Partnership With GMU Offers Benefits to Mayfield Intermediate School

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mentors, lessons in leadership and a sneak peek at college life are just some of the benefits Mayfield Intermediate students are getting as the Manassas school builds its relationship with George Mason University, which sits in its back yard.

"I'm shocked we haven't seen more of these [partnership] situations," Mayfield Principal Jeff Abt said. "Our students need to see the potential of what is available at a university."

Although the student government bodies of the two institutions have been collaborating since 2007, Abt said the partnership is expanding schoolwide tomorrow, when all students will get the chance to participate in the first Mason School Spirit Day. Sporting green and gold, the fifth- and sixth-grade students will get the opportunity to compete for prizes and meet with faculty and students from the university's Prince William campus. Charvis Campbell, GMU's local assistant dean of university life, said the plan is to later invite the class that shows the most school spirit to the county campus for a tour and barbecue.

"This is a great opportunity for us to give back to the community, show students what it's like to be in college and make sure they know what steps they need to take to get there," he said. "I've been meeting with the student officers all week planning this, and I'm very impressed with them."

Although GMU has been active in Prince William schools for years, Campbell said, this is the first time the university has reached into Manassas at such an intimate level.

The schools first connected in December 2007 with the help of Kristina Keech Spitler, lawyer and Mayfield parent. An advocate of training student leaders, Spitler contacted Molly Grove, director of local campus relations at GMU, to bring the university's student government to Mayfield to help build a float for the Manassas Christmas Parade.

The rest, she said, is history.

"It was such a success that our partnership just blossomed from there," said Spitler, who is also a member of Manassas's education foundation. "I think it's the little things like this that can change communities."

Over the past two years, the Mayfield student government has had various contacts with university students and professors. The group came to Mason's Prince William campus last year to tour classrooms and help with the university's annual field day.

"It was cool to see a college classroom and see what it's like to be in college," said 12-year-old Mayfield School President Hallie Spitler, Kristina Spitler's daughter. "We all look up to the college students and like to learn about college and the different options we will have when we grow up."

Hallie said she and her fellow student officers also learned leadership skills, something that has helped her as president of Mayfield.

"I think this partnership is important because students tend to listen to older students a little bit more than when an adult talks to them," Kristina Spitler said. "When you have a college student talk about leadership, I think that motivates them and provides an extra incentive."

GMU senior Tanya Ballestrini has participated in the partnership since its inception. Ballestrini said she and the other mentors talk to students about the benefits of a college education and why it is important to stay in school. She said they also let the students ask questions, which usually cover everything from class loads and majors available to how to make friends in a new school setting.

"I think it's important that students have a good role model," Ballestrini said. "We want to show them that college is a really awesome experience because of all the friendships you make and the knowledge you gain from being there."

As Mayfield's principal, Abt said, he is a strong supporter of the partnership and anything that gets students to think of higher education. Although it has mostly been Mayfield's student government reaping the benefits of the venture, Abt said, he hopes that changes in the future. GMU officials said they plan to return to Mayfield before the end of the school year to meet with some students.

"It would be awesome to expand this to the students at large, and that is something we are doing in a way with Spirit Day Friday," he said. "There are great careers out there that need the college experience. . . . Anything we can do to emphasize that is a great thing."

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