Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy, a K-5 public elementary school in historic Old Town Alexandria, Virginia today serves a diverse population with students coming from all socio-economic levels and countries of origin. Built in 1958 for African American students during the time of segregation, the building underwent a transformation in 2000 to attract other community members to the school. With the “traditional academy model” came a focus on strong academic achievement and the use of character education to set the moral compass for the students. As Lyles-Crouch achieved greater academic success and promoted in-depth character development of its students, so did expectations grow for community-outreach and service learning projects. It became a priority for the Lyles-Crouch community (parents, students, and staff) to focus on community service and volunteerism. Principle 5 (creating opportunities for moral action) of the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education has helped us achieve this.
As the Lyles-Crouch Lions, our students participate in monthly community service ROARS projects (Respect/Ownership/Attitude/Responsibility/Safety). Our community service learning program continues to be an opportunity for students to apply their learning beyond the classroom into the real world, with accessibility for all students and families. These monthly community service activities are promoted for families to participate together outside of the school in order to extend the in-school lessons regarding the pillars of character education.
Students submit community service logs and photos to track hours and display the community service projects they have participated in. Some of these projects have monetary costs such as donations of canned food for the Capital Area Food Bank, or toiletries for Carpenter’s Shelter (for the homeless). Other activities involve donations of time, or gently used resources. But the largest focal part of our community service project is the annual Animal Benefit/Talent Show. This event arose from the partnership that Lyles-Crouch developed with the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria eight years after an incident in the community triggered the need for moral action at the school.
A teacher at Lyles-Crouch was driving home from school one afternoon and was stopped behind one of the school buses. As the students (not Lyles-Crouch students because our students are easily identified by the distinctive uniforms they wear) disembarked from the bus, the teacher noticed a group of them congregated on the sidewalk where an injured squirrel was thrashing about. These students picked up rocks and sticks and proceeded to kill the injured animal, while the teacher watched unable to intervene, from his car.
Shocked by the behavior of the children toward a helpless creature, the teacher called me at school to recount the horrific story of what had just transpired. In between sobs, he proclaimed that he wanted to establish an Animal Crusaders program at Lyles-Crouch to teach our students about respect for all life. That after school program brought students, parents and animal shelter workers together to work first as shelter volunteers and later as school wide presenters on responsible pet ownership and respect for wildlife.
As interest grew to support the homeless animal population in the City of Alexandria, so did the range of activities engaged in by our children and their families. Students began annual food and toy drives for the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter. That effort then expanded into joining the fundraising activities of the shelter in its annual walk-a-thon through the streets of Alexandria and participation in summer camps at the shelter. About five years ago, our music teacher at the time, suggest we host our own fundraising event to support the shelter, as well as an animal rescue group, called King Street Cats. This was how the Animal Benefit/Talent Show was established. Over the course of five years, our students and their families have raised over $20,000 and collected thousands of items for the shelter animals.
The expanding interest in helping homeless animals increased student participation for other community projects. Students organized the Planet Crusaders to address environmental issues. They partnered with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Watershed Warriors to help stem the pollution of the Potomac River and its tributaries. These students and their parents also started a school wide recycling effort that was later adopted as the standard for all Alexandria City Public Schools. Other students volunteered with their parents for Meals on Wheels deliveries at local churches and food pantries to prepare food for the homeless and set up collections of used clothing and books to send to people in underdeveloped countries. Additionally, children began to ask that in lieu of receiving birthday party gifts, donations be made to specific charities.
So, as Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy achieved academic success, it also achieved its goal for moral action among students as community service became a way of life. As the children were taught to become responsible citizens of the global community, they learned the value of giving back. And the school’s mantra has become: “Take care of yourself. Take care of each other. Take care of your community.”
Dr. Patricia Zissios has been the principal of Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy since 2004. During her time at the school, she has watched its evolution from a school struggling to attract students from its neighborhood into an academically successful and over enrolled school embraced by the community it serves. Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy was named a "Top Elementary School" by Northern Virginia Magazine in 2017.