There is a common misconception that students at the Douglass School are "bad kids," faculty member Ryan Fortenbaugh said.
But there are many reasons why some middle and high school students find that Loudoun County's alternative school is a better fit than a traditional school setting, said Fortenbaugh, Douglass's middle school dean and head of special education.
"Some of them have rough home lives, and they have to work and take care of their family," he said. Some have fled poverty or civil war in other countries. Others simply learn better in the smaller classrooms, shorter class periods and more intimate educational environment that Douglass provides, he said.
Over the past few weeks, Douglass School has taken the lead in a relief effort to help students in a Florida community that was devastated by Hurricane Irma last month. The project has given the students an opportunity to look past their own struggles, imagine what it would be like to lose everything and consider what they can do to help.
"It's a lesson in humanity," Fortenbaugh said. "We have some kids [at Douglass] who aren't sure where they're going to get their next meal. They've been through struggles, and they're trying to bounce back. Now they are in a position to give the help, and now they're the ones who get to see the results of giving back."
Fortenbaugh is spearheading the effort to collect and deliver essential supplies to Marathon Middle/High School in the Florida Keys, where he taught for six years before moving to Loudoun in 2014.
After Irma struck Marathon on Sept. 10 as a Category 4 hurricane, Fortenbaugh began to hear from friends and former colleagues and students who had "lost everything," he said. The storm surge had swamped the island, flooding the school and leaving the football field where he once coached "looking like an extension of the ocean," he said.
"I was thinking if it wasn't for Marathon, I wouldn't be where I am now," Fortenbaugh said. When he asked his friends what he could do to help, he was told that many students could use school supplies and other basic necessities.
Fortenbaugh enlisted six other Loudoun schools to join Douglass in the effort to collect school materials and other items, such as bottled water, clothing, cleaning supplies, personal grooming kits, towels and linens, he said. At Steuart W. Weller Elementary School, students filled backpacks with school supplies, and a parent donated a gift certificate to pay for mattresses, he said.
Last week, Douglass students and faculty were preparing to receive and package all the donated items for shipment. A truck is scheduled to arrive at the school Monday to pick them up for delivery to Florida, Fortenbaugh said.
The relief effort is an example of "One to the World," an educational approach championed by Loudoun County Schools Superintendent Eric Williams that encourages students to learn by tackling challenging problems in the world, Fortenbaugh said.
Several journalism students interviewed Wednesday said they have been reporting on the relief effort during the school's morning announcements. They were also preparing to make a video documentary showing students and faculty packaging the donated items.
The students said they have found the project meaningful.
"Even though you're helping other people, and it makes them feel good, it makes you feel good, as well. And you're making a difference," said Aram Tawoosi, 16, of Sterling.
Natasha Travelstead, 17, of Sterling said she had purchased supplies and brought in some of her own clothes to donate.
"I feel like people should donate more," she said. "Because if that happened in Virginia, we'd want everybody else's help."
Douglass Principal Marianne Turner said that the relief effort has broadened the students' awareness.
"It's showing that there are people in Florida who can't even go to school at the moment," she said.
"Teenagers in general are selfish; that's the nature of being a teenager," Turner added. "So any time they're given an opportunity to do something that benefits others, it expands their world, and they get out of their own thoughts a little bit. And they get a better understanding that they're one person in this giant world, and we need to support each other."
"It's that sense of accomplishment of something bigger," he said. "That I did something with my fellow students and staff that's bigger than me."