When Fairfax County Public Schools appointed Clint Mitchell as the new principal at Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School, the district’s primary directive to its newest administrator was change the culture.
It did not take Mitchell long to understand why.
A native of the Caribbean island St. Lucia who immigrated to New York as a teenager, Mitchell worked in public education first as a teacher and then as an administrator for more than 16 years before FCPS hired him in August 2016.
Mitchell’s 10-year stint as principal of Bel Air Elementary School in Woodbridge included a “Principal of the Year” designation from Prince William County Public Schools and an award for distinguished educational leadership from The Washington Post.
Even with that established career success, Mitchell knew that resolving the deep-seated issues that Mount Vernon Woods when he arrived would be a challenge.
When the 2016-2017 school year began, the Alexandria-based elementary school had not been fully accredited by the state of Virginia in the past five years. On an average day, the principal’s office hosted as many as 20 or more students who had been removed from class.
Mitchell’s time in those early days was consumed by corralling kids loitering in stairwells or on the school field and managing the frustrations of parents who had lost faith in the school’s ability or willingness to address their concerns.
To a large extent, the issues at Mount Vernon Woods were rooted in economic obstacles faced by the families the school serves.
A Title I-designated school for high levels of poverty, Mount Vernon Woods had 602 students, or 85 percent of its student population, on waivers for free or reduced-price lunches, according to FCPS’s profile for the school.
The surrounding community also had the highest volume of Child Protective Services calls in Fairfax County but lacked accessibility to county government services that could assist families in need, Mitchell says.
These challenges made Mount Vernon Woods an ideal testing ground for the community school model that Fairfax County Public Schools started implementing with a pilot program in 2018.
The model brings social services, such as food assistance, health screenings, and psychological support, into the school environment.
Now, as a result of earlier efforts initiated by Mitchell and his staff and the additional resources provided by the community schools pilot, Mount Vernon Woods seems to be progressing toward a brighter future.
The school has been fully accredited by the Virginia Department of Education for the past three years, including for the 2019-2020 school year. All 194 FCPS schools received accredited status for 2019 in the ratings released by the state on Sept. 30.
“My philosophy has always been that, if we could get the community buy-in…the academic piece is going to work itself out,” Mitchell said. “If we feed them and take care of them, we give them the services they need, and they feel welcome, and we have the right teaching staff, the academic side is going to happen, and I think we'll continue to see that.”
Fairfax County has been exploring the possibility of introducing community schools for years.
Encouraging partnerships between schools and community organizations to provide education, social and health services, and youth and community development to students, families, and the general public, the community schools model has gained popularity around the country with networks developing in New York City, Orlando, and Philadelphia, among others, according to the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Coalition for Community Schools.
82 percent of respondents to a poll conducted by GBA Strategies for the research institute In the Public Interest and the advocacy group The Center for Popular Democracy in 2016 expressed support for the concept of community schools.
The Alexandria-based organization Communities in Schools has a national network of support staff who work with teachers and coordinate with community partners in 2,300 schools across 25 states and Washington, D.C.
Fairfax County first attempted to develop a community schools model about seven years, but that effort quickly petered out, according to United Community director of community empowerment Stephanie Hopkins, who supervises FCPS’s community school coordinators.
The model apparently needed some refining to fit the county’s specific needs, so in 2016, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and school board’s joint Successful Children and Youth Policy Team (SCYPT) created a work group dedicated to researching best practices.
Tasked with finding ways for the county government and public school system to work together to deliver services in areas with high levels of need, the work group visited community schools in Alexandria and Montgomery County in Maryland and attended the National Community Schools Conference in Baltimore, Md.
During that time, the nonprofit United Way of the National Capital Area contacted FCPS and Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services with a proposal for funding community schools in Fairfax County.
Dedicated to supporting community initiatives and programs that address social issues, United Way had already distributed funding for community schools elsewhere in the D.C. metropolitan area, but the organization was interested in breaking into Fairfax County as well.
“That’s really how we got started,” NCS Prevention Unit manager Jesse Ellis said. “The SCYPT had been looking at opportunities, and then United Way came along and actually had funding to get something up and running.”
Grants from United Way coupled with county funds allocated to Neighborhood and Community Services’ Opportunity Neighborhoods initiative gave Fairfax County the resources to set up two community schools pilots.
FCPS staff settled on Walt Whitman Middle School and Mount Vernon Woods, which feeds into Whitman, as the best candidates for the pilot program.
“They were basically looking at schools where there was high poverty, but also sort of an organic development of a community schools approach to meeting the needs of students and families,” Braddock District School Board Representative Megan McLaughlin, who is one of two school board members on the SCYPT, said.
To coordinate programs and deliver services to both schools, Fairfax County found a lead partner in United Community, a human services nonprofit agency concentrated in southeastern Fairfax County that serves more than 9,000 individuals annually.
Under the pilot program, an on-site community school coordinator from United Community works in each of the schools to help organize programs and build connections with other community organizations that can provide needed services.
Marcia St. John-Cunning had worked as a parent liaison for FCPS for 20 years prior to becoming the community school coordinator at Mount Vernon Woods, but she says the support she has gotten from staff, including the elementary school’s assigned social worker and parent liaison, since arriving in December is unlike anything she has encountered before.
“Dr. Mitchell deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done,” United Community deputy executive director Deborah Halle said. “We can have all these services, but if we don’t have support from the top, this doesn’t happen.”
When St. John-Cunning came on board, Mitchell and his team had already established a monthly family market for families to obtain food provided by Capital Area Food Bank. Before each food market, the principal holds monthly advisory meetings with parents, where he conveys important messages and they can ask questions and discuss any topics of interest.
Mount Vernon Woods had also started a weekend backpack food program that provides about 50 students every week with backpacks filled with food to sustain them while school is out, and staff distributed 400 free backpacks with school supplies to students at the Mount Vernon Pyramid Resource Fair.
St. John-Cunning is still in the process of setting up a full-time family center in a trailer behind Mount Vernon Woods after previously working in a temporary space due to school renovations.
However, in the 10 months that she has been with the school, St. John-Cunning has expanded some of the programs that were already operating and introduced new ones.
Under the community schools pilot, Mount Vernon Woods has formed partnerships with Inova to provide dental screenings for up to 30 students and Bringing Resources to Aid Women’s Shelters, an organization that offers free menstrual products to students and parents.
The public charity Conexus Vision visited Mount Vernon Woods on Sept. 27 to give preschool and second-grade students free vision screenings using kid-friendly technology that can detect impairments from a slight distance.
Results from the screenings were sent directly to parents, and for students recommended to see an optometrist, their families could receive vouchers for a free eye exam and glasses if needed.
A particular area of concern for the community schools pilot has been enhancing after-school and mentoring programs.
“If you come here after school, our playground and our basketball court is full, and then, also, you see across the street, there’s the park,” St. John-Cunning said. “The kids are here anyway, so it’s kind of tapping into that and having them in more structured environments where there’s adult supervision.”
New after-school programs at Mount Vernon Woods under the community schools pilot include a healthy cooking club run by Inova and an outdoor science club that takes up to 15 students to Huntley Meadows Park for enrichment activities designed with the Standards of Learning testing curriculum in mind.
United Community has provided snacks for students in after-school programs and acquired a grant to fund sports equipment and entrance fees to a 5K for the school’s running club.
The community schools model is designed to help parents as well as children.
St. John-Cunning recently started leading classes to Mount Vernon Woods parents under the ACT Raising Safe Kids Program, which the American Psychological Association developed to teach parenting skills and child development to caregivers of new or young children.
The classes are currently given in Spanish, though St. John-Cunning will later repeat the program in English.
United Community also has staff trained to deliver the “Families Reunite” curriculum under FCPS’s Immigrant Family Reunification Program, which provides support and resources to ease the transition for parents and children who have been separated from each other, including any trauma they may be experiencing.
“It goes to strengthening the families, strengthening the community and the child,” St. John-Cunning said.
The SCYPT community schools work group is not expected to deliver a report on the pilot programs at Mount Vernon Woods and Whitman with recommendations to the full policy team until December, so there are currently no concrete plans to expand the model to other schools.
However, an eventual expansion seems to be the dream of everyone involved with the pilots, from school board members and county staff to principals and the nonprofit workers.
“We want to…bring it to more schools, but we want to do it responsibly,” Dirk Butler, the vice president of community impact and engagement for United Way of the National Capital Area, said. “We want to make sure that we’re going to scale but not compromising services and not compromising quality.”
The gradual yet perceptible transformation going on at Mount Vernon Woods suggests the challenged school could become a model for the county.
Mitchell says that he has noticed a definite shift in the level of excitement and engagement in class from students since his first year at Mount Vernon Woods. The school even has over 100 students attend a Saturday Academy that offers three hours of math instruction every weekend.
He no longer has to spend his days keeping children in class or resolving conflicts with families, who seem to be gaining more trust in school faculty and staff to handle any concerns that arise.
“The goal is really just to kind of keep expanding it so that we will meet the needs of the families,” Mitchell said. “It’s not quite where we want it to be, but I think we’re doing a much better job than we did before we came in 2016 meeting the needs of families.”