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For Students, School Molds Into a Perfect Fit

Marjorie Flores, left, and Zaynib Nadi work on a physics project. Many students at Pimmit Hills Alternative High School in Falls Church are immigrants who are too old to attend traditional high schools.
Marjorie Flores, left, and Zaynib Nadi work on a physics project. Many students at Pimmit Hills Alternative High School in Falls Church are immigrants who are too old to attend traditional high schools. (James M. Thresher - Twp)

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

When the school day ends, Guiselle Armengol takes an hour-long bus ride home. She picks up her toddler from day care and fixes dinner for the family. After her son is tucked into bed, she begins her homework.

Armengol, 23, isn't a typical high school student in Fairfax County. But she fits in at Pimmit Hills in Falls Church, one of three alternative high schools in the county.

"I have to be a mother, wife and a student at the same time," said Armengol, who's taking English 12 and Virginia history this semester.

Although alternative schools have been stigmatized as places for students who have discipline problems, only about 10 percent of the roughly 300 students at Pimmit Hills are sent from their local schools because of behavior problems or other issues, said Assistant Principal Bud Mayo. Most, like Armengol, are recent immigrants who are too old for traditional high schools but want to earn a diploma.

Most students juggle classes with family and work obligations, and it is not uncommon for students to take a semester off to earn some money with seasonal work such as landscaping or construction. Many have had only sporadic schooling, and some have fled war-torn countries.

With so many distractions for its students, the school had usually not made the grade under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

But two years ago, Pimmit Hills launched a schoolwide remediation program that administrators credit with helping students, and the school, meet federal benchmarks in tests last spring. Teachers used midterm tests to pinpoint which material students had trouble with. And teachers use test results to develop targeted tutoring before and after school and during Saturday sessions.

Scores on Virginia's Standards of Learning tests have risen dramatically at Pimmit Hills, with 86 percent of students passing English tests taken last spring, an increase from 54 percent in 2003. And 88 percent passed math tests, up from 64 percent in 2003.

"If you walked into this school from Kansas and looked at the files, you'd say there's no way that school could make it," Mayo said. "But we did. This is the same diploma with the same [Standards of Learning] requirements that a kid at Langley has."

Although state law requires that students younger than 18 attend school full-time, older students at Pimmit Hills can tailor their class schedules to their lives. Some take one class in a semester before heading to work, while others have a full load.

Most students are in their 20s, but there is no age limit. One graduate a few years ago was 52. More than three-quarters are learning English as a second language.

Last week, a billboard outside the school announced Tenzin Namgyal, 22, as the student of the month. Namgyal, who was born in Tibet, arrived in the United States in January thinking he was too old for school.


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