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Womble Steps Aside

Rachel Carson's first principal prepares to say her good-byes.

Gail Womble has known that this day was coming. That doesn’t make it any easier, however.

Womble, the only principal Rachel Carson Middle School has ever known, is stepping down from the post this summer after five years on the job. She will officially retire this September after celebrating a quarter century of service in Fairfax County Public Schools.

"I’m trying not to think about it too much," Womble said. "I am comfortable with my decision. It is time, but there’s really nothing you can do to prepare yourself for the end."

What will make it easier is the fact that her oldest of three children will soon be giving birth to her first child. "She’s having a little girl," the grandmother-to-be said. "I am really looking forward to being a grandma for the first time."

From staff meetings to roaming the halls, there isn’t anything about her current job that Womble says she isn’t going to miss. "It’s been a great run," she said. "I loved it because everyday was different. Of course I will miss my teachers and the kids, they are wonderful."

But the principal isn't the only one having trouble dealing with end of an era.

Thirteen years ago, Nan Altheide was a reading teacher at Longfellow Middle School. Gail Womble was an assistant principal at the Falls Church school. Altheide was determined to do anything in her power to make sure "that this gentle person" would someday erase the 'assistant' from her title. Sure enough, 10 years ago, Womble moved into the principal's office, and in 1998, she was named principal of the year. Shortly thereafter, Womble took her talents to a blank slate (and an empty lot) on McLearen Road when she was asked to build a new school, Carson, from scratch.

From the moment she met her, Altheide knew Womble "had it," whatever "it" was. "She is velvet on the outside, but a rock on the inside," Altheide said. "She is a very strong leader, but she believes in the work that we teachers do. She has faith in all of us to lead and to do what is best for our children."

Losing Womble to Carson was traumatic, Altheide said. "She left me once before," she said. "It felt as if the heart was plucked right out of the school."

Eventually, Altheide followed her boss to the newly minted confines at Carson, but she can't do that now. "It is very difficult to deal with," she said. "We are in the process of planning this big good-bye party, but it means we will be losing her."

<b>FROM HER FIRST DAY</b> at Carson, Womble said she knew she would be ready to leave her "baby" in the capable hands of someone new after five years. When her husband retired two years ago her plan was reinforced. "I am ready to being a full-time mom to my three kids," she said, in her sun-drenched office on Friday afternoon.

Womble and her husband are building a home in Williamsburg, the same town where these two college sweethearts met while at the College of William and Mary. She also has deep roots at the school where her daughter, brother and father-in-law also graduated. "We’re looking forward to moving back," she said, smiling. "It’s just so calming. We love it down there, it’s just a little quieter life."

Meanwhile, Womble’s 12-year-old son will be starting middle school in the fall. By August, the former middle school principal will become a full-time middle school parent.

Ever the disciplined and accomplished multi-tasker, Womble will not be content to settling into retirement full-time. She plans on doing some writing and consulting, perhaps on the ideas of teacher leadership and the lessons she learned in putting together a new school.

<b>WOMBLE RECALLS THINKING </b>that it would probably take about three to five years for this new school to "gel" together. Originally, in its first year of existence, Carson was only supposed to start with seventh grade students, but shortly before the doors opened for business, the county decided, because of the overcrowding at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, to move the eighth graders into Carson, as well. It was difficult for those students to switch schools midway through their two-year middle school career, she said.

But despite the hour switch, Womble said, the transition was as smooth as could be imagined. It didn’t take years, or even months, for the school to find its identity, she said. "Honestly, it took all of about three or five minutes for the staff, the students and the entire community to begin cooking on all cylinders," she said. "It felt so natural and it came together so easily. I remember remarking at a meeting that first week that it felt like we’d been working together for years."

Womble insists on not taking credit for the school’s early successes. She is quick to point to her "wonderful and brilliant" teachers for making Carson what it is. "The success of a building or a program should never ride on the shoulders of one person or one leader. I can’t say enough about my teachers," she said. "They have been phenomenal from day one."

The teachers' strengths have only been magnified by the events of the last year and a half. From 9/11 to the sniper attacks to the war with Iraq, teachers have helped shepherd students during these turbulent times, she said. "They had to do this while facing their own fears," she said. "And everyday they did what they needed to do, no matter what they were feeling personally. It was, and is, always about the kids."

<b>WOMBLE WAS BLESSED </b>with the luxury most principals can only dream of. Because Carson was brand new, she was able to "hand-pick" her staff, every one of them. She had no shortage of options to choose from, either. "She set the tone in the school with the team that she hired," said Joanne Frank, her administrative assistant. "I don’t know if it was intuitive, but her selection of staff blended perfectly. She was lucky enough to be able to pick the best of the best, and she did."

While she admitted that the "bucked stopped at her desk" for a few issues, she clearly relishes the collaborative approach to leadership. "I think it promotes a kind of ownership among the teachers," said Womble, a vocal proponent of developing teacher’s personal leadership skills. "That results in better, more passionate, teaching."

Frank agreed. "Gail lets people spread wings and try new things," she said. "But she is smart enough to know when to rein them in, as well."

Womble has just a few words of advice for the next occupant of her chair. "Trust the teachers. Listen. Enjoy," she said.

It’s important for the next principal to have a vision that is compatible to the mission of Carson, Womble added. Great things lie ahead for Carson, Womble said. A technologically advanced school, even by Fairfax County’s standards, Carson will continue to be at the forefront of technological education innovations, Womble said. "This is not a school or a staff that is content to stay the course or rest on its early accomplishments."

<b>FRANK, WAS WOMBLE'S</b> first and only secretary since she moved from Longfellow. As the new school was being built the duo worked out of a trailer, and together the two women helped usher in a new era of middle school education in western Fairfax County. "We purchased every piece of furniture in this building."

Before signing up with Womble, Frank had never worked in a school before, but Womble hired her and she has been by her side before the school ever officially opened. "From the custodian to a parent, she treats everyone with the utmost of respect and she honestly cares how each individual person is doing and feeling."

Frank is not looking forward to her boss's last day "I am sad, but at least I know I will see her again, a lot, because we are dear friends," Frank said, trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears. "What can I say? Gail taught me to be a better person."