Alternative High Schools Focus on Academics

Alternative High Schools Focus on Academics

The doors at Mountain View School in Centreville never seem to close. The school, one of three alternative high schools in the Fairfax County Public Schools system, offers classes from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., mostly to students 17 years old and older who are seeking their high-school diploma.

"Students come here for different reasons," said Barbara Genat, Mountain View principal. "We provide support and provide an environment for kids who don't succeed in their base school."

Genat said the students find their way to Mountain View, and the other alternative schools, voluntarily, such as the students who do better in a smaller-classroom environment, have to work, or are parenting teens. There are also those who come not-so-voluntarily because they have been suspended or expelled from their base school.

"It's a mixed bag of kids," Gernat said. "They just march to the beat of a different drummer. But so do I, that's why I like it here."

All three of the county's alternative high schools, Mountain View, Pimmit Hills in Falls Church and Bryant in Alexandria, have an open enrollment and offer evening and summer classes which are designed to allow a student to complete a yearlong course in one semester.

Students 20 years old or older returning to school or students currently enrolled in their base school and are looking to earn additional credits are charged the summer-school tuition fee. For all others, enrollment is free.

ONE OF THE PROGRAMS the alternative high schools offer is Project Opportunity, which allows pregnant teen-aged girls and teen-aged parents to complete the requirements to earn their high-school diploma. Fairfax County requires students to earn 22 credits for a standard diploma.

The program also provides a mentor program, group and individual counseling and elective courses on parenting and employable skills. In addition there is an on-staff public health nurse, social worker, day-care assistance, transportation and homebound instruction available.

The size of the schools help the staff and students develop a relationship based on respect. And because of the accelerated pace of the courses and the open campus, students are expected to take responsibility for their own education.

"It's like a community college," Gernat said. "In a sense, it's easier here because of the small classes and the respectful relationship that develops between the students and teachers. We have fun here."

It's not all fun and games, however. The students are required to complete 140 hours of instruction time. That could mean meeting for an hour-and-half each day or for longer periods a couple times a week. And like schools across the nation, the alternatives must meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which begins its phase-in this year, and the students must pass the Standards of Learning.

"A MAJORITY of our student are 18 years old and up. We graduated one youngster last year who was 55 years old," said Beverly Wilson, principal at Pimmit Hills. "It's predominantly 18- to 22-year-olds that may be working, may have families, may need to work on their English proficiency, and may have started school and for whatever reason it was interrupted."

The schools do not offer sports, a music program or other activities typically found in traditional high schools. They offer only what is needed to earn a standard diploma.

"We are strictly academic. We do have a leadership club," Wilson said. "But there's no gym or cafeteria. The kids eat in the halls. They're required to take gym and we have no gym. If it's good weather, they go outside. If it is inclement, they do a health unit indoors."

The schools draw students from all over the county and allow students to "come with a clean slate," said Gernat.

Mountain View will be holding a back-to-school night Thursday, Oct. 10 at 6:30 p.m. and Pimmit Hills has one scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 3, at 7 p.m. Bryant has not announced whether it has scheduled a back-to-school night.