Mountain View Principal Barbara Gernat and her staff were in a faculty meeting, Nov. 4, when in walked Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech and several assistant superintendents.
He then told her she'd been chosen FCPS 2003-2004 Principal of the Year. To Gernat it was "a total and complete surprise," but those who know her and her work knew it was an honor well deserved.
"[She's] one of those rare individuals who consistently goes not just a little beyond the call of duty, but light years beyond [it]," wrote Teresa Zutter, director of FCPS alternative school programs, in a letter supporting her nomination.
"She truly is the type of individual who gives FCPS the fine reputation it carries throughout the nation," continued Zutter. "A school system is only as good as its employees, and Mrs. Gernat is a genuine treasure that we should hold dear."
IN ADDITION, Gernat's among 20 principals in the Washington Metropolitan area receiving this year's Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award. In a ceremony Monday night, Post owner Donald Graham presented her with a crystal bell. The county School Board will honor her Dec. 10.
"I'm just on cloud nine," said Gernat. "It's such an honor to be recognized by one's peers and colleagues. And here, it's even more special because of the kinds of kids who come here. This is a school of second chances — my kids march to the beat of different drummers."
Yet she graciously shares the recognition with the rest of the school — so if she's flying sky-high, she said, "The faculty and kids are soaring right up there with me. This is just as personal to them as it is to me. There has been a certain stigma about alternative schools. And even though we here know better — that it's as challenging and competitive as any school — for the principal of this school to be given such a tribute is, I think, also a tribute to the parents, students and faculty."
Gernat's office reflects the affection her students feel for her. They brought in congratulatory balloons and covered the walls with posters saying "You're the best!" and a banner proclaiming her "Principal of our lives."
In her nominating letter, English/special projects teacher Orlean Anderson described the "vibrant, nurturing and democratic dynamic" Gernat created at Mountain View. Calling teaching there "an adventure, a challenge, a joy and a commitment," Anderson wrote: "Barbara exhorts her teachers to think 'out of the box,' to experiment, research and test theories of their own and of the experts in an effort to reach and teach at-risk students."
COGNIZANT OF the obstacles her students have faced and overcome, wrote Anderson, throughout the year Gernat "finds ways to let students and staff know how proud she is of them, how much she values each one of them. That pride and appreciation inspire all of us to come back for more, to do things with students we did not know we were capable of."
In a supporting letter, former Mountain View Assistant Principal Ting-Yi Oei said success there transforms young adults. "They come in looking and acting one way and leave as different people," he wrote. "Nothing in the system has ever worked for them before; why should it be any different, this time?"
But at Mountain View, they find a place that "gives them confidence, challenges their minds and turns them into thinkers," he continued. "Everyone in the building teams their efforts to support students in every way possible. None of this is possible, however, without a highly skilled choreographer — Barbara Gernat."
Also writing was Charles Woodruff, whose two children graduated from there. He said Gernat interacts with the students as if they were her own children, guiding them with love and concern and a "you can do it" attitude that instills in them the confidence they need to succeed.
It's something she learned from her own parents. Although unable to finish school, themselves, they taught her the value of a good education.
"My mom lacked self-confidence and quit school in eighth grade," said Gernat. "My dad quit in sixth grade and had to go to work. So they were both supportive of my getting an education. I always thought, 'Too bad there wasn't a school like Mountain View for them.'"
Indeed, wrote Zutter, "By her compassionate guidance, students are replenished, restored and refreshed with a new start. [Those entering] Mountain View with disheartened spirits and wary trust soon start a healing process visibly noticeable in the way they walk, talk, smile and learn. And the excitement and poignant testimonies they share at every graduation ceremony will convince even the most skeptical witness that something very, very special and magical is happening at this school."
JUST ASK Zachary Willis, who graduated in February. He, too, wrote a letter on Gernat's behalf, saying he "feared the worst" when he first came to Mountain View, but was soon won over by Gernat's warmth and sincerity.
"She reminded me of my mother," he wrote. "She told me how she respects us as adults because some of her students actually are adults with families. [And] she was everywhere, talking to students like human beings and making a strong attempt to get to know them. I was only going to be at her school for a semester, but she still took the time to get to know my name and who I was."
Willis described how Gernat would ask students about their classes and how their life in general was going. "Every time she [spoke] in front of us, you could hear how proud she was of all of us," he wrote. "She would tear up and tell us how she knows we can go out into the world and make a difference." And when she read them Dr. Seuss' "Oh, The Places You Will Go" at graduation, wrote Willis, "not one Mountain View student wasn't choked up."
He said he wouldn't be in college now, if not for Gernat and the faculty there. "She is the foundation of that high school and has given me that strength to pursue my dreams," he wrote. "She is the Principal of My Life."
Gernat said Willis' letter was especially meaningful to her because "he said it with his heart and soul. I had no idea I'd made such an impact on him. It just makes me think that all the hours and heartburn in a leadership role like this one are worth every minute. And that's the beauty of this school — kids are our main focus, and they do recognize the difference the teachers make."
Educators often don't see the fruits of their labors for years. But at Mountain View, said Gernat, whenever she meets a student in the hall, she thinks, "This might be a kid who'll go on to college, choose a good career and become a productive citizen. It's a feeling beyond words."
Her career in education spans 35 years — 31 in Fairfax County — as a teacher and administrator, and this is her sixth year at Mountain View. But time has flown, she said, because she loves her job so much. And whenever she's had her fill of paperwork and other administrative duties, said Gernat, "I go into the classroom and those kids just breathe life into me. That's where it's at."
SHE'S PROUD of the school's Transitions to Tomorrow career-exploration program; top-notch, professional staff; multimillion-dollar state grant that brought a slew of technology into the building and the numbers of students going on to college. And she's pleased that, last week, Mountain View got fully accredited.
But also high on Gernat's list is the fact that Mountain View's reputation "has changed from being a 'bad-girl, bad-boy' school to one that is just another, viable option for kids. And the staff will do everything in their power to support the kids and not let them fail."
So when Domenech told her she was being honored, she expressed gratitude to a system that allowed her to be "a little rebellious, creative and grow professionally," and provided resources for "special schools and special programs."
School finance officer Pam Rutkowski said, "The whole staff was thrilled" for Gernat, and guidance counselor Sue Houde noted the "remarkable changes" she's seen at Mountain View under Gernat's tenure. "She has a great sense of humor and knows how to roll with the challenges we face with the kids every day," said Houde.
Student Erica Brown said Gernat encourages them and "wants to know our opinions about [how to] make the school better." And classmate Marcia Gonzalez called her "very nice" and a "hard worker."
"The atmosphere of the school is very grown up," said Josue Escobar, 17. "It makes you develop more responsibility for yourself." Rosemary Martinez, 17, said that because Gernat let her attend Mountain View, "I can graduate on time. She gave me a second chance."
Bonnie Roberto, business teacher/technology coordinator, said Gernat brought the school up to its maximum potential. "She's a great leader and a great boss," she said. "And I consider her a good friend."
Gernat said the toughest part of her job is "making the right decisions in the interest of kids because [each] has different needs." Most rewarding, she said, is graduation — "knowing those students are prepared for a future and will become productive citizens in this 21st century, and particularly because these are all kids at risk for not graduating."