Those who saw strange cars traveling erratic patterns in the Hollin Meadows school district last Thursday evening need not worry. They were not troublemakers on the prowl; instead they were teachers with maps trying to find their students’ homes.
Jon Gates, principal of Hollin Meadows Elementary School, believes so much in the importance of teachers connecting with students that for the past three years, he has sponsored a “Welcome Walk.”
During the walk (mostly done in cars), each primary grade teacher, paired with a specialist, meets at the school for a pizza dinner. They spend some time mapping out where the students live before heading out to the students’ home to deliver them welcome packets.
“It’s great — the teachers and students look forward to it,” said Anita Boggs, second-grade teacher at Hollin Meadows.
Gates said that letters are sent home to the parents notifying them of the visits. Not all students are home when the teachers arrive, but those who are there usually greet the teachers with surprise and excitement.
“The first year we did this, the parents didn’t know what to expect,” Gates said. “Now, a lot of them are there waiting.”
Brandon Johnson wasn’t waiting by the door, but when he received a knock from Jeff Firman (sixth-grade teacher) and Debbie Drembus (specialist), Brandon and all his brothers and sisters came to the door, along with his mother and grand-mother. Brandon’s older sister knew Firman, so it was like old home week.
“Did you have a good summer? Did you go to the pool?” asked Firman, who also brought them the coveted news of who their classmates were going to be.
Firman gave Brandon’s mother the welcome packet and visited with the family for a few minutes before they were on their way. As they left the Johnson’s house, children in the house next door also recognized Firman and said hello.
“It’s fun, it’s a good way to meet the kids,” Firman said.
The next few knocks were greeted with silence as those families were not at home, but they next connected at the home of a student named Helen. As they left there, another set of teachers drove by, saying, “I got one.”
“It’s a nice way to start the year,” Drembus said as they went on to scout out their next address.
IN ADDITION to the "Welcome Walk," Hollin Meadows also held an open house the following day. Most of the other Mount Vernon schools held open houses last week as well.
Joanne Jackson was front and center at Bucknell Elementary School’s open house that was held last Thursday. As principal of the school, she was on hand to greet parents and students.
“We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary. It’s a very exciting time and we have a lot of events planned,” Jackson said.
Teachers and staff were also available to greet students, including Peggy Burkholder, Title I teacher, who helped students find their classes.
That same day, Woodlawn Elementary families were invited to attend their second annual Back-to-School Open House and Family Picnic. The picnic took place on the school grounds with the PTA providing hot dogs and drinks; families were asked to each bring a dish to share.
Stephanie Bisson, principal, Woodlawn Elementary School, said that over the summer, Woodlawn Elementary received new windows throughout the building.
“We also got new lighting, updated electrical wiring and a wireless network system. This makes Woodlawn windowed, wireless and well-lit,” said Bisson.
She said that last year Woodlawn became a part of the Literacy Collaborative, a research-based initiative designed to increase literacy achievement for all students.
“We trained a literacy coach, Mary Tornell, and collected data on the reading and writing levels of our youngest students. This year Mrs. Tornell will teach a course to teachers in grades K-2 and coach in classrooms,” Bisson said.
Woodlawn has two new community partners — the Urban League of Northern Virginia and Jefferson Houston Elementary School in Alexandria.
“The goals of the partnership are still being developed, but we anticipate that one of the benefits will be additional mentoring and tutoring for Woodlawn students,” Bisson said.
RIVERSIDE HELD their open house last week; this was a feat in and of itself, considering that the building has been undergoing major renovations.
Just a few weeks ago, much of the building was still filled with exposed wires, unplastered walls, debris-filled hallways and plenty of hard hats. Lori Morton, principal, was confident that it would be finished, and while there are still things that need to be completed, it was good enough for parents and students to come see all the changes that have taken place — changes like the new music room, the newly renovated cafeteria and the new art room.
“The room we’re most proud of is the art room. I believe that this is the largest art room in a Fairfax County elementary school,” Morton said.
As she showed some of the room’s updated features, including a kiln room, drying racks and extensive shelving, she described it as an “art teacher’s dream.”
“Everything he needs for art is in one place,” Morton said.
Throughout the school, new tiling is interspersed with tiles created by the students.
“I can’t wait until the kids come in and see their tile,” Morton said.
The cafeteria has all new equipment and is rearranged so as to allow for students to access the food stations in a straight line. Morton is even excited about the HVAC room, which is start of the art.
“The biggest thrust was technology. We were light years behind,” Morton said. “Now, all the sixth graders will have laptops.”
Both Morton and Assistant Principal Mary Person said that the construction process has not been too bad. Morton said she tried to attend the construction meetings which were held every other week.
“It was very interesting,” she said. “Everything will be brand new and fresh now.”
AREA HIGH SCHOOLS have also been busy. Eric Brent is settled back at Mount Vernon High School (MVHS) as its new principal. On top of all the back to school activity, Brent and the rest of the staff are dealing with the death of John Frerichs, who died last month after a long battle with cancer. Services were held for Frerichs last Friday, causing Brent and some of the teachers to miss part of the orientation for new students. Frerichs had taught German and had been a wrestling coach at MVHS for over 15 years.
“He was an unbelievable human being,” Brent said. “It wasn’t what he said, but how he walked. Anybody who knew him felt that way. He was an amazing friend, father and teacher.”
Brent said that they had a nice turnout for the orientation — 528 students. Now that he is back at MVHS, he is turning his attention to getting the school fully accredited.
“Becoming fully accredited is a high priority and we have people working towards that goal,” Brent said. “We’re looking at how we’re assessing students and communicating with teachers about the curriculum.”
The overall SOL scores have not yet been released for the past school year, but individual students have already received their individual scores. Students who did not pass will be able to take after-school remedial courses. The high school will also offer makeup tests in January for students who failed.
SAT scores, however, have been released and Mount Vernon scored lower than average.
“Can it be improved? Absolutely,” Brent said. “We need to give the students adequate preparation.”
Brent is planning on following up on recommendations made by county staff as a result of community meetings held last spring.
“We will work together as a community — communicating with parents by the 'Keep in Touch' system, meetings, newsletters and parent councils,” said Brent. “It takes everybody to get involved. Several members of the community have called to volunteer, and we plan to take advantage of that. We’re looking forward to an exciting and challenging school year.”