Near the end of his presentation at Quander Road High School, motivational speaker Steve Fitzhugh discussed the faith that carried him through his youth — not in a religion or a higher power, but in a future. “You have to believe that if you make the right decision, it will come back to you.”
Some of the students in the audience already know the decision he was talking about. Others are still figuring it out. The teachers and staff at Quander Road are there to help them do that before it’s too late to save their education.
Amanda Bradby left Robinson High School for Quander Road because, in her words, “I skipped school a little too much.” In the relative anonymity of a large high school, she would turn to the people in her social circle. “I just wanted to hang out with my friends,” Bradby explained. Because they weren’t attending school, hanging out with them meant she wasn’t either.
But Bradby finally realized that every time she considered skipping, she was deciding more than whether she would be hanging out with her friends that day. She was deciding whether she would go through life with a high school diploma.
Still, only recognizing consequences would not alter them. “I had to make that decision.”
Bradby could have gone to an alternative school that was larger and significantly closer to home than Quander Road, which has less than 100 students. But the school off Richmond Highway appealed to her because of its supportive staff and small class sizes, usually between three and 10 students, according to guidance counselor Jill Mayer.
“It’s easier to go to an alternative school than a regular school,” explained Bradby, “because there’s not as much stuff going on at one time.” But some things don’t change. It was not yet 10 a.m., and Bradby was about to leave school for the day.
The senior needs only one more class to graduate. She takes it each morning, then goes to work at a daycare center.
FITZHUGH WAS an NFL football player for two years in the 1980s before injury ended his career. His mother died of cancer. His brother was an alcoholic and died of a crack overdose. The experiences inspired him to take a message to teenagers. Last week, he spoke at several area schools. He agreed to come to Quander Road pro bono because the school has no budget for guest speakers.
Fitzhugh used several sports metaphors in his frank talk about alcohol, sex, drugs and decisions. In a basketball game, once a player steps out of bounds, he becomes ineligible to touch the ball until he sets both feet down back inside the line. Referees call this “re-establishing a position.” Regardless of where you go when you are out of bounds, into a spectator’s soda or onto a cheerleader’s lap, all it takes to get back in the game is two feet firmly on the court. “You have to re-establish yourself when you step out of bounds,” Fitzhugh said.
“Once you re-establish yourself, you have as much right as anybody to make the shot.”
The students that graduate from Quander Road may have skipped school, disrupted class, exploded in anger, struggled with drugs or simply been unable to cope inside a building that contained thousands of other teenagers. But when they transfer to Quander Road, they have a chance to graduate with a diploma from their base school.
QUANDER ROAD serves half of Fairfax County’s public high schools. Its small size means teachers have closer relationships with their students. It has two guidance counselors and psychiatric staff. When she was at Robinson, Bradby said, she would submit a written request to see a guidance counselor and get an appointment three days later. At Quander Road, someone is always available.
“You deal with the students on a personal level,” said Jill Mayer, a guidance counselor who helps students deal with the environmental distractions and social problems that trip them up. “At a big school you work more on the academic side.”
Attendance is the biggest corollary to academic failure, said principal Bill Files. Many parents go to work before their children leave for school, so monitoring them is difficult. The task of teachers at Quander Road is to educate students who often struggled simply to stay in class.
“It’s certainly a challenge,” said Files, “but it’s really gratifying. We probably get a lot of kids through that wouldn’t get through without the additional help and support.”
But a moment later, Files modified that statement because it was misleading to make the students the object of the verb. They must be the agents of their own change. Files said the students who “get through” are “the ones who make a commitment to getting their life in the right direction.”
“The bottom line is they really have to want to change.”
THE INTENSITY of the desire required to succeed is revealed every year at Quander Road’s small graduation ceremonies. Some graduates choose to walk with students at their base school. But many receive their diplomas from Files on Quander Road’s basketball court. “It seems a little unusual to see every single student hug the principal,” Files said.
That moment may be the tangible goal for many Quander Road students, but the momentum of their effort to earn a diploma rarely dissipates after Files hands it to them.
Files said community college is the most common choice for Quander Road graduates. Even those who have the grades to go to four-year schools rarely have the money. The military is another popular choice that opens opportunities for higher education. Most students attain some kind of post-high school education.
“They do go on, for the most part, one way or another. You don’t hear many stories about people who are sitting at home, not doing anything.”