By Kris Gilbertson
Thirty-three years ago, a group of parents and educators joined forces to found a school in the basement of Del Ray Baptist Church that would provide both a quality education and an environment in which each student could reach full potential. It was the beginning of the Alexandria Country Day School, and enrollment quickly grew.
Nine years later, St. Mary’s Academy, located directly across Russell Road from the church, was absorbed by Bishop Ireton. ACDS bought the academy building—a new and permanent home. The property comprised only the school building and immediate grounds, but made steady growth possible.
Today, ACDS is a leading K-8 nonsectarian independent school where dynamic furniture adjusts to students’ needs, time dedicated to physical activity (recess) has increased (counter to national trends), the oldest students mentor the youngest, and graduates consistently go on to succeed in the most challenging high schools locally and nationwide.
Defining the challenge
Scott Baytosh, Head of School since 2012, believes that the main things parents look for in their child’s school are physical and emotional safety, joyfulness in learning, and an unparalleled academic experience. “Safety comes from ensuring that students are in a space where they can figure out who they are,” says Baytosh. “and explore and experience without the fear of putdowns.”
ACDS is a small school, currently 204 students. Each new child enters a community of administrators, teachers, and parents who are committed to that child’s success on multiple levels: academic, social, and physical. Every student has an advisor; staff meets weekly to be informed of any students with concerns such as a family problem, celebration, or tragedy, or even the death of a loved pet.
Classes average 13 students. “We are mindful of not squeezing kids into rooms,” says Baytosh. “Our instructional methodology is pretty active, so we can’t pack them in sitting at desks in rows.”
History Department Chair Jim Girard, who will start his 28th year at ACDS in September, teaches 7th and 8th grade history. “I feel extremely fortunate to be in a place where you can truly build relationships with your students,” he says. “I don’t take class size for granted. In the classroom, the hallway, at a sporting event, a play, or being an advisor, seeing kids in different capacities is special. You’re able to get to know each student, to work on the hard things in the classroom but also to have a little fun, get to know somebody when you’re on recess duty or lunch duty and have informal conversations.”
A light-hearted place…
A main goal is for the students to be joyful and playful while learning, “something that sadly is being sapped away from the educational experience as the pressure to perform on tests has become dominant,” says Baytosh. “As an independent school, we have the space to say that what [the students] really need for learning is to play, to be physically active, without sacrificing the quality of our academic mission.”
ACDS students wear casual uniforms: Polo shirts (choose the color) and their choice of khaki pants, shorts, or skirt. “Where we find creativity coming out is in their socks,” Baytosh adds. “Socks have become all the thing now—and they’re wildly different. We’re not too worried about that.”
…and unparalleled academic experience
“We blend traditional and progressive ideas. A lot of schools land in one camp or another; we strive for the middle. Most of what you’d see in our classrooms would be categorized as progressive, but we’re not rigid. At times, a little rote memorization is in order, or some teacher-directed instruction, but what’s most important is how engaged the kids are in learning,” Baytosh says.
Language arts are stressed at all levels. Students start learning to convey ideas dramatically in kindergarten through public speaking and dynamic programs of visual art, drama, and music. The youngest start with a personal story and, as they move up in grades, their talks become more issue-based. Teachers help students focus on the craft, including effective visuals, of how to get their message across.
Third graders conduct a reading of their own poetry at St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub. In 4th grade, they begin producing a play each year; by 7th and 8th, a play and a musical.
Students in grades 5 through 8 participate in Speeches & Sweets, an annual presentation before parents, teachers, and peers. “By 8th grade, they are sharing sophisticated and nuanced messages— not just getting up and delivering a speech,” says Baytosh. “Remember that these students are 12, 13, 14 years old, an age when they could be the most vulnerable doing something like that.
“One of the most moving things I’ve heard was one girl speaking with such poise and clarity about a very personal challenge she faced in overcoming stuttering, something that in most contexts children would be hiding from. She spoke powerfully about how she worked to overcome this.
“It illustrates how they think of themselves, their relationships with peers,” he adds. “I’ve heard boys at this age talk about their love of birdwatching.”
Pamela Larson is mother of Miranda, an 8th grader, and Timothy, a 6th grader. Her children each started ACDS in 4th grade. Before enrolling, prospective students spend a day shadowing a current student.
Miranda was scheduled to sit in on an art class and, Larson says, “she was really hemming and hawing about it. I said ‘Miranda, it’s time to put your best foot forward.’ She looked at me—you know they always look at me dubiously when I’m giving them parental advice—but she laughed and said ‘OK, I’ll give it my best shot.’
“Well, she walked into the classroom with [art instructor] Suzy Tacktill and had an amazing time. They talked about painting trees. Miranda’s not easily impressed by anything but she came home with the most beautiful painting of a tree. It’s framed on her bedroom wall. She’d never come home excited about anything before. As far as art’s concerned, I think that pretty well speaks to it.”
An unheralded benefactor
In 2014, ACDS received a $3M anonymous donation that allowed the school to speed up improvements already underway and to move forward on strategic plans.
Academically, ACDS expanded several programs, including Math in Focus; STEM studies; the 1:1 iPad program; and Language Arts instruction. When iPads were issued to all students, the old computer lab was converted to new uses, including video production and 3-D printing.
Math in Focus is the U.S. offshoot of Singapore Math, an acclaimed math program. “There is a tension between basic skills— knowing how to do the math—and numeric literacy— understanding how math works,” says Baytosh. Math in Focus blends literacy and mastery, so students learn the concepts, but before moving from one topic to the next, they also learn how to do the math.
“Math in Focus really challenged [Miranda and Tim] to understand and to think,” says Larson. “My children are learning everything I want them to learn so they grow up to be independent individuals who can think through problems.”
The donation also hastened upgrades inside classrooms and outside the school. Lower school students now sit on Hokki stools, a Swedish design that resembles an inverted mushroom and wobble just enough that students must be physically engaged (and can’t slump in their seats).
Older students have adjustable sit/stand desks on wheels. All classrooms have extensive whiteboards covering the walls and there are no opaque window coverings, letting in as much natural light as available. Results noted so far include less disruption in class and improved attention spans. “Another tool in their toolbox,” says Baytosh. “A teacher may tell a fidgety student ‘why don’t you stand up for a while’—instant focus.”
Outside, a new synthetic turf makes the playing field usable in all weather. “Again, this meets the needs of kids,” says Girard. “We still have recess in middle school. They work very hard academically and they can be active physically.”
More than improving curb appeal, the imposing brick retaining wall built on the Russell Road frontage allowed for leveling the field in front of the school and expanding outside play space. “The wall, the landscaping, to me that projects a sense of permanence,” says Girard. “I’ve heard from alums and I feel there is a sense of pride, driving by, that it looks great.”
Learning about other places
Part of ACDS’s central mission is instilling community-mindedness and getting kids to think outside “the bubble of Alexandria.” Each year starts with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade day and overnight camping trips to Assateague or rafting in West Virginia.
The capstone experience of 8th grade is when the whole class goes to Puerto Rico for five days to do community service. (All students study Spanish from kindergarten on.) For the past few years, students have visited an orphanage for children with cognitive and social disabilities and spent time playing with the kids for a day. They also visit environmental and cultural attractions. Last summer, middle school science teacher Chris Ros took 20 students to Iceland for one week. This summer, he took 25 students to Cuba.
The K through 8 framework
“Sixth through eighth grade is a volatile time developmentally,” Baytosh says, “and we’re not K through 8 because we don’t have a fourth floor. There is a powerful difference between students that age who are at the top of the school and those in the middle of a larger population.
“When they’re in the middle, all they think about is how to connect with the high schoolers, how to be more like them. We find in K-12 schools, everyone tends to age faster because there’s this steady upward pull—uppermost grades acquire all the resources and dominate the agenda. And, by the end of 8th grade, going on to 9th grade is just the next step—no thought involved. Or your parents may decide you need a different environment and rip you out of all you’ve known school-wise.
“At ACDS, 8th grade students are partnered with 1st graders and do activities throughout the year, so the older students have to be models for the community. And everyone leaves after 8th grade, so reflection on and planning for the transition is a large part of the experience.
“Their task is to think about who they are and what’s important to them,” Baytosh says, “what impact they will have, who they will become. It builds self-confidence. By graduation, they may be nervous, but they’re pretty sure that they are going in the right direction.”
Jim Girard is also Director of High School Placement. “Most important,” he says, “is to meet with each family [starting in 7th grade] and understand each of our kids—to think about what choice would be right for each one. This year we have a graduating class of 28 students that are going to 20 different high schools.
“I’m proud of my kids for how active they are in their new schools, jumping in academically but also willing to take on leadership roles. That’s often a big jump coming from a really small school into some of the high schools.”
Taking on a leadership role
As the topic for her 8th grade service project, Zoha Siddiqui chose the education of girls in Pakistan. In March 2014, Zoha traveled to Pakistan and toured schools to learn about the subject. She identified a girls school in Hair Village whose library had no desks, chairs, or bookshelves, and fewer than 100 books for 1,600 students. She felt compelled to act.
Zoha organized a book drive at her new high school, Sidwell Friends, and at ACDS. With help from her brother Raza’s 4th grade ACDS class, from the ACDS community, and from other efforts, Zoha collected 2,500 books that she shipped to Hair. There, she oversaw the furnishing of the library. A local college professional trained several teachers as librarians. Zoha and her family attended the official opening and when Zoha came home, she spoke about her experience to all of ACDS.
“She had the independent wherewithal to get her arms around the subject and see how she could effect change,” says Baytosh. “Zoha communicated effectively to raise money, conduct a book drive, locate a Pakistani school, and see it through. Her community-mindedness covered both the needs of the school in Pakistan and how to involve people here to bridge that gap.”
Quality education, nurturing environment
“It’s funny,” says Larson, “when my husband and I were looking at schools, it was a bit overwhelming. We looked at a lot of schools. We had a spreadsheet going and still joke about it, because we really are spoiled for choice in this area.
“Coming to ACDS, we both felt an excitement here. Not just that the kids are happy and excited; it was actually the teachers—and that was key. I had been to enough open houses where people were just talking the talk, but when I walked in here, these teachers were passionate. They really care, and they know the kids.”
“[ACDS] is a special place,” says Girard. “It’s the formula of dedicated parents and teachers able to follow through on best practices in a place that’s open to new ideas and innovation.”
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Alexandria Country Day School
2400 Russell Road, Alexandria, VA 22301
Mission and Philosophy
Challenge students intellectually; inspire their confidence, curiosity, and creativity; and prepare them to thrive in a diverse and complex world by ensuring that they are independent learners, effective communicators, community minded citizens, and balanced individuals.
- Co-educational, K-8 nonsectarian, independent day school
- 204 students, with student/teacher ratio of 7:1, and average class size of 13
- Rigorous academic curriculum designed to prepare students for the challenges of the twenty-first century
- Robust music, performing and fine arts curriculum
- Dynamic service learning program
- Soccer, basketball, swimming, cross country, tennis, Ultimate Frisbee, and softball interscholastic teams
- Spanish language instruction in all grades
- 1:1 iPads in all grades, K-8
- Innovation Lab with 3D printers, video production equipment, and maker space
- ACDS graduates from 2013-2016 are currently attending 38 different high schools
Accreditation and Association Memberships
- Alexandria Country Day School is an accredited member of the Virginia Association of Independent Schools.
- Founding member of Emerging Scholars
- A member of the National Association of Independent Schools, Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, the Black Student Fund, and the Latino Student Fund.
Emerging Scholars is an academic enrichment program established in 2002 by Alexandria Country Day School and six other DC-area independent schools.ES identifies students who exhibit academic and leadership potential, but do not have the financial resources to attend a school where they could fully develop their capabilities. In a 14-month program spanning 4th and 5th grades, ES prepares such students academically and socially for the rigors of this area’s top independent schools. The program helps them earn admittance to, and scholarship support from, an appropriate school.
Emerging Scholars is found at www.emergingscholarsprogram.org