At Dranesville Elementary School when the final bell rings, the hallways have a strange resemblance to Interstate 495 during rush hour. As students squish themselves — sometimes three across — through the school's front doors, anyone walking against the crowd better have strong footing.
Once inside, the usually busy hallways take on an eerie silence as the last student trickles out to catch the bus. Except for the sporadic teacher sitting behind a desk reviewing the following day's lesson plan, the classrooms are empty.
Well, almost empty.
Up one flight of stairs, down the hall and around a corner, 26 fifth and sixth grade girls sit behind desks, munching on Gold Fish crackers, sipping juice boxes and listening to fifth grade teacher Giselle Morris and English as a Second Language teacher Angie Goetz talk about Girl Power.
On Tuesday, Feb. 28, Morris and Goetz discussed positive and negative self-esteem with the diverse group of young women.
"It's a program to empower girls," Morris said. "They try to target girls that have a less than perfect home life, or girls they feel could benefit from this type of program."
In its first year at Dranesville, the Girl Power program was created to help fifth and sixth grade students prepare for the often awkward middle school years. Created through a partnership between Dranesville Elementary and the Greater Herndon Community Coalition, the program is a part of the coalition's safe and drug free programming for Herndon youth.
THROUGH THE PROGRAM the students meet with Morris and Goetz once a week after school for one hour. During that time the teachers and parent liaison Loudres Sleem work with the students on the mandatory curriculum.
Topics discussed include nutrition, tobacco use and prevention, alcohol abuse education, drug awareness, anger management, fitness, effective communication and resisting peer pressure.
To keep the students' attention, the teachers have created hands-on lessons to teach the curriculum. To date the young women have participated in making friendship bracelets, decorating t-shirts, participating in an aerobics class taught by another Dranesville teacher, going on field trips and creating anti-drug skits and safe and drug free bookmarks.
"We want to get the girls active in community service because this is a community based program," Morris said about another aspect of the program.
To open their eyes to community service, the group volunteered in December to help with the LINK food distribution. In addition to taking families through the church to pick up a week's worth of groceries, the Spanish-speaking students translated for many of the recipients.
"They loved it because they had never done community service before," said Sleem. "They would call their moms and say 'don't pick me up yet.'"
Through the program the teachers also try to help the young women partake in activities they would not normally get to experience. They want to help the students develop healthy attitudes about themselves, while also teaching them hobbies— such as knitting, dancing or aerobics — that they can continue once they leave the program.
"IT'S REALLY FUN because you get to meet new friends," said Dora Hernandez.
Hernandez, 12, signed up for the program because the various activities, including the aerobics which was her favorite event so far, sounded like fun, she said.
Hernandez is aware of other students using drugs, but because of the support through the program, she knows that she can say no.
"I like the program because they teach you how to stay away from drugs," she said. "They teach you how to be safe."
Classmate Jessica Grooms, 10, signed up for the program because her mom gave her the choice between Girl Power or chorus, she said. She chose the Girl Power program because it sounded "cool." Like Hernandez, she enjoyed the aerobics the most because of the kick-boxing moves they learned. She also liked the Feb. 28 exercise where the girls ripped up and threw away strips of red paper that held "negative" thoughts about themselves.
"We think that it is really important that all of our students can learn about making choices for a healthy lifestyle," said principal Lucinda Romberg about why the school embraced the program. "We hope to equip the girls to deal with peer pressure, which certainly effects all children."
Romberg noted a similar program at the school called Girls on the Run. Through this program the girls meet twice a week, either before or after school, to participate in self-esteem building exercises. But, unlike the Girl Power program, the students also train for a 5k run in May, Romberg said.
Before the Girl Power students can attend the once-a-week program, their teachers — who identified students they felt would benefit from its activities — determine if the students should receive after school assistance with homework instead of participating in the program, Sleem said.
For most of them, their grades are good enough and they continue to come to the Girl Power program because they want to, not because they have to, Morris said.
"I hope that we would not just give them the opportunity for new experiences," Sleem said, "but that we would also give them tools for the future and positive memories."