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Parris Takes the Helm at Rocky Run

Dan Parris, Rocky Run Middle School's new principal, always wanted to be a teacher.

Growing up, he said, "I had some really wonderful teachers who molded my life and improved me, and I always liked being in and around schools."

Employed by Fairfax County Public Schools since 1981, he's also proven himself as an administrator. At Stone Middle for the past five years, he served as assistant principal and, eventually, director of student services.

"He had a plethora of roles here — he's a very creative leader, and he and I worked in tandem," said Stone Principal Ken Gaudreault. "I've known Dan as a professional educator for many years and have seen him grow in his administrative abilities. He has tremendous vision and is tuned to the trends of progressive education. I think he's going to do well at Rocky Run — they're lucky to have him."

PTA president Patty Huba agrees. "I was on the selection committee and was impressed with his high energy," she said. "He's very personable and was thrilled about coming to Rocky Run. He knows we're a real strong community, and he want to continue the good things happening at Rocky Run and bring new ones, too."

She believes the staff and parents will find Parris "open and easy to talk to and genuinely interested in their opinions." Said Huba: "I think he'll be a good leader, and he has an eighth-grade son, so he knows what it's like to be the parent of a middle-schooler."

A widower, Parris, 45, lives in Burke with son Danny III, who attends Robinson Secondary School where, ironically, his principal is Rocky Run's former leader, Danny Meier.

Born in Montana, Parris was raised all over the U.S. and overseas. "My father was an Air Force fighter pilot and, wherever there was a fighter plane to be flown, he was there," said Parris. "I graduated from a DOD [high] school in Brussels because my dad was attached to NATO."

HE THEN OBTAINED a bachelors in education in 1980 from the University of Tennessee and a masters in education administration from Virginia Tech in 1991. He began his career in 1981 at Stephen Foster (now Walt Whitman) Intermediate, heading the in-school suspension program and teaching U.S. history.

"I got to work with some of the most challenging kids and got classroom experience, too," said Parris. "And two out of three of my history classes were GT." Next came seven years as special-projects administrator and U.S. history, English, math and P.E. teacher at Carl Sandburg Intermediate, followed by three years as assistant principal at Holmes Middle in Alexandria.

He came to Stone in 1995 as a senior assistant principal, but then tragedy struck in his personal life. His wife Michele died of cancer in 1998 at age 38, and Parris took a leave of absence during the 2001 school year to just spend time with his son. Danny was then a fifth-grader, and Parris took him on a 36-foot trawler to South Florida, the Keys and the Bahamas, home-schooling him along the way.

Then from January-July 2002, he served as transition principal at London Towne Elementary between Walt Mallory and current principal, Andy Camarda. Said Parris: "That was a good experience for me to see what kinds of skills the elementary students come to us with in middle school."

He returned to Stone from that August until this summer, when he took the reins at Rocky Run. As Stone's director of student services — which runs the guidance department — he received direct, hands-on experience running a middle school.

"I've been in the Centreville community a long time and have really enjoyed it," said Parris. "I was very happy at Stone but, when the Rocky Run position came open, I was excited about it and threw my name in the hat."

While at Stone, he grew knowledgeable about middle-school students, their issues and what's important to them. And he draws on his teaching experience for added insight.

"I THINK THAT, to be an effective administrator, you need to have a solid foundation in the classroom," explained Parris. "I know that the connection between the students and teacher is the essential ingredient to learning. I have great respect for teachers. There's no better feeling than to help a kid learn and progress."

With his middle-school experience, he believes he can "build on the solid footing that Danny Meier left" at Rocky Run. And knowing the school and the community will also help. He learned he'd gotten the job here, the end of July, and was thrilled.

"I feel blessed by the situation here," said Parris. "There's a wealth of talent and experience on the faculty, parents who want to be involved in the school — and like the school — and students who want to come here and are successful by every measure. And Rocky Run has the resources to accomplish its goals. It's the right setting to take off and do some positive things."

As for his philosophy of leadership, he believes every child has a unique potential and it's the school's job to unfold and develop it. "You set the standard that all students understand that they will learn, and you set up an environment where the students are interested, excited and have fun learning," he said.

"My leadership style is to make sure we're all focused on the same mission — the success of every student — and that parents, teachers and staff work together to achieve this," said Parris. "I welcome people to come in and sing our praises, [as well as] share their concerns about the school."

"I tell parents the No. 1 priority in my life is my family, so I know that, when they come here, it's because they love their children," he said. "And as long as that's their motivating factor, that's always a good thing."

Parris credits Meier, Assistant Principals Dallas Washington and Cindy Atiyeh, and director of student services Donna Piscatelli with working hard over the summer to leave the school in a great position. He also knows there's always more to be done.

"This is a school successful in a lot of ways, but I'm committed to the concept of constant improvement, as is the rest of the faculty and staff," said Parris. "As good as we are, there are things we can always do better. I view this as a long-term commitment."

Rocky Run is now participating in the national education movement toward developing Professional Learning Communities. The total school community arrives at a consensus on its mission and defines its vision of what an ideal middle school is.

ALL THE STAKEHOLDERS then develop commitments regarding what they need to do to make the vision a reality. It can be accomplished over several years and, said Parris, "It's wonderful for me, as a new person, to come in and do this because I'll have a framework for talking to the students, teachers and community about what works."

Then together, they can formulate plans about how to make sure the school continuously improves. Rocky Run is already doing well, he said: "What we're looking to do is to go from good to great."

In his spare time, Parris enjoys outdoor activities such as boating and fishing and, in 1986, he played rugby for the U.S. team in the Sevens World Cup in Sydney, Australia. But for the foreseeable future, he'll be focusing on his son and on his new job.

He said the toughest thing about being a principal is that "you're in education because you really care about kids, [yet] there are times when you have to put the best interests of all kids ahead of the needs of one, individual child to maintain a safe and productive learning environment."

His greatest satisfaction as a teacher, said Parris, was helping students achieve something they didn't think they could do. As an administrator, he said, "You get a similar, positive experience from helping other teachers and school personnel be in the best place to help all kids, [thereby] helping the school as a whole."

He said it was difficult giving up the classroom because he liked the bond between himself and his students and "the excitement generated by the learning process." But, said Parris, "I made the move into administration to see if I could help create this same experience schoolwide."