For anyone looking for a job, a high school diploma is usually the minimum requirement by most prospective employers. That's a major hurdle, however, for many Americans looking for work, particularly recent immigrants who may work during the day or whose lack of English language skills has prevented them from earning a diploma. But more and more, a concept known as "alternative education" is on the rise. At Pimmit Hills Alternative High School in Falls Church, Virginia, diversity is the norm and even a key to its success.
"You wild kid, ya! You know what I see written all over you? Reform school! You wild kid, ya!'
It used to be that anyone who didn't succeed in a traditional school setting because they were considered "different," or maybe were orphaned or maybe they just got "too old," were commonly sent to reform schools known for their strong emphasis on discipline. That was then; in recent years, alternative schools have been the answer. For close to a decade, the Pimmit Hills Alternative High School in Falls Church, Virginia, has been giving students over the age of 18 a second chance.
Ninety-five percent of Pimmit Hills students are immigrants. And the incidents of disciplinary problems, "almost non-existent," says assistant principal, Bud Mayo. "Because of a couple of reasons, one reason being, you have people coming from other lands who haven't had the opportunity to get an education, now have that opportunity. The other reason is that the students are older. They've put aside the silly "sixteen year-old stuff", I call it. And really focus on getting a diploma," he says.
Bud Mayo says the small percentage of students who have been expelled from traditional public schools for disciplinary problems often benefit from Pimmit Hills' diversity of cultures and ages. "A lot of times we'll get a sixteen year-old who had some problems at another school. It might be drugs, it might be alcohol, it might be some kind of gang activity. They come here, they're sitting in class and the person next to them is 25-years-old and the person on the other side is 32," he says. "Well, that doesn't lend itself to acting silly. That's the whole idea where I think alternative school really works."
Assistant principal Bud Mayo says diversity is celebrated at Pimmit Hills Alternative High School, where "people respect each other's religions, their culture and their ways of dress." The classes are the same as in most traditional high schools, with the exception of many elective courses - there is no football team, or drama club, or even a cafeteria, for example. Almost every major language can be heard in the hallways. Some classes have students from up to twenty different countries, as this reporter found out in a U.S. government class.
"I'll go around the room and you can give me your names"
"Hi, I'm Sven from Burma"
There are approximately 1400 who make up the student body at Pimmit Hills, the majority of them being between the ages of nineteen and 26-years-old. Some teachers describe the school as a "modern day one-room school house" with various ages and learning abilities all sharing the same classes. Thirty-seven year-old Karsten Davidson, a former soldier with the Norwegian Army, says he eventually wants to study medicine. Having recently served as a peacekeeper with the United Nations in the Balkans, he says he lacked the discipline to finish high school when he was in his teens. But he says he thinks he brings valuable life experience to share with younger people. "So they an see what freedom is all about and democracy," he says.
And Hersh, originally from Kurdistan says he just "couldn't make it" in a traditional high school but says he is encouraged by his experience in an alternative high school setting.
Hersh: "Because I got in a lot of trouble in public schools, now I ended up here and I got to train now. So I'm happy to be here."
Rupli: "It feels like a positive place, everyone seems very encouraging here."
Hersh: "Yeh, the teachers are nice and they give you a lot of chances and I'm having a lot of fun here. It's a very diverse crowd and I like it. You meet people from everywhere."
Including Lizzi, originally from Ecuador, who has been at Pimmit Hills for two years. She is still enrolled in English classes and says she is confident that she will succeed in getting her high school diploma.
Lizzi: "We have time to study, we have time to work, we have team work, so it's easy for us to study and test and get our diploma."
Rupli: "What does your family think about this school?"
Lizzi: "They're happy, because I have time for everything. I take three classes here, I'm doing good in my grades and my studies. They think it's a good school for us."
Indeed, says assistant principal, Bud Mayo, who describes graduation day at Pimmit Hills Alternative High School as a very emotional scene for students and family members alike. He says most of the students who graduate are well received by college admissions. "One of our students from Burma is now attending the University of Virginia on a scholarship. I think a lot of colleges look at students overcoming adversity, overcoming changing countries, leaving their native land, learning a new language," he says. "And they see this is as a plus. A person who can come and really be in a setting that's different from their homeland and come and be successful, I think the colleges look at that very, very favorably."
The success of Pimmit Hills Alternative High School has made it the subject of many recent newspaper and magazine articles, and the school is frequently contacted by other educational institutions around the country for guidance about their program structure. Pimmit Hills administrators say they see positive changes taking place in alternative education in general. They say alternative schools are a far cry from the prison-like "reform" schools of the past, and are a place where everybody, no matter how "different," is given a second chance to succeed if the desire is there to make it happen.