Courtesy of OWPR Architects and Engineers
This graphic shows the proposed project design superimposed over a birds-eye view of Falling Branch Elementary School. The project will address security concerns and a growing student population.

Anaika Miller

J. D. Price, an architect with OWPR Architects and Engineers, presented the expansion project’s final design to the Montgomery County School Board on Feb. 7.

Price said the project will add about 28,500 square feet to the school’s existing size of 57,000 square feet, and it will cost about $10.5 million. Additionally, the project will renovate about 11,400 square feet to create an administrative space in the front of the school. The administrative offices will double as an extra buffer against intruders, creating a safer school entrance.

The current design also includes the addition of 17 new classrooms, and a larger library and cafeteria, which will function as an auxiliary gym. Price said a bigger cafeteria will also allow the school to hold two lunchtimes instead of three.

Additionally, the project will help improve traffic flow by connecting the sides of the parking lot and moving the drop-off/pick-up location to directly in front of the cafeteria, Price said.

Falling Branch Principal Julie Vanidestine said she is excited to bring students currently being taught in mobile units into the school’s main building as soon as possible.

“My biggest need is to get everyone in the building,” Vanidestine said. “It’s safer, it’s more secure and it’s a better learning environment for everyone.”

The school has nine mobile units, three of which are being used as classrooms for a pre-K, 4th grade and 5th grade class. Vanidestine said despite excellent teachers, students being taught in the mobiles are at a disadvantage because it takes longer to get to a bathroom or the library from the mobile units.

Vanidestine said she believes that if the project goes according to plan, they’ll be able to start the 2017-2018 school year without mobiles.

Both Price and Vanidestine said they were happy with the amount of collaboration that went into selecting the final design. Vanidestine said an administrative team met every couple weeks with the architectural firm to develop a few different plans, and then staff, faculty and parents had an opportunity to provide comments and ideas before a final design was selected.

“Each teacher’s perspective is important in building an addition to our school that will continue to complement our small-school feel in a large-school building,” Vanidestine said during the design presentation.

Falling Branch

One of the design elements Vanidestine said she is looking forward to are hallways in the 4th grade and 5th grade wings that are twice as wide as the school’s other hallways. The additional space will provide a “collaborative learning space” for students to work on assignments like group presentations or STEM projects.

“A table just usually can’t contain all of their ideas,” Vanidestine said. “This will give them room to share ideas and invent with other kiddos.”

The project’s additions and renovations will also address concerns about a growing student population. Falling Branch currently has 482 students, but Vanidestine said it is projected to serve more than 700 students in the near future.

Montgomery County Public Schools spokesperson Brenda Drake said that in addition to projected student population growth at Falling Branch, there are plans to redistrict Christiansburg. A larger building at Falling Branch will alleviate overcrowding at Christiansburg Elementary School and Christiansburg Primary School as the district moves forward with plans for a Belview-area school, Drake said.

Though board member and District G representative Mark F. Cherbaka questioned the new cost of the project—which was originally estimated at $8 million—school board members seemed generally pleased with the project.

“The way I’m looking at it, for 17 classrooms plus renovations, for $10.5 million, that’s a pretty good price,” Board Vice Chair and District F representative Connie L. Froggatt said.

District B representative Penny Franklin agreed.

“Thank you for not saying ‘we’ve only got this much money, we can only do this.’ Do what you need to do and put it in front of us, thank you for that,” Franklin said.

Vanidestine said she and the rest of the school’s faculty and staff knew they had to create a design that will be able to serve future students.

“We don’t know what’s coming. We understand the responsibility to make this work, not just for us, but for many years,” Vanidestine said.

During the meeting, board members also agreed to send a request to the county administrator which, if approved, will appropriate $194,785 of funding currently designated for the expansion project to complete roofing repairs at Falling Branch. Approving the request will save the district $20,215, according to the letter written by Superintendent Mark Miear.

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