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Willow Springs Partners With County Department

Willow Springs Elementary is making history. It's the first school to become business partners with a department of Fairfax County government.

Actually, it all came about when the county's Financial Management Departments realized they had extra crayons and math-related coloring books left over from the Fairfax County Fair and decided to give them to a school.

"I knew Courtney Bulger, director of Fairfax County Public Schools' Office of Business and Industry Relations, so I called her," explained Mary Casciotti, of the county's Department of Management and Budget. "She recommended us being a business partner with a school, so we all said, 'Why not?' Then we found a school close to the Government Center."

That school is Willow Springs and, last Wednesday, Nov. 12, both entities officially formalized their partnership during a special ceremony there. The school's string orchestra performed, and the sixth-grade chorus sang "Side by Side." And student Kimberly Grille played a violin solo.

"It was so nicely done — very inspiring," said Casciotti. Participants in the partnership-agreement signing included Willow Springs Principal Sandra Culmer, schools superintendent Daniel A. Domenech, the county's Chief Financial Officer Ed Long and SCA president John Gillen. And Domenech, Culmer, Bulger and Long gave speeches.

The partnership began in September 2002, involving 67 students and about 30 volunteers from the county's various financial departments. "They provided tutors and mentors for our after-school tutoring program," said Culmer. "They worked one-on-one with targeted students. Our focus was math and reading for students in grades three, four and five."

AS A RESULT, she said, these students increased their individual scores on the SOL tests and were successful in passing them. Said Culmer: "They showed substantial growth and gains."

On Take Your Child to Work Day, last April, sixth-graders got to experience the workplace, firsthand, courtesy of the county's Financial Management Departments. It proved to be a big hit.

"They learned about the roles and responsibilities of county government and the job skills they had to have," said Culmer. "They got a whirlwind tour of the Government Center, received personal attention from the employees, and saw a firetruck and a K-9 dog demonstration. They loved it — they said it was the best field trip they'd ever been on."

The financial departments are also donating some 60 used, surplus computers to the school to help upgrade Willow Springs' technology. It's enabled the school to establish a PC platform lab for upper-grade students who use it for social studies, science and math.

And this summer, county volunteers helped with landscaping to welcome back students and teachers in September. Said Culmer: "They spent many long hours pulling weeds and planting new flower beds."

The volunteers are also being encouraged to designate Willow Springs as their school for the Giant Foods "A-Plus Bonus Card" program. Said Casciotti: "We realize that everything helps the children, and we are glad to do whatever we can." Any other county departments interested in partnering with a school may call Bulger at 703-246-4541 or e-mail her at Courtney.Bulger@fcps.edu.

THIS YEAR, they're continuing the tutoring and other activities they began last year, as well as their support of Willow Springs' hands-on science program and after-school chess club. And the county employees are as pleased with the partnership as the school is.

"We're just really thrilled to be involved with such a professional group of people," said Casciotti. "All the teachers and support staff are so welcoming, and the children are so excited to have us there."

In return, Willow Springs provides student artwork and displays for exhibits at the Government Center. And it's hosted classroom visits so the volunteers can see the students in action during the day. Students also asked the partners to eat lunch with them in the cafeteria.

The school provides meeting space plus musical entertainment for the county employees and invites them to school concerts. And, said Casciotti, a senior budget analyst, "Should we ever need to relocate in an emergency, Willow Springs' computer lab is our back-up during off-peak hours."

Culmer said the partnership has added a great deal "to the school culture and the life of the building. It's brought the community inside the school, and it's also broadened the students' perspective of county government."

As for the county's financial departments' employees, Casciotti said they're all delighted to be involved with Willow Springs. "People love working with the children," she said. "And they're so impressed with their positive attitudes and desire to learn. Everyone who does the tutoring comes away wanting to do more for the school."

Casciotti, herself, worked with special-needs students on their reading, writing and math. "I really enjoyed doing it," she said. "It gives you a sense of fulfillment and the ability to help your community stretch those tax dollars. We're all very supportive of this. Willow Springs' motto is, 'If it is to be, it is up to me.' In Fairfax County government, we realize that each and every person can and does make a difference."