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Business Partners With School

Mountain View School and Digital Focus Make Their Unique Relationship Official

Before Mountain View School and Digital Focus signed their business-partnership agreement last week, school Principal Barbara Gernat explained its significance.

"Teaching and learning does not take place just inside the walls of a school classroom," she said. "The entire community must be involved."

Actually, the ceremony last Thursday, Nov. 7, at the school simply made official something that began in spring 2000. That's when Courtney Bulger, Fairfax County Public Schools' (FCPS) director of business and industry relations, paired them up.

"Digital Focus' employees wanted to work with a school," said Sharon DeBragga, Mountain View's career-development coordinator. "They have a successful company and wanted to give back something to the community."

Gernat credited the school's technology coordinator, Bonnie Roberto, with being "the driving force behind making this partnership a reality." And Roberto called it an opportunity to "share each other's resources through mutual growth and development."

Underscoring why Mountain View is worthy of such a partnership, two students at the ceremony told what the school has meant to them. One, Meaghan Devlin, graduated in June at age 16. Calling Mountain View the "school of second chances," she said, "This school will never desert you, no matter how many times you fall or leave them."

She said she had trouble in regular public school and knew she had to do something different, so she came to Mountain View. "Here, I could be myself and get a chance to be someone," said Devlin. "Mountain View will try its best to help you, if you're serious. The staff praised me for being who I was and who I could be."

As a result, come spring, she'll begin studies at the International Fine Arts College in Miami, to major in fashion merchandising. She said Mountain View hears the beat of a different drum. "Here, we all work as a whole and everyone's differences are appreciated. People care — you won't get lost here."

Although the students have lots of leeway, said Gernat, "The staff is right here to catch them if they go astray. Wonderful things go on here every day."

Speaking next was current student Alex Sanchez, 25, married and the father of three. He'd dropped out of school in California in 10th grade, moved to Virginia and worked at a restaurant and at the airport. But he wanted to complete his education, so he came to Mountain View and enrolled in computer classes.

"Thanks to Mrs. DeBragga and Mrs. Roberto, my life has changed," he said. "Mountain View guides students in the right direction, teaches them about technology and lets them know what jobs are out there." Last year, Sanchez shadowed a FCPS Facilities Planning employee who was so impressed with him that he offered Sanchez a job.

He's been there eight months now and is doing great. But, he said, it wouldn't have happened without all the help and encouragement he received at Mountain View, and he realizes that "changing people's lives for good changes the community."

Calling the school "a really neat place," FCPS Deputy Superintendent Alan Leis expressed pride in its teachers. "To be a teacher here, you've got to be flexible and committed to the students' needs." And he stressed the importance of business partnerships in networking and people resources. He then told the students, "Not all of you have had an [easy time], but we're so proud of you for finding your way here and persevering."

Also speaking was Digital Focus President and CEO Stephen Alexander. Since 1995, his Herndon company has provided digital and technology services to Fortune 500 firms, helping them use technology more effectively.

"The people of Mountain View have a special place in our hearts," he said. "The heart, the passion and the energy here is something special to see. We're looking forward to the future. We have an enormous opportunity to do some great work together — let's aim high."

As it is, two June grads are attending college on scholarships from Digital Focus, and employees have done some mentoring. They also participated in Mountain View's 2000 election project. Students researched the state and local issues and candidates and explained them to company employees new to the area.

Digital Focus participated in the school's last two Reality Store events, where students learn how much money it takes to survive as adults in the real world. And Alexander spoke at the school's Transitions to Tomorrow events, introducing students to various careers. He represented self-employed entrepreneurs.

When Alexander asked his 60 employees, a couple years ago, what they wanted to do, they said they wanted to get involved with a school. Bulger then connected them with Mountain View.

"This country's about second chances, and this really is a special school," said Alexander. "I'm more impressed than I expected to be with the heart and the energy here. Everybody has moments when the light goes on and you know what you want to do — and this seems like a place where that happens a lot. The teachers and staff are committed and passionate, and we already have a superb partnership. We're going to get together in a few weeks, do more formal planning, put some goals in place and take it up to a higher level."

As part of the partnership, Digital Focus can provide guest speakers related to curriculum areas, provide shadowing experiences for teachers and students, include teachers in relevant business/technology training, offer tours of its facility, recognize honor-roll students and provide incentives to potential dropouts to encourage their graduation from school.

It can also provide seminars for students, faculty or parents; provide curriculum-support materials; sponsor educational field trips and donate materials or used equipment.

In exchange, Mountain View can provide use of the school's facilities for meetings and events, volunteer students as interns, host business leaders for a day, provide student artwork for business offices, host a recognition-reception for company volunteers, provide space in the school to highlight partnership activities and invite employees to shadow teachers or administrators.

So far, said Gernat, the partnership has been a good fit. "We both went at this with excited caution, and it's been a nice blend and meshing of what we each do," she said. "Digital Focus is a young, exciting business — e-commerce — and so many of our kids are interested in those career areas. We both wanted to form a partnership that wasn't just words on a piece of paper, but a living, breathing relationship."