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Celebrating 20 Years

Posted by Caroline Cross on Jan 5, 2016 1:38:08 PM

Stories make us human. Not only do small children love to be told stories that ignite the imagination, but we also use the art of storytelling to connect everyday knowledge with emotion. Through story, we also solidify our fondest memories. There is something almost spiritual about storytelling, isn’t there? As the great English writer G.K. Chesterton put it, “I had always felt life first as a story; and if there is a story, there is a story-teller.”

Like every great institution, Dominion’s present rests squarely upon its past. God has used a series of committed men and women to contribute to the work of our school, and yet, as the school ages, we might be prone to forget our roots. Let us not fail to emulate the Israelites as they responded to God’s command by raising an Ebenezer – a stone of remembrance – when God provided for their safe crossing at the River Jordan.

Dominion sprung from the deep desire of a handful of men and women who were committed to seeing the strength of a classical education’s impact upon Northern Virginia. The difficult closing of a local Christian school in Reston in 1995 provided the catalyst. As a group of teachers and parents began meeting each Sunday afternoon to pray about and plan for the formation of a classical Christian school, two schools emerged: Dominion Christian School (grades K-8) and Ad Fontes Academy (grades 9-12).

With four Heads of School in three years, Dominion’s early years were challenging. Yet, God was faithful! In fact, the school’s name, Dominion, hints at this faithfulness. Not only is it a geographical reference, but it also celebrates the Lord’s invitation for us to take part in the cultural mandate found in Genesis – to become His co-laborers in His work in this world. The school’s founders hoped for a constant reminder that their endeavor to begin a classical school was not theirs alone. The school, its faculty, and its students were (and still are) under His care and for His glory.

Dominion quickly gained its footing in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Gifted in laying foundations, then Head of School Mrs. Crabtree temporarily suspended the middle school (seventh and eighth grades) in order to more fully focus upon strengthening the lower school program. After restructuring the staff and renewing emphasis upon teacher training, curriculum development, and staff longevity, Mrs. Crabtree helped sharpen the school’s commitment to the classical model. With a keen eye for succession planning, Mrs. Crabtree also helped lead the search for her successor, our current lower school principal, Jan Pierce.

Miss Pierce was officially hired as head of school in 2002. Under her leadership, Dominion expanded considerably. With steady increases in enrollment, Dominion grew from about 75 students at its inception to more than approximately 140 by 2010. Continuing to build upon Mrs. Crabtree’s work, Miss Pierce continued improving the lower school curriculum and further strengthened Dominion’s classical framework. She began a physical education and basketball program, introduced Shakespeare studies, and implemented a host of costumed events for each class to enjoy. Dominion was beginning to flourish.

Stability and growth provided the means for development. The classical concept of the Trivium was not intended to end in the eighth grade. A classical education bears the greatest fruit in the rhetoric stage, and Dominion was entirely lacking such a program.

Encouraged by the excellent education their children were already receiving at Dominion, the board, along with several parents, began researching what would be required to add grades nine through twelve. Mutual confidence in the core families and close relationships enabled the upper school pioneers to collectively risk the investment in an uncertain future. After much deliberation and prayer, the board added a ninth grade class in the fall of 2009. Subsequent upper school grades would be added a year at a time until the 2012-2013 academic year when Dominion hoped to graduate its first class of seniors.

There were only two students in Dominion’s first graduating class – Emily Isler, daughter of Eddie and Kim, and Grant Wishard, son of Keven and Anna. As we know, size is not directly proportional to quality. In spite of unusual physical circumstances and surroundings, even Dominion’s earliest graduates would benefit from an education that would produce outcomes among the top 10% of students in the nation on nationally standardized tests. The school would also quickly hold an average high school SAT score that parallels some of the best college preparatory schools in the Washington, D.C. area.

As the parents of Dominion’s first graduates, we asked Eddie Isler and Anna Wishard to speak on behalf of the many contributors and families who had a hand in developing the program. Isler remembers, “A significant factor in our decision to forge ahead with the upper school for our children was the deep sense of commitment and community we had with the families of other seventh and eighth graders who were willing to join in this somewhat daunting undertaking. We felt that with six or seven families committed to the vision of seeing the classical model through to its completion, we had the foundation in place to build a successful upper school.”

The upper school’s early years required much creative thinking and flexibility. After high ceilings in the Vale Road chapel hindered attempts to install partitions intended to create more classroom space, the Isler family volunteered to park their RV behind the building for use as a classroom. “We were absolutely determined that facilities would not stand in the way of our children benefiting from an outstanding classical education,” noted Isler. “Although our kids’ education was not perfect, it was still excellent and among the best our area had to offer. We were willing to take some hits to be part of a larger story,” Anna Wishard added.

There were also times when the upper school’s future could have been considered tenuous. The small number of interdependent families meant that if any one family chose to leave, the absence could create a domino effect. Yet, the Board was determined: failure was not an option. The sheer weight of responsibility without the support of adequate administrative staff led Miss Pierce and the board to bring in Charles (Chuck) Evans – first to consult for the school and, later, as the interim head of the K-12 program.

Along with Robert Littlejohn, Mr. Evans literally “wrote the book” on classical Christian schooling (Wisdom & Eloquence, Crossway Books). With rich and diverse knowledge and experience in classical school administration, Mr. Evans proved indispensable to the upper school’s success. He commuted from Austin, Texas monthly during the 2011-2012 school year and then twice per month during the 2012-2013 school year. Under his leadership, Dominion successfully graduated their first class of two students. The following school year (2013-2014) also marked another historic event, as the graduating class included students who had completed their entire academic career with Dominion from Kindergarten through twelfth grade.

The board, working with Mr. Evans, shepherded the search and transition to a permanent Head of School who would oversee the entire K-12 program. Matt Mitchell, our current head, was hired in the spring of 2013. During his recruitment process, the upper school was abruptly evicted from the campus on Hunter Mill Road due to zoning regulation issues. A quickly organized search ensued to secure a campus, eventually landing temporary facilities in Isaac Newton Square in Reston in late August of 2013. Due to significant difficulties with Fairfax County regulators and complex building code standards, the permitting process for Dominion’s current facilities, scheduled for completion in one month, dragged on for nearly eighteen months. It was with much celebration that the upper school’s new campus in Isaac Newton Square opened its doors in October of 2014.

Under Mitchell’s and Pierce’s leadership, the school also pursued and was awarded accreditation. Today, Dominion is fully accredited by the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS), and enrollment has grown to approximately 200 students. Student retention for the middle and upper school years is the highest it has ever been, and Dominion must routinely assign students to waiting lists. Gifted Dominion teachers labor to instruct their students in a love of the good, true, and beautiful. Students are encouraged to ask hard questions, to think and write well, and to engage with great novels and brilliant thinkers in primary sources. Prestigious post-secondary institutions have recognized Dominion’s academic excellence, as graduates consistently gain admission to the nation’s best colleges and universities.

Thankfully, Dominion’s story is not finished. In fact, one might argue that it has only begun. The Lord continues display his faithfulness. May it always be the kind of place that produces young men and women who savor the good, the true, and the beautiful; who cherish the Biblical worldview training they are receiving; and who prepare students to impact the world for Christ. Or, as the quote on the front wall of Dominion’s new upper school facility puts it, may they fully appreciate that “[a]ll studies, philosophy, and rhetoric are followed for this one subject, that we may know Christ and honor him. This is the end of all learning.”