Amid diverse cultures and backgrounds, the student body at Pimmit Hill Alternative High School share at least one thing in common: success on the most recent round of Virginia Standards of Learning, or SOL, exams.
Ninety-two percent passed their math examinations (Algebra 1, 2 and Geometry), with a passing rate for Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students consistently above 85 percent. Additionally, all eleventh graders passed the U.S. History examination for the second year in a row.
The figures are more impressive given that 80 percent of Pimmit Hill students have limited English proficiency, speaking about 25 languages from 30 different countries. Many students are employed full time, going from a long school day to their places of employment, juggling work with homework, and for some, families and multiple jobs.
Assistant Principal Bud Mayo, who has served nine of his 39 years in the Fairfax County school system at Pimmit Hill, attributed the students’ success to “culture and climate that everyone will be successful.”
“We don’t say, oh, you don’t speak English, so you’re not going to succeed,” Mayo said. “The formula for success is the finest group of teachers and dedicated students.”
Pimmit Hill gears the learning environment to handle students ranging from high school aged to older adults with a wide range of English proficiency and education, Mayo explained.
“Most of our students are older, haven’t been the country long, work full time and use public transportation,” he added. “They’re looking to earn their Virginia high school diploma.”
Each student, regardless of experience, receives initial remediation, with available courses that put students on a fast track to reach Virginia high school level learning.
Even so, Pimmit Hill does not sacrifice quality for expedience, said Mayo. “These students have the same requirements as any 16-year-old at Mason or Marshall High Schools, but we don’t hand out ‘gentleman’ C’s here; students must earn their grades.”
“Our successes far outweigh our failures, and the proof is in the statistics,” he said. “Our students perform well in all of the core subjects.”
As of last year, all Pimmit Hill teachers meet the federal definition of “highly qualified,” with 73 teachers holding Master’s degrees and two with doctorates.
Mayo said that the student body contributes not only dedication and talent, but maturity, as well.
Most of the students are between the ages of 19 – 26, and discipline is “not an issue here.”
“Last year, I gave out a total of six suspensions. When I was assistant principal at Cooper High School in McLean, I’d have six suspensions before lunch,” Mayo added, laughing.
“It’s very gratifying. I receive more pleases and thank you’s here than anywhere else I’ve worked in the system, and that says a lot for the student body.”
Algebra 1 teacher Seda MacDonald has seen the student’s determination and success firsthand in the classroom. Ninety-four percent of Algebra 1 students passed the last SOLs.
“They want to be here and help make a positive work environment,” said MacDonald, who immigrated to the U.S. herself, from Turkey to receive her Master’s and to teach.
“My attitude is, if I can do it, you can do it,” she explained. “I want them to set a goal of a four-year college. If they can’t make it, maybe for financial reasons, then they can settle for something else. But they must try.”
MacDonald’s second period class is typical of the environment at Pimmit Hill: 15 students work in a clean, state-of-the-art classroom. Students are provided with the graphing calculators that they will use on the SOLs, the next round of which is approaching on May 28.
But the environment is “nothing like your typical high school.”
“Right now, I can count 10 countries,” MacDonald noted as she scanned the classroom. “And they are all extremely successful.”
Students said they enjoyed the “nice, calm teachers” and the “peaceful” environment Pimmit Hill provides.
“There are students from all religions and places, and they get along,” MacDonald added. “They want to be here. They hear about the school through friends or at work and apply to get their high school diploma.
“They don’t want to clean the floors for the rest of their lives.”
To that end, Pimmit Hills offers the chance of a lifetime for them to move beyond socioeconomic barriers and pursue the education they want.