New students for Rachel Carson Middle School appeared in droves, exiting from the doors of buses and their parents' SUVs and mini-vans as they arrived for new student orientation last Friday.
The students, totaling about 600, made their way through the front halls of the school to the gymnasium, where they climbed a set of bleachers, before sitting and talking among themselves, waiting for the opening remarks from their principals.
This group is the largest incoming class of seventh graders Rachel Carson Middle School has seen in its nine-year history — a feat for a Fairfax County public school, where many neighboring schools are seeing declining enrollment numbers this year.
A few minutes after 9 a.m., principal Augie Fratalli leaned slightly over the podium facing the bleachers and began his opening address, explaining to students the importance of responsibility, respect and above all else, happiness and satisfaction.
"Every one of you, every day that you come into this school, I want you to be happy," Fratalli said to the hushed crowd. "We don't want you to feel bad, when you're on the bus or walking through the halls. We want you to be happy."
Following the short presentation, Fratalli walked down the halls as he spoke briefly to students, asking one about a broken arm, another about how her morning had been.
"We'll really try and get a chance to interact with the students, make sure they know that we care about them," Fratalli said. "It's real important that they feel connected with you."
AN EXTENDED AFTER-school program is the key addition at Rachel Carson Middle School this year, Fratalli said.
The extended program is partially a product of a requirement passed earlier this year by Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors, stating that all FCPS middle schools have an after-school specialist to increase the quality of programs, according to Pat Lee, the new after-school specialist for Rachel Carson Middle School.
The school is bumping up its designated after-school programs this year to give students more opportunities to learn new skills and subjects, have a positive environment to go to after school and forge relationships with adults and the school, Fratalli added.
"A lot of our students have parents who work well into the evening," he said. "Instead of coming home to an empty house, they'll have an opportunity where they can come and take part in an enriching program and get to know more of the staff."
This year, the program will jump from about 30 different all-year after school programs offered over three days to as many as 40 different programs offered over all five days that school is in session, Lee said.
"For the kids who come in and just want to get their classes in, they might not have as much a vested interest in the school, but when you're involved you feel more connected and you take more of an interest in the school," Fratalli said. "The kids feel more connected, and when a child feels connected everything about our job is easier."
Lee added that she wanted to see the school branch out in the different types of programs offered this year to include more community and service-oriented organizations. She is in the process of tracking down groups who would be interested in forming programs for students.
One of her goals is to do an after-school series on health.
Health "is such a wide spectrum that we can really take students and go in any number of directions," Lee said. "It can be beneficial to the kids in so many ways, just in teaching them about proper ways to take care of themselves — and others."
The most important thing for the program is that a wide variety of interests are represented and the school's diverse population is accounted for.
"We are so diverse here so our goal is to get people from different backgrounds involved with other students in doing the activities they share an interest in," Lee said. "To help them realize that we all work together — and we are all equal."
THIS SCHOOL YEAR will mark what would have been Rachel Carson's 100th birthday on May 27, 2007 with a year-long ongoing environmental project.
Teams of students and their faculty leaders will each be given a parcel of land on the school to help clean up and beautify in the honor of Carson, a scientist who wrote of the dangers of pesticides on the environment in the '40s and '50s. Carson is the author of the book "Silent Spring," which is largely credited for having launched the modern environmentalist movement.
"She made a very large environmental impact in her life, and of any person, she would appreciate a dedication to the environment," Fratalli said. "We want to continue to stress to students the importance of having that positive impact on the environment."
The dedication towards working with the environment that the students will show is a continuance of their work serving others and the community, said Louise Porter, assistant principal for seventh grade.
"I've just been so impressed with how committed these students have been towards volunteering and helping others," Porter said. "They continue to impress me with their care for others and really for everything around them."
THE LARGEST CHALLENGE for the staff and faculty of Rachel Carson Middle School is in making sure that students achieve a solid period of growth and the ability to transition from elementary to high school in just two years, according to Fratalli.
"You may work your tail off with students, and all of a sudden they start achieving, and then they're gone," Fratalli said. "Two years can go by really fast."
The best way to make sure that students get that positive experience to help them move on to the next step is through instruction, organization and connection, he added.
"In my day, middle school was a little traumatic for a lot of people — it was a real tough time, a time of transition," Fratalli said. "But I think here in this community the teachers are pretty connected with the students and the parents and that they feel comfortable here at this school."
"To have the students leave school and to feel accomplished, that's really what I want."