- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

There's nothing traditional about Pimmit Hills High School in Falls Church. For starters, the school doesn't have a varsity basketball team or a cheerleading squad. It doesn't have a cafeteria, an auditorium, or lockers. And, when there's an assembly, students and teachers meet at a nearby senior citizens center.

Pimmit Hills is one of Fairfax County's three alternative high schools, where people over the age of 18 get a second chance at earning a high school diploma. Under state law, students over age 18 cannot attend a traditional high school to earn a degree.

Ninety-five percent of Pimmit Hills students are immigrants. The rest are students who have been expelled from the county's traditional public schools.

"This is a place that brings people from all over the world together," said Bud Mayo, an assistant principal at the school. "Under the same roof, people interact with each other there's no fighting, no bad language, no disciplinary problems, and no talking trash, it's almost idyllic. Here, respect is genuine and people respect each other's differences."

The high school on Lisle Avenue has about 400 students during the day and 150 at night.

Mr. Mayo, who has worked with the county school system for the past 31 years, said American students haven't had to face the adversity many Pimmit Hills students have to overcome. "Most of our students are the only ones who speak English in their households," he said. "Many of them work full-time jobs. And, a lot of them came to the United States with only the clothes on their backs."

Mr. Mayo said there is a misconception about alternative schools. He said people automatically think "reform school" but that's not the case at Pimmit Hills. "In our case this is an educational setting where students have special needs whether it's language, or age or previous difficulties," he said.

"We're providing a setting where students can be successful … What these students have in common is that they are all chasing a Virginia high school diploma. This isn't a special diploma nothing special is done for our students. These students earn the same diploma as other high school students."

Karsten Davidsen, 37, a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician with the McLean Fire and Rescue Department, said Pimmit Hills has made a difference in his life. A former soldier with the Norwegian Army, Mr. Davidsen, of McLean, wants to pursue a career in medicine.

"I don't have problems with reading or communicating with others but writing [in English] is a little difficult because I haven't been in classes for 20 years," he said. "But this is an alternative to the [general equivalency diploma] and I enjoy the classroom setting."

Pimmit Hills Principal Beverly Wilson, 55, marvels at the way her students get along and said she is thrilled with their test scores.

"The beauty of our students is that they're so appreciative of any experiences that you give them. They're grateful when you help them to learn. They always say 'thank you,' " she said.

Gina Citao, a native of the Philippines who emigrated to the United States in 1990, feels greatly indebted to the school. Ms. Citao searched hard for a school she was comfortable with before she found Pimmit Hills.

A mother and full-time student from McLean, Ms. Citao, 33, has set her sights on a college degree and a career in computers or nursing. She said Pimmit Hills is the first step in achieving her dreams.

"Without a diploma, I cannot go to college or qualify for certain jobs," she said. "I've made college one of my goals."

A native of Vietnam, Thanh Ta, of Annandale, said she attends Pimmit Hills so that she can learn to be comfortable in social gatherings. Mrs. Ta, who came to the United States in 1992, studies English at the school.

"This is a wonderful school for adults over 18 to allow them to pursue their education," she said. "Everybody living in this country needs an education to be a good citizen. And, in order to be a good citizen, you must be able to communicate with others."

A native of El Salvador, Josue Salomon Cortez, 21, said his family wants him to succeed. Mr. Cortez, of Falls Church, works as a maintenance supervisor at an office building in Rosslyn but wants to be an architect. "I'm the first son and my mother wants me to do well. I've got to get my diploma and graduate from college," he said.

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