Making the School Useful to the Community — Rappahannock County, Virginia

Last Updated: April 01, 2006

This article appeared in the April 2006 Rural Policy Matters.


Rappahannock County schools have developed a wide-range of learning opportunities that enable students to meet a local community need while developing their own academic capabilities. The result is a variety of innovative partnerships that make life in the county better for students and for local residents.


Some residents of Rappahannock County like to say that they are little more than an hour from the nation's capital and nearly half an hour from the nearest drive-thru restaurant. This rural county decided decades ago to protect its agricultural base, clean environment, and rural character, so it enacted strict development policies. Those policies have worked and while surrounding counties have seen population and pavement grow at breakneck speeds, Rappahannock has retained many of its farms and just over 7,000 full-time residents.

But Rappahannock County shares challenges common to many rural areas. Sixty percent of its land is owned by non-residents. Income in the county is becoming more skewed, and many young people must leave to find work. The school system is the largest local employer. Teacher salaries are lower than in nearby counties, often significantly. The number of residents who drive out of the county to work has risen steadily. School enrollment, at just under 1,000 students, is declining slightly. Historically, college-going rates have been low. Approximately 93% of residents are white and 5% are African American. A little less than 8% of residents have incomes below the federal poverty level.

Like other rural areas that have found themselves pressed by second home seekers and urban sprawl, property values in Rappahannock County have skyrocketed. As a result, most local young people cannot afford to live in the county. And because the county is property-wealthy, it receives only a small share of its funding for schools from the state. Local revenue must fill the gap, a challenge for many full-time residents whose incomes have generally not kept pace with the rise in land values.

"Because of property values, we get very little of our school budget from the state and have to depend on the local Board of Supervisors for most of our funding," Dr. Robert Chappell, superintendent of schools explains. "Every year our financial needs increase. Yet a growing proportion of residents have no direct connection to the schools — they're not alumni and they don't have kids or grandkids here — so we have to do things that make them want to support us."

Early Development

Chappell was the high school principal in the mid-1980s and helped get an alumni association and athletics boosters clubs started. Then in 1997, a group of community residents formed Headwaters, the Rappahannock County Public Education Foundation, to provide independent support for the public school system and to increase community involvement in education. Rappahannock County has many community-connected learning programs. Amy Silver, Coordinator of Grants and Partnerships at Headwaters explains, "We use what we have to provide really in-depth learning experiences for students."


Farm-to-Table is a cross-disciplinary program centered in the horticulture class (where students earn a science credit for graduation) and closely linked with the school's Culinary Arts classes. It was launched in 2004 with funding from a local family foundation as a partnership between a community organization, the school system, and Headwaters. Students grow produce, landscape the school grounds, and sell and share what they grow. Through the Culinary Arts program students sometimes prepare meals for the Senior Center. Older residents come and work with students in the gardens sharing their knowledge, enjoying themselves, and building important relationships with young people. In addition to the original organic farm sponsors, the Farm Bureau also supports the program.

The program continues to expand. A local resident offered the use of part of her farm to the school, and the fifth grade planted Christmas trees there. They will tend the trees and when they are seniors they will harvest them and put the profits back into the horticulture program. The Farm-to-Table program is coordinated by a part-time staff member supported by Headwaters.

Culinary Arts

Nearly one-third of high school students take the popular and demanding Culinary Arts class. In addition to preparing meals for the Senior Center, students often contract with local nonprofits on fundraisers. The class is careful not to compete with local restaurants and bed-and-breakfast inns, but students sometimes work for them and several have gone on to culinary school.

Geospatial Technologies Class

When the state announced a pilot program to develop high school classes in geospatial technologies, Rappahannock County applied and was selected to participate. In this class, teams of students "contract" with community "clients" to do sophisticated mapping work. The teacher and a local volunteer, both of whom are expert in GIS and GPS technologies, work closely with students whose contracts have taken them all across the county.

Clients of the class have included a local environmental organization that commissioned a study to track erosion in streams by the size of riparian buffers. Several farmers have contracted for assistance in analyzing soil and mapping their fields and pastures for crop and cattle rotations. Students have helped African-American alumni of the school map the home sites of their members. After a spate of serious motorcycles crashes, students worked with a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who frequent the county to develop a map of crash sites and danger spots in order to reduce injuries and fatalities. Students make formal presentations of their projects, often in public settings

RCHS Greenhouse

Students study biology, environmental science, and sustainable agriculture in the school's greenhouse and grow, share, and sell plants.

EMT training-Daytime Providers

Like many rural counties, Rappahannock depends on all-volunteer rescue squads to provide emergency services and was seriously understaffed during the day when most volunteers were at work. The school was interested in offering EMT classes in the high school curriculum. The Flint Hill Volunteer Rescue Squad, the county government, and the school board contributed funds to support the EMT program. Students who take the program can become licensed when they are 17. The state covers the cost of the instructor and the school releases students to respond to day-time emergencies when they are needed. The opportunity has sparked health career interests among students. Licensed graduates can find full-time middle-class employment in nearby counties as professional rescuers.

Building Trades

Students in the building trades classes build signs for the county and local villages. It's a partnership that saves local governments money, teaches students valuable skills, and builds pride of place. Students also do minor repairs on homes of senior citizens and disabled residents.

Fitness Center 

One of the more popular collaborations is the fitness center that the school and community share. Headwaters received a federal PEP grant to build and furnish the facility and the school system helps cover costs of utilities and upkeep. The center is free to students, faculty, county employees. To help cover the costs of an attendant, the facility charges a modest monthly fee to the general public and offers reduced rates to senior citizens. More than 200 residents are actively involved in the Center.

Managing it All

Students are off campus as part of their day-to-day schooling. The students go to community sites as classes and sometimes as small teams. There is always an adult with them, which takes a lot of willingness and flexibility on the part of the school and its staff to find ways to get students into community settings. The school system and Headwaters have carefully articulated liability policies; teachers are covered when transporting students in their private cars; and no student is ever allowed off-campus without written parental consent.

The school uses a modified 4 x 4 semester-long block schedule, so most classes have 90 minutes-sufficient time for substantial work. Some classes are double blocks; a few classes operate on an A-B year-long schedule.

Vocational classes are on-site and integrated with academic content. Almost all students, including those in college-preparatory classes, take some vocational classes. This arrangement reduces tracking, helps all students explore a range of interests and talents, and applies lessons to real-world problems.

Teachers are encouraged to teach academic content in ways that also meet a community need or interest. They are also supported at the school and in the community: Because salaries are comparatively low, the county knows it must make teachers feel appreciated and respected. And, when students and teachers are working in the community, local residents frequently express their admiration and gratitude. Headwaters provides mini-grants to teachers who apply for special projects, and it offers support for professional development for teachers who want to travel to other schools doing innovative work or who want to pursue a topic or interest not supported in state programs.

What's Next?

The partnerships are just beginning to investigate the feasibility of a Farm-To-Cafeteria program that would enable the school lunchroom to use produce from the school's gardens and to purchase directly from local farmers. The local historical society and school are exploring how social studies students can do more of the historical documentation work of the county and collect and transcribe the backlog of oral histories. Creating affordable housing-especially for teachers, county workers, and recent/returning graduates who want to stay in the county-is a challenge that many people want to work on, as is finding ways to create local employment opportunities so young people don't have to leave to find good work.

Headwaters Programs

For more information visit

Headwaters provides a part-time coordinator for the Farm-to-Table program. The Next Step College Access program is a multi-partner program designed to make sure all students have the resources they need to create and carry out the college, vocational, or career plan that is right for them. It provides one-on-one counseling to students regarding applications and financial aid and sponsors college visits. Summer Workshops for 2nd to 8th grade students provide enrichment and summer activities. Teacher mini-grants provide extra support for innovative projects and learning opportunities.

Lessons Learned

Roger Mello, principal of Rappahannock County High offers a straight forward approach for schools who want to become connected to their communities. He says, "Start small, and look at what you're already doing," then ask these questions:

  • What are the needs and interests of the community?
  • Can the school help meet them?
  • Can we meet these needs while teaching the required academic content?
  • Would the work be appreciated in the community?
  • Would the work be competitive with something else in the community?

Other lessons include:

  • Community-school partnerships take a lot of collaboration. Many times they don't take a lot of money, but they do take a lot of time and effort to get organized.
  • It takes all kinds of people and mindsets to make these kinds of collaborations a success. Seek them out.
  • As expectations and standards are raised for students, and more students are meeting those standards, they need support to know what to do with them.
  • Students need help to understand the college process and they need real-world applications for what they are learning.
  • Teachers need support, too. Make sure to let teachers know they are appreciated. Improve salaries when possible (salaries are more of a dissatisfier than satisfier) and otherwise make the teaching experience as satisfying and rewarding as possible.
  • This kind of work can get politically touchy. You have to be open. You have to have a lot of different kinds of people involved. And students should do data gathering and analysis, but not advocacy.
  • This work is hard, but it's worth it.

Contact Information

Rappahannock County Schools
Six Schoolhouse Road
Washington, VA  22747
(540) 987-8773

Rappahannock County High:
12576 Lee Highway
Washington, VA  22747
(540) 987-9331

Headwaters, the Rappahannock County Public Education Foundation
PO Box 448
Washington, VA  22747
(540) 675-1819

School Demographic Information (2003-04)

District Enrollment: 1,041
Grades Served: Pre-K-12
Percent of Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunches: 17%
Percent Students who are English Language Learners: <1%
Percent of Student Population:
     American Indian/Alaskan Native: <1% 
     Asian/Pacific Islander: <1%
     Black, not Hispanic: 6%
     Hispanic: <2%
     White, not Hispanic: 91%

Read more from the April 2006 Rural Policy Matters.

Related Categories: Rural Policy Matters

Related Tags: School-Community Partnerships