History of Our School

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  • From the beginning, nearly 100 years ago, Mount Vernon Community School has played a central role in the life of the surrounding community. In fact, establishing an elementary school was one of the first priorities of the residents of the newly-established communities of Del Ray and St. Elmo, which in 1893, were among the first "trolley suburbs" to be built in Northern Virginia on the outskirts of Washington. The old Washington Alexandria and Mount Vernon electric trolley ran straight down Commonwealth Avenue. Today, a grassy median strip runs down the center of the street where the old tracks once ran.

    The first school in the area opened in 1896, in two rooms in a house at 208 E. Howell Avenue. The teacher was paid $30 a month. Two years later, the school was moved to 204 E. Del Ray, where the Abundant Life Church sits today.

    In 1899, Joseph Suplee and William Garrett purchased five lots on Mount Vernon Avenue for a new school building. The first Mount Vernon, completed in 1906, was an impressive brick Colonial revival building with an octagonal cupola with a bell and tall, white columns gracing either side of the front entrance. The school opened directly out onto Mount Vernon Avenue, where the playground now sits. It had a 350-seat auditorium, stage, dressing room and a facility in the balcony for "stereopticon" shows. At a cost of $30,000, the superintendent at the time said Mount Vernon school was "probably the most expensive building in the county." The large school was built with an eye to the future and a commitment to education, because at the time, the town's population hovered around only 200.

    The school not only served to educate the community's children, but also as a meeting place. It was here that the community decided to incorporate as the Town of Potomac in 1908, here that the Town Council met in the basement and here where in 1930, after two years of contentious public debate, the Town of Potomac agreed to be annexed and become part of the City of Alexandria.

    In 1925, some local houses still had chicken coops, the sidewalks were two wooden planks and the community's streets were still paved with cinders from the nearby Potomac Yard railroad switching station — the largest in the nation and one of the area's biggest employers. City officials built George Mason High School just next door to Mount Vernon. At this time, the city defined the "desirable" teacher student ratio as 45 to 1.

    Mount Vernon Elementary School got an addition in 1928 and by 1930, 800 students attended the school, where the 15 teachers had an average class size of 53 students! In 1935, George Mason High School was closed and the building became an annex to Mount Vernon. In 1953, the school population grew again when the 625-home Warwick Village community was built on 55 nearby acres.

    The old Mount Vernon building was demolished in 1968. The present-day Mount Vernon that opens onto Commonwealth Avenue was built shortly thereafter. And the three-story brick George Mason high school building, after extensive renovation, was incorporated into the new school. The light-filled modern media center and computer lab opened in the fall of 1990. In 1991, they were dedicated to Ronald H. Brown, then-Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton, who had visited Mount Vernon to observe 3rd and 4th graders use what was then cutting-edge Internet technology. The original Mount Vernon school bell now sits in the Media Center belfry.

    The familiar red caboose, now the symbol of the school that sits out front along Commonwealth Avenue, was brought to the school in 1973. Then-principal Minnie Dean and parents wanted to have a visible symbol to represent the school and the heritage of the surrounding community. It wasn't easy. The 37,000-pound The Norfolk and Western caboose, #518297, was hauled by truck and crane and escorted by police and fire trucks down Commonwealth Avenue to the school where donated tracks had been laid.

    Mount Vernon Community School has always been at the heart of the community. And the community has always been unique. At a time when many suburbs around the country were created as a means for middle and upper-class families to escape crowded cities and recapture a rural-like idyll, Del Ray from the outset was home to both white collar workers who took the street car into Washington and blue collar workers who walked to Potomac Yards. In the mid-1960s, as African American residents began buying homes in the area, the neighborhood became one of the first in Alexandria to become integrated.

    Over the years, as the community has changed, so has the school. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in the landmark decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, that schools segregated along racial lines were inherently unequal. But it wasn't until the 1965-66 school year that Alexandria's public schools truly began to integrate. In just a few years, Mount Vernon became one of the most racially-balanced schools in the district. So much so that, in 1973, when school leaders reassigned 50 percent of the elementary school students, sending them by bus to different schools across the city, Mount Vernon, where 35 percent of the students were African American and 65 percent white, was exempt.

    In the 1980s, another change swept the area. As Civil Wars raged in Central America, the area just north of the school became a haven for those seeking peace and a better way of life. Arlandria soon was nicknamed Chirilagua after the coastal town in El Salvador from which many new residents had come.

    Over the years, the school continued to grow. By 2000, Mount Vernon was severely overcrowded with as many as 750 students. Some classes had to be squeezed into the hallways, others in closets and two trailers out on what is today's basketball court housed even more classrooms. When the School Board redrew attendance boundaries to accommodate building a new school on Alexandria's fast-growing West End, Mount Vernon's student population dropped by about one-third to 500.

    At the same time, two other momentous changes began to be felt that would shape the future of the school. After years of petitioning, a number of active parents in Arlandria who were concerned that their Spanish-speaking children were not getting what they needed in school, successfully convinced the School Board to begin a dual-language program at Mount Vernon.

    At the same time, Dr. Lulu López, with three decades of experience in bilingual, multicultural education, was also successful in her bid to become principal at Mount Vernon.

    In 1999, Mount Vernon had the highest percentage of students who spoke limited English and the lowest test scores in the city. The next year, the school board voted to "differentiated resources," allocating funds based on school need. Very quickly, Dr. López was able to provide teachers with extensive training and all the classroom materials and supplies that they requested. She also made sure all new teachers had mentors and that grade-level teachers, dual-language and traditional, had time to plan lessons together. Staff also began an extensive effort to align the school's curriculum with the expectations in Virginia's Standards of Learning tests.

    By 2003, after a lot of hard work, including Wednesday night tutoring sessions and numerous bilingual parent workshops, Mount Vernon became a fully-accredited school.

    In 2004, after two years of study and debate, 75 percent of Mount Vernon families and staff voted to change the school calendar to better meet the needs of the students. A task force, led by Dr. López, helped draft a proposal to Superintendent Rebecca Perry which was later approved by the School Board and funded by the City Council. Mount Vernon is only the second school in all of Alexandria to make the switch to a modified school calendar.

    The school, which was extensively renovated in the summer of 2003, has more than 50 classrooms, weather station, science lab, cafeteria, health clinic, auditorium and a gymnasium and playing fields in the adjacent Mount Vernon Recreation Center. The media center, constructed in 1990, includes a multi-purpose room for meetings and a story-telling area for students' weekly trips to the library. In the summer of 2004, Mount Vernon's two outdoor play areas became the first playgrounds in the city to be resurfaced with state-of-the-art rubber surface for a softer, bouncier play surface.

    Outside, students and parents have planted the Senses Garden, with flowers to see, snapdragons and lamb's ear to touch, lemon verbena to smell, herbs to test and chimes to hear. The kindergarten and first-grade classes plant every fall and spring. The fifth-grade class of 2004 designed and painted the stepping stones in the garden, in the style of artist Georgia O'Keeffe.

    Just around the corner, students have planted a raised-bed vegetable garden to raise broccoli, lettuce, radishes, sunflowers, peanuts and cotton. The Butterfly Garden includes host plants for caterpillars (milkweed for monarchs, dill and parsley for black swallowtails) as well as colorful, nectar-producing plants for butterflies. Several second-grade classes have planted dill, zinnias, and marigolds in the garden.

    The new compost bin was designed and built by parent volunteer Jeff Johnson in the spring of 2005 so first- and third-graders can mix leaves and grass in the bin to learn about composting.

    We are proud of our dynamic history and all the love and hard work that the dedicated team of staff and parents put into the school. We've come far. And we are ready to take our students to new heights of achievement as they prepare for whatever wonders and challenges their bright futures hold.