachers. This is a component of project-based learning. Taylor said the teacher’s job is to introduce something and help the students guide their own learning.

Taylor said the school’s new addition nets seven classrooms and includes a new multi-purpose room. It will be used for small or large-group exploratory exercises stimulating higher-level thinking skills.

CPES is focusing on critical thinking skills. Students practice figuring out problems, and understanding how to solve them. “We give them thought-provoking questions with no definitive answer. They have to justify their answers, though.”

With the new addition, the school no longer has trailers. “It’s great to bring everyone under a single roof.”

Cunningham Park has a new parking lot. “Before, we didn’t even have enough parking for staff. Unfortunately, some trees came down.” The drainage problem was fixed and the school has a new irrigation system and sidewalks. “Most of our kids are walkers. We’re really a community school.”

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John Carmichael, principal, Vienna Elementary School

John Carmichael, principal, Vienna Elementary School:

Vienna Elementary School is Vienna’s oldest continuously operating public school.

VES is a cluster II site for the “intellectually-disabled” program in the Vienna area. The school teaches children from the Madison pyramid, Mosby Woods and a “couple” of other schools in cluster II. The program is based in two classrooms and students in that program are integrated into general education classrooms for music, recess, assemblies, class parties, field trips and morning meetings.

VES has volunteer general ed students who work with I-D students in their adaptive physical ed class. There are also general ed students who go into the I-D classrooms to read to the students there.

The school provides a half-day preschool program for special needs students.

Vienna Elementary offers a PTA-sponsored after-school language program.

“Walking Wednesday” encourages student to walk to school.

There are under 400 students attending VES: 28 in preschool; seven in the intellectually-disabled program; and approximately 365 general education students.

“One of the things we’re focusing on this year is embedding the William & Mary unit into our science and social studies program, part of the advanced academics that will be given to all our students. It’s an enrichment program. Our advanced academics resource teacher is trained in William and Mary units. That is new for this year.

“One of the things we should highlight is that we’ve had high school students come to us to complete their Girl Scout Gold award and Eagle Scout award. Thomas Jefferson student Aly Luckett of Vienna planted a front garden, even tilling the soil. James Madison High School student Oliver Alonso, a former VES student, created the outdoor learning garden, making the benches as well as planting flowers and greens.

*Teresa Khuluki, principal, Wolftrap Elementary School

Wolftrap opened its new technology center in spring of 2013, made possible by a $800,000 grant from a former student.

Chinese is taught during the school day to students one-hour a week. The school is currently a Level 4 school offering enrichment opportunities for its own students.

“This year, Wolftrap Elementary School will focus on increasing critical and creative thinking skills in our students through communication and collaboration.

“Fifty years ago, schools were focused on memorization and ‘following instructions,’ which were needed in that day to align well with the jobs of that time. In today’s world, our young people will compete for jobs that require them to think outside-of-the box, problem-solve, work successfully in teams and effectively communicate with others. These higher-order thinking skills include the ability to analyze, synthesize, interpret, invent, judge and create.

Our goal is for students to not only learn the content curriculum as outlined in the FCPS Program of Studies, but to deepen their learning to become outstanding leaders of tomorrow.”