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Alternative Education: 'Opportunity for Everybody'

Students from all over the world find their niche at three Fairfax alternative high schools.

Teachers didn't care about Meredith Shonebarger. That's what she thought when she made the transition from middle school to Westfield High School, the first year the school opened.

"At Westfield, it was so big, so crowded, my teachers didn't care Square 1 about me," Meredith said. "I had three teachers who, in fact, told me I was going to amount to nothing."

As she lived through her parents' separation, Meredith's grades plummeted to F’s. She said she “didn’t get along with anybody,” she was "constantly suspended," and now she understands how depressed she was at the time. Meredith was kicked out of her high school the second semester of her freshman year for multiple issues related to substance abuse.

Her father, Steve Shonebarger, remembers the day he and Meredith's mother met with the principal and four of Meredith's teachers. Not one had anything positive to say about their daughter, he said.

"They made it look like she was a criminal, like she had shot somebody," said Shonebarger, the father of five Fairfax County high-school graduates. "They did not want any problem kids in their school. They had to move the 10 bad eggs out.

"You would think a guidance counselor or somebody could have helped, but the system was way too big, and she couldn't get the attention," he said. "'Move on, we don't have time for this.' That was the message they gave."

Meredith graduated June 16 from Mountain View Alternative School, a Fairfax County public school in Centreville with 282 students last semester. She earned scholarship money to go to college, where she intends to study journalism and film.

At Mountain View, Meredith said she had teachers "who say, 'You can do it, we're behind you.’"

BEFORE HE PICKS up his notebook and pen and goes to school at night, Allan Munguia, 24, lays bricks and cement for schools, hospitals and jails that he helps build in Loudoun and Fairfax counties.

Working in construction gives him the ability to support himself and his family in Honduras.

Living his life successfully in America is the way Munguia believes he can best show his mother his love. "Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I just wish I could hug my mom and tell her that I love her," said Munguia, who came to America in 1999 when he was 19.

Munguia, who rents an apartment in Vienna with his older brother, is responsible for sending enough money back home so his younger brother can attend school in his homeland. "If I wasn't here, he could not go to college. If he gets educated in my native country, I don't think he will need to come here," Munguia said.

By the time Munguia was 12, he was working full time in Honduras trimming orange trees. He hopes to get his high-school diploma and eventually attend college himself, to become a computer technician. Four days a week after work, he travels to Pimmit Hills Alternative School in Falls Church, where he takes two night classes. He is on track to graduate in two-and-a-half years.

"I don't think you do physical labor and then come here four nights a week unless you really have the desire for an education," said Jim Sykes, who runs the night program at Pimmit Hills.

Not all students thrive or fit in at traditional high schools. Fairfax County has invested in three alternative high schools designed to provide an education for students who need something different. Pimmit Hills in Falls Church, Mountain View in Centreville and Bryant in Alexandria have programs and schedules to meet the needs of students whose education has been disrupted. A small percentage of the students at these schools are like Meredith [Shonebarger], placed in the alternative schools by the School Board for disciplinary problems.

Many students have come from other countries, sometimes fleeing social tyranny or economic hardship, sometimes with little education even in their native language.

Some students are pregnant; some are teenage mothers. These students are part of Project Opportunity — offered at Bryant and Mountain View — helping them continue their education while offering life-skills and parenting classes.

Some students need a flexible schedule and night classes because they work full or part time to support their families.

Some students may have dropped out and now have returned to earn a diploma rather than a GED.

"Not all kids fit the base-school mode. Not all kids are in the big sports programs. Not all kids are into the 2,000 [and more] school population. Some fall through the cracks," said Jim Oliver, principal at Mountain View.

Alternative schools offer much smaller classes, more one-on-one instruction, a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, and flexibility to meet the needs of students.

"I spent years getting up in front of a class and watching kids meet me where I was. Now I come in every day, they're out there, I see where they are, and I go out to meet them, to see what it is that they need," said Lin Spence, English teacher at Mountain View.

Alternative schools also give staff a greater ability to be more involved with students and to understand what is happening in their lives and how that is affecting their education.

"If you stand at a fish bowl, you have the advantage of seeing everything that goes on," said Beverly Wilson, principal at Pimmit Hills. "Well, here the teacher can see everything that goes on about that student. The teacher can look at the student from different angles and sides and know what his or her needs are and be able to get at the essence of what it is that will make that student successful."

A school system like Fairfax County that serves 166,000 students needs to have alternatives for some students, said Oliver, who spent 24 years at traditional schools in the county, including some as assistant principal at Centreville High School. Oliver had previously sent students to Mountain View before moving to the school himself over a year ago.

"At the base schools, one of the rules was that you couldn't wear a hat in the building," he said. "Well, that student comes to us and our philosophy is, 'We'll buy them a hat if they just go to class.' We want you in class, we want you learning, we want you to have instruction."

The 382 students at Pimmit Hills last semester came from 53 countries; every major language is spoken at the school. "We like to think of ourselves as the crossroads of the world," Mayo said.

Twenty different languages are spoken at Mountain View.

Pimmit Hills taught students as old as 38 last semester, while students at Mountain View last semester ranged in age from 16 to 29.

Older students pay tuition on a sliding scale based on income. No one is rejected because of lack of money, said Bud Mayo, assistant principal at Pimmit Hills.

"One of the things that was so startling to our students was that they had no comprehension why American kids take school for granted," said DiDi Crowder, career counselor and grants coordinator at Pimmit Hills. "They say they had been through hell to get here and get an education and Americans skip school, and it makes no sense to them."

The survival skills of some students leave Crowder and Dianne Cullum, career center specialist, in awe.

"Our kids, their parents wake them up in the middle of the night and throw them in a boat when they are 12 years old with no idea where the boat was taking them," Crowder said. "Their parents just pray that the boat makes it."

One student, a Kurdish girl who had lived in Iraq under Sadam Hussein, had to live in a tunnel for many months. "They watched siblings and infants suffocate in the holes where they were hiding. They'd go for days without food," Cullum said.

Crowder related the story of two Somalian sisters who attended Pimmit Hills. Their "mother woke them up in the middle of the night and told the older sister who was 15 to take care of her 12-year-old sister. They got to Saudia Arabia and were met at gunpoint," Crowder said.

After being terribly abused, Crowder said, the sisters were helped by the United Nations and a church that brought the girls here.

"Now, the oldest, with the little bits of money she makes working at CVS, sends money to the U.N. because she wants to pay them back so they will bring more people from Somalia," Crowder said. "They really are beyond the comprehension of people who live in our country."

"Lots of people come here with the shirt on their back," said Mayo.

"IF YOU LOOK at the kids who come here, most of them have challenges in their lives that they have to go through," said Miguel Roca, 21, of Burke, who moved to the United States four years ago from Peru.

Seeing the diversity — and the adversity overcome — in alternative schools is what he found special about attending and graduating from Mountain View.

Some of his peers at Mountain View are teenage parents in the Project Opportunity program.

"We try to affect two generations of people, at least," said Susan Houde, counselor at Mountain View. "When they get ready to give up, we say, 'Wait a minute, you expect your child to finish high school, you have to model that.'"

Jesse Viles, a 2000 graduate of Mountain View who grew up in Herndon, first enrolled at Mountain View when she was 14 and pregnant with her daughter Halie, now 7. Viles is currently an international relations student at George Mason University, who also works full time at Chevy Chase Bank in Herndon. She said teachers at Mountain View helped her apply for scholarships her senior year, and she was awarded $25,000, which enabled her to study at George Mason following two years at Northern Virginia Community College.

"It wouldn't have happened without what I had at Mountain View," she said.

"Not only do they care. It wasn't like a truancy officer caring, it was a personal caring," Viles said. "They sit down next to you and say, 'What's going on, you don't have a baby-sitter? You need some help? Listen, I know a girl who lives next door, and I bet she can help.’"

ONE PREDICTOR OF SUCCESS for children in schools is the education of their parents, Sykes said.

"We're educating parents of future Fairfax elementary- and middle-school and high-school kids," he said.

Mayo calls Pimmit Hills "one of Fairfax County's best investments."

“If you don’t educate people, if you don’t give them a way to make a living, if you don’t give them some sort of light at the end of a tunnel, they often go down the wrong road, and we end up paying for them,” Mayo said.

Without programs like Pimmit Hills, more immigrants would go without an education, and consequently without decent jobs, Crowder said, making them far more likely to need expensive services. “The more we can educate people, the better for the country.”

Regardless of whether students have been placed at alternative schools because of disciplinary problems or have come voluntarily, Sharon DeBragga says the schools are designed to empower kids’ dreams, not destroy them.

“Every kid has a story, every kid is an individual, every kid has such potential, every kid has strengths, and every kid has a dream," said DeBragga, career development coordinator at Mountain View.

Every student also has a voice that needs to be heard and a story to be shared, said Ann Bearden, an English teacher at Mountain View, who worked at Centreville for 10 years and Woodson for five years before that.

"It is a very honest place, in every sense of the word, an honest place. They know that we are here as a complete team of support," she said. "You really have the power to change a kid's perception of what real learning is, what the value of learning is, and to change the kids' perception of themselves as a learner, as a thinker.

"Gosh, that's the greatest gift you can give to anybody, to show them that they can learn and it's a lifelong process that doesn't stop when they graduate."

SERENDIPITY BROUGHT English teacher Lin Spence to Mountain View. Spence, who has loved working three decades in Fairfax County Public Schools, also feels like she saved the best part of her career for last.

"When I was at Lake Braddock, I thought, 'I'd be happy to retire here,' but I knew there was something else. It's almost like the feeling I had before I met my husband," she said. "I've loved all my kids, but there is something real special here. I feel like I've left the best until the last, and I've been working 20 years towards this goal."

It's Spence's concluding efforts in the school system mixed with the collective efforts of all staff at Mountain View that gave Meredith Shonebarger her new beginning.

"I'm not even the person I was three years ago, and if I stayed at Westfield, I probably would be," Meredith said.

"I didn't know who I was, I didn't care about anything. Now, I know what I want, I know who I am, and I know what I want to do with my life. I know where to go from here."