News

Pimmit Hills Student Body Rallies to Keep Alternative High School Open

Pimmit-3As Fairfax County mulls a projected $200 million cut to its school system budget, Pimmit Hills Alternative High School’s student body, facing the grim prospect of the school’s possible closure, is pleading with Fairfax Superintendent Jack Dale and the School Board: “Don’t take away our dream.”

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Yvon Jensen (left) sits beside student Said Rahman and Nacera Belgache (right). (Photo: Tim Davis)

As Fairfax County mulls a projected $200 million cut to its school system budget, Pimmit Hills Alternative High School’s student body, facing the grim prospect of the school’s possible closure, is pleading with Fairfax Superintendent Jack Dale and the School Board: “Don’t take away our dream.”

Dale recommended the school’s closure in his Feb. 4 proposed budget to the School Board – suggesting that closing one of only three alternative high schools in the county would free up $1.1 million, and provide the school district with funds for a new central bus depot.

“The problem is, we’re not just talking about numbers here. These numbers are humans, not ‘efficiencies’ on a budget sheet,” said Pimmit Hills staff member Carol Rutherford.

She is joined by Pimmit Hills’ faculty, staff and students in a growing movement to keep the school open.

The Pimmit Hills student community is unique in its diversity – 99 percent are foreign-born – and the school is accessible to students older than 18 who are not otherwise eligible to attend regular high school. The majority of students also work full-time jobs before and after school.

Now, with the county considering rerouting current students to Bryant in Alexandria and Mountain View in Centreville, at opposite ends of Fairfax County, Pimmit Hills students say they face losing their best chance for higher education.

“This is a great opportunity for me to follow my dreams,” said Mikru Selato, a 23 year-old from Ethiopia who has lived in the U.S. for two years.

Selato, who lives in Herndon, drives his 1999 Nissan Altima to school every morning to start class at 7 a.m. Upon dismissal at 3 p.m., he takes off to Dulles Airport for a full day’s shift. He works 40 hours a week as a dispatcher for the airport’s wheelchair escort service.

“It gives me great joy to work with the handicapped,” said Selato. “After I graduate, I wish to go to college to make the lives of the handicapped better. It gives me so much satisfaction.”

However, Pimmit Hills’ slated closing will cut off the 10th-grade honor roll student from the proposed alternatives Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is offering students, Selato said.

Selato said he will have to choose between his full-time job and the night school program at Woodson Adult High School in the City of Fairfax. His only alternative is Bryant way down on Route 1 in Alexandria – more than double his current commute time from Dulles Airport.

“I don’t know what I can do,” he said.

Selato’s story resonated with other members of the Pimmit Hills student body who face similar concerns.

Said Rahman, 21, of Herndon works full-time at a 7-Eleven near Pimmit Hills. It’s his second year at Pimmit, and if the school closes, Rahman is unsure of the path ahead. “I may have to take night classes at NOVA Community College, which will be hard for me, with the time and money to go there,” he said. “I will have two options: work my job and support my family, or pay for my education.”

“My family moved to Falls Church so I could go to Pimmit Hills,” said Andrea Joseph, 18, who came from Fredericksburg with her family after dropping out of high school for a few years. This was Joseph’s first semester at Pimmit Hills. “I’ve finally adjusted to the school, and everyone’s been so welcoming. Now I won’t have any opportunity like this.”

Joseph, who is too old to attend another high school in Fairfax due to her age, said her only alternative will be to attend classes at a night school or community college. “Most schools we’ve looked at charge around $500 per course,” she said. “All I want is my high school diploma.”

For students capable of reaching enough credits to graduate this June, the school has opened up a fifth period course block this semester. For students like Tamana, 19, from Afghanistan, the opportunity was a welcome prospect of earning her high school diploma.

“I’m fortunate because I was able to take advantage of the extra period, to graduate before Pimmit Hills closes,” Tamana said. “But what of the other students who take one or two buses just to get here? I am worried for my brother who doesn’t drive and comes home late at night from work. Where will he go?”

Many students and teachers shared with the News-Press what they believe makes Pimmit Hills a special community for the county’s underserved population of recent immigrants and older students. For many, the school community has become their family.

“We’re a family, that’s what we are,” said Yannick Simo, 22, who emigrated from the Cameroon to pursue his dream to become a cardiologist. “This school is like heaven for students like us who never had this opportunity. Back in Cameroon at my old high school, my teachers said to me, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Here, the teachers are very helpful and give us all the time we need to succeed.”

Like many students who live farther out, Simo resides with his family in Reston, and wakes at 5 a.m. every morning to catch a bus to the West Falls Church Metrobus depot. “It can be risky walking about in the dark, and I must make sure to catch the bus on time. There’s a connector bus that drops us off right in front of the school,” he said. “If you miss either bus, you risk being late.”

Simo, who graduates this June, said he empathizes with other students facing transportation woes. “It’s only a small problem for me to wake up so early and catch a bus to Pimmit Hills. To go to Mountain View in Centreville is too far. I would have to take two or three buses.”

“You have to give these people credit for their hard work,” said Pimmit Hills librarian Yvon Jensen. “They get paid minimum wage, they raise families and they come to school to advance their careers. These students come to Pimmit Hills and by and large stay in Fairfax County,” she continued. “They are an economic engine for the county, and now we’re considering telling citizens of Fairfax that we cannot help them with their education?”

Physics teacher Nacera Belgache said her experience emigrating from Algeria to the U.S. “lets me see my own struggle in each one of these students,” she told the News-Press.

Belgache arrived in 1996 with her husband and a college degree in Physics. However, her poor English prevented Belgache from many professional occupations, and forced her to work at Safeway for several years as she took English courses at NOVA Community College. She eventually began working for Fairfax schools, and has taught at Pimmit Hills since 2005.

“I count myself as lucky,” she said. “My husband helped me through community college. For the most part, these students are mothers and fathers and working 40 hours a week and are still committed to achieving their education.”

“They don’t take education for granted,” she said.

Rahman said if given the chance to talk to the School Board, “I would let them know that this school represents everything to us, and all we’re asking for is a simple education. We’re not demanding sports or a band or a cafeteria,” he explained. “If I could talk to Dr. Dale, I would tell him, please, sir, don’t kill our dream.”

The School Board will present its proposed FY2011 budget to the Board of Supervisors on April 6.

Photos from the February graduation are below. (Courtesy Tim Davis)

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