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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

When it comes to distance learning, this Annandale private school gets it right

A Pinecrest student participates in a Zoom session.
By Nick Wakeman

The headlines about distance learning have not been encouraging with Fairfax County Public Schools online classes shut down for a variety of reasons – problems logging in to security lapses to inappropriate student behavior.

But there are bright spots in the county, including right here in Annandale, where Pinecrest School has shown itself to be nimble, responsive, and innovative.
Pinecrest students share their projects online.
When the coronavirus pandemic first began, the hope was that the shutdown would be a matter of weeks. Pinecrest, a secular, independent school, ramped up its at-home learning program by distributing packets of materials to all of its students – preschoolers through sixth graders. There were also some weekly online socials that were scheduled very quickly.

But when schools were ordered closed for the rest of the academic year, Pinecrest Head of School Nicole McDermott led the teachers through a crash course in distance learning and understanding how secure online meeting platforms work. Starting on April 13, all students were participating in online classes each day. There is also an online site for parents to download more learning packets and other materials should they choose.

In addition to regular classroom work – math, science, language arts, and social studies – the students receive instruction in music, PE, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) and participate in online socials. More plans are in the works, too, like adding yoga, improv, cartooning, and magic classes.

The work has included many of the activities the students would have been completing if they were on the Pinecrest campus on Quiet Cove in Annandale. For example, third-graders still gave their individual class presentations, demonstrating via teleconference everything from cake baking to fishing to how to make a vanilla milkshake.

The fourth, fifth and sixth-graders are busy planning their science fair projects, which also will be presented online from the safety of their homes. Even our 3 and 4-year-old preschoolers are online regularly for engagement and learning opportunities, including the popular Show and Tell.

In keeping with its “This is Community” motto, Pinecrest School also has been a hub of support for parents and families, as well as students.

The school has also been a steady presence for its constituents in other forms:
  • Setting an example through all of the teachers’ and administrator’s hard work and creativity.
  • Constant, steady, and transparent communications. McDermott has relayed resources to parents, not just on how to manage children at home but also information that supports the health and well-being of the entire family. She’s also been a resource for information and news, such as what she and the teachers are working on and information from the local, state, and federal levels.
The COVID-19 pandemic is serious and devastating for much of the Fairfax community, but it hasn’t deterred Pinecrest School from continuing to fulfill its mission of serving its students and families with a high-quality education and a strong support system.

The situation isn’t one that anyone would choose for their children but we can still be proud of the results.

For Pinecrest School, it is also like the Gene Kranz quote from Apollo 13 – “This is going to be our finest hour.”

Nick Wakeman is a Washington technology editor and a member of the Pinecrest School Board. 


  1. Heatwarming to see a school stay focused and lead the way to innovative learning, particularly through these incredibly demanding times.

  2. "This is Community." Pinecrest School: a great place to learn! Congratulations in making our new school day fun for all. Hats off to Ms. McDermott,

  3. This is good news for students and families. I think it goes without saying that comparing a tiny private school (100 students total?) to FCPS (190,000 students) is like comparing apples and skyscrapers). It also goes without saying, that the 5 or 10 days of extra instruction that Pinecrest was online for that FCPS was not, was paid for IN ACES! by the parents who are dishing out $115;500 over the course of their kids 7 years of K-6. FCPS families with the same amount of money available at the start of their child's school years have a beautiful nest egg that has earned enough interest to pay for college and grad school, loan free. But the most important point to make, is that FCPS has not in any way disappointed this parent of 14 years in that system. Each school my children has attended within FCPS has amazed and impressed me in so many ways. Rigorous academics, outstanding socially and emotionally rich environments, with a mind toward developing sensitive and responsible citizens, attention to teaching kindness and compassion, excellent individual attention, warm and caring families, parents and teachers, super dedicated and talented teachers (the best in the world!), excellent and expansive extracurricular, sports, clubs, music, teachers dedicated to nurturing critical thinking and self confidence in their students. There is too much to list here. The super impressive availability of resources and opportunities and the quality of talent at FCPS could not make 2 weeks of a tiny bump in my children's 12 years of outstanding experiences matter even a speck. (certainly not worth $115,500). And FCPS ends up on top anyway, when it comes to what matters most, the rich and excellent teaching environment that we need to raise successful and competent citizens of the world, with tons of love thrown in from dedicated beautiful teaching.

  4. Thank you, Unknown 3:11 PM. This "article" was really a self-congratulatory commercial for Pinecrest. I'm sure it's a great place, and for $16.5k a year, it had better be! The "article seemed a little tone deaf, a little too "let them eat cake". If you are going to reference "community", please remember there are members of the larger community that have lost their jobs, parents who are struggling to help their kids distance learn, and members who are worried about feeding their kids. And if the author has ideas about scaling up the success they've had with their 84 privileged students to FCPS's 185,000, by all means let us know.

  5. Unlike FCPS, pinecrest runs the risk of, ya know, going out of business because of this. So maybe put down your pitchforks for a hot second and find something else to rant about.

    1. Good points! I am a FCPS parent and I've seen a mixed bag of results. Some good, some bad. The rollout of distance learning was... embarrassing and really disappointing. No reason to bash Pinecrest or any other school who can get it right. If I can find a way to afford this school or another like it, I will. If you LOVE FCPS... Ok. That's your right. We don't need to 'hate' on anyone.

  6. Lot of Pinecrest bashing here for no reason... look in the mirror, county residents. Pinecrest is not the problem here, FCPS is.

    FCPS average cost per pupil annually is $15,293 (per FCPS wesbite). Not a statistically different number than the annual tuition at Pincecrest school, per the commenter previously, and yet the outcomes in regards to distance learning were demonstrably very, very, different. So if the results "better be" great for that spend at Pinecrest, why do we defend mediocrity at FCPS? Don't tell me it's all about the number of students. Other sizable districts here and beyond our metro region managed quite well LAUSD has 700k students, how did they manage well enough in these circumstances with a student body more than triple our size?

    The usage of an outdated and bloated, insecure Blackboard system in FCPS is an embarrassment. School districts with far less means than we have here (know of some personally in Richmond metro) moved into agile mode and deployed different solutions that had their students up and running quite seamlessly while FCPS was still wringing their hands here during the 4 week prep period... and STILL failed horribly with all the time they had versus other districts.

    The solutions those districts deployed costs were free in many cases (Google Classroom and Google for Education free version) compared to the fat Blackboard contract the incompetent leadership of FCPS signed up for, and couldn't even be bothered to properly manage what they were paying for. If you're keeping score, they paid Blackboard an annual $2.6 million contract including extra $150k/month during shutdown.

    FCPS has no one to blame but themselves --
    “The practice that Fairfax County has used historically is they take updates once a year, they apply them in the summer, they take a downtime window in order to test them,” Tomlinson (Blackboard) said. “For the last two years that has not happened. This system actually hasn’t been updated in two years. We recommend that all of our clients stay on the most current versions of our software. The version of the software that Fairfax County is running is three years old. Fairfax County has made the choice not to update that software.” (WTOP)

    To spend a comparable amount of money per pupil as a private school and have such abysmal outcomes is nothing but disappointing. FCPS is only middle of the road in the NOVA area for spend per pupil, yet the districts with both more and less than us in this area didn't suffer from these egregious issues and mismanagement. Heck, even LAUSD that spends $13,xxx per pupil annually, and has 700k students managed to do it. How can they do it, but FCPS can't?

    So which reason was it again we can't achieve good distance learning outcomes?
    The large student body, or the lack of comparable funding?

    Product of Virginia public schools (with far less means than FCPS)

  7. During these trying times, why bring the negativity? This school is making things work for their kids. Their kids are learning, and we should be saluting them. It's been a fixture in our community since the 1950s, and frankly, I'm inspired by these guys.

  8. Even if FCPS was doing everything perfectly, it can also be true that some parents are looking for a smaller learning environment for their child, and it is important for independent schools to let parents know what alternatives exist. For anyone who is interested in exploring Pinecrest for their child, per their website, financial aid is available:

  9. Congratulations on your acceptance of the abysmal leadership exhibited by FCPS during this crisis. This article may in fact be self-congratulatory, but it showcases one of the many key attributes—LEADERSHIP--that makes Pinecrest so attractive to parents who are disgusted by the perpetual waste and mismanagement of resources by the $3B FCPS bureaucracy. Based on what I’ve witnessed from FCPS over the past two months (not two weeks), you cannot convince me that FCPS has shown any leadership in educating its students during this crisis, other than to routinely send out one communication after another to explain yet another failure on their part. My child is a recent graduate of Pinecrest School and spent several years in the FCPS system before moving over to Pinecrest. We don’t regret one penny we spent at Pinecrest and, in fact, we continue to support Pinecrest financially as an alumni family. Our child received a nurturing, hands-on education that allowed him to learn in a loving environment and encouraged his growth as both a student and an individual. His confidence grew exponentially and he found his voice. He was part of a “community”. Our biggest regret is that we didn’t send him to Pinecrest when he started Preschool.

    We are proud of our “community” at Pinecrest, a community that includes not only our administration, faculty, students and families but also the local businesses and residents that we help support in the Annandale area. We are not “referencing community”, we ARE a community that focuses on the education and safety of our children and their families, all of whom are enduring the same health crisis everyone else is facing. We are no less impacted by the economic issues from COVID-19 than others around us, and what makes us so strong is that we have joined together as a community to put our students’ needs first. I’m not sure why you felt the need, or spent the time, to offer such negative comments about a school community that you’re clearly not a part of, but I would suggest you take that energy and refocus it on why you’ve set the bar so low for your own child’s education and accepted the so-called “distance learning” plan that FCPS has barely been able to administer.

  10. I feel like we need to point out as many rays of sunshine in our community of Annandale as possible. FCPS works great for some, and Pinecrest great works for others - there is room for both. We can point out the good things in either environment, so let Pinecrest have a moment already. Like someone else said - they have been a part of the Annandale Community for 50 years, and are a positive in our community, so why not highlight that?

  11. In keeping with its “This is Community” motto, Pinecrest School also has been a hub of support for parents and families, as well as students.