With less than a week to go before the curtain rises on another year at South Lakes High School, principal Realista “Rely” Rodriguez and her staff are busy with last minute preparations. “I love this time of year — the anticipation,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t wait for the students to return.”
While the Fairfax County veteran says she no longer gets butterflies before the first day of class, she does admit she tosses and turns before the big day. “I can’t sleep because I am always picturing what we might have forgotten,” she said, laughing. “Not to worry, we’re getting ready and we will roll out the red carpet for our kids.”
This year, Rodriguez said her goals are to keep improving and to build on past successes. As part of her academic goals, the principal said she has told her teachers that she wants a stronger emphasis on literacy strategies that will involve reading and writing in every class, no matter the subject. “We can help them become better students and better people beyond high school,” she said. “We know that in the business world, reading and writing are vital and crucial.”
Friday morning, Rodriguez, who is beginning her sixth year at the Reston school, met with a group of student leaders to share her excitement about the upcoming school year. “I want us all to do our best and to achieve many successes, but I want people to smile and to have fun,” Rodriguez said. “I think some people forget how important happiness is.”
Happiness is contagious, Rodriguez said and she hopes to spread the goodwill from one end of the campus to the other. The early returns are positive. “We are all so excited about this year,” said senior class president Natasha Parnian, 17, during last week’s two-day retreat for student government representatives. “We are ready for a great year.”
RODRIGUEZ GAVE the students t-shirts that read: “Listen, Learn and Lead.” “She told us how important it is to feel proud of where we go to school and what we accomplish here,” Parnian said. “Whether at school or in the community, Mrs. Rodriguez reminded us that we all represent South Lakes.”
Though she appreciated the pep talk, Parnian, and the other student leaders, didn’t seem to need any extra motivation to help sell South Lakes as they made handmade signs of support for their teachers who arrived earlier this week and encouragement for their fellow students who will arrive next Tuesday. “I love this school, I really do,” the senior president said. “We all do.”
After a year marked by snipers and snowfall, Lindsay Trout, one of the leadership teachers, said it is a goal for all of the student leaders to help make this year a cohesive and collaborative one. “We need to take advantage of our multiculturalism at South Lakes,” said Trout, the women’s basketball coach and former South Lakes alum. “We are trying to make this a school that casts a wide net.”
Of the nearly 1,600 students expected to walk through the doors on Tuesday, just over 50 percent are white. With a population that is 19 percent black, 16 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Asian, South Lakes is a teenage melting pot in the heart of Reston and Rodriguez, a native of the Philippines, wouldn’t have it any other way. Now, it is the goal of administration to continue and reach out to all segments of the diverse Seahawk nation.
From basketball games to drama productions, Trout said that too often it’s the “same kids” that go to all the events and she wants her student leaders to get more students involved, whether as a active participant or a vocal supporter. “We’re a family here and we want involvement across the board this year,” she said.
Rodriguez credits students and staff for helping to make South Lakes a big, and successful, family. “The leadership in this school is distributed,” she said. “Collaboration is key.”
LIKE MANY RISING seniors, Parnian has her sights set on post-graduation plans and college, but the senior president says she will relish her final year in high school, and her first year as a student leader. “I really like high school and I like being a big fish in a little pond,” she said. “It’s going to be really sad to leave this place.”
It’s this kind of school spirit that Rodriguez hopes carries throughout the year and it is the kind of spirit that the principal hopes to see in her teachers, as well as her students. This year, Rodriguez will welcome about 20 new teachers into the Seahawk fold, including Fran Walker who moves over from Westfield High School.
To help spread the good news about South Lakes, Rodriguez will be distributing silver noisemakers to all of her staff. Teachers will welcome students on the first day by “tooting their own horns,” she said. “I have told them that they are all Seahawk goodwill ambassadors. It’s time people understand the good things we have going here. They are going to spread the word, and they should toot their own horns and be proud of what we do here. They deserve it because they are special.”
Walker, an Algebra II and Special Education teacher, is making her fourth stop in Fairfax County. She has been impressed with what she has seen so far especially the “openness” of the her fellow teachers, but she admitted that it would take a little while to get used to teaching in an “open” classroom without doors. “Everyone has been so helpful and so nice,” Walker said, unloading boxes and setting up her classroom.
While still new to the school, Walker credits Rodriguez with setting an open and inviting tone at South Lakes. Walker said she has worked at enough schools to know how important the principal is in setting an agenda and a culture. “Because of her leadership, all of this filters down to everyone else in the building.” Walker said. “She sets the tone, no doubt about it.”
Walker got her first glimpse at her new boss’ drive and determination at a Literacy Institute workshop earlier this summer. “Mrs. Rodriguez was the only principal there,” she said. “That really impressed me. That says a lot about her dedication.”