After Charlie Ostlund decided to accept the assistant principalship at Oakton High School, family and friends joked about his going over to the enemy camp. Ostlund, a Madison High School grad, taught at Madison, married a woman who also graduated from Madison, and had parents and children who went to Madison.
"There was a sense of allegiance that was called into question," joked Ostlund, who has been at Oakton since 1998.
Yet no one has ever questioned Ostlund's dedication to the students he has served over the years. And now that Ostlund plans to retire from Fairfax County Public Schools at the end of the school year, the Oakton community braces for the departure of its principal.
"Charlie — what a jewel. I don't know of any school that could have a principal like Charlie," said Pam Guffain of Oakton. Guffain is a past president of Oakton High School's PTSA. "He was available 24/7 to the PTSA, and I think in the two years I was president, he maybe missed one meeting. ... He had an open-door policy with parents and students and has an incredible ability to remember the kids — good or bad."
Ostlund, who has been Oakton High School's principal for five years, will have had 31 years of experience as a teacher and administrator in Fairfax County Public Schools by the time he leaves in June. Once he retires, he will spend more time in Fredericksburg, Va., where he recently moved with his wife, to be closer to family.
"I would describe Charlie as a committed and caring educator who cares above all for the welfare of the kids who come through these doors every day," said George Knight, who teaches world history and Advanced Placement Government. "Every day he does everything he can to make them feel welcome, secure and comfortable. He is dedicated to building a caring learning community. He relates well to everyone and has done wonders to improve the climate and atmosphere here."
WHILE OSTLUND has enjoyed the school environment, he did not set out to become a principal. In college, he majored in economics, with the intention of working in finance after graduation. However, he decided to earn teacher certification his senior year, and through that, he discovered that he liked teaching.
"Education is incredibly rewarding. It truly is," said Ostlund. "It's hard to beat."
Ostlund's first job in the county was teaching social studies at Hayfield Secondary in 1973. Seven years later, he moved to his alma mater, James Madison High School, and continued teaching social studies, later becoming department chair. Besides teaching, he coached wrestling and track.
In 1988, Ostlund became director of student activities at Madison, and during that time, earned a certificate in education administration. That job prepared him for becoming an assistant principal, which he eventually became when he moved to Oakton High School in 1998. A year later, he became Oakton's principal.
"I got a glimpse of what influence a leader of a school could potentially have," said Ostlund, explaining that he had worked with several principals who had demonstrated what it meant to be a good leader.
At Oakton, Ostlund said that he liked three elements of his day: the students ("Any kind of job where you work with young people is invigorating. ... You share vicariously their ups and downs. ... It's fun to watch them grow and mature");
the staff "There's a high energy. ... No matter what they do, the staff have a sense of purpose"); and the spontaneity ("No two days are the same. You make a to-do list, and by 9:30 a.m., you can throw it away").
WITH HIS pending retirement, Ostlund is considering remaining in the education field. He wants to finish his doctorate on alternative education models at the University of Virginia. He would also like to teach at the junior college level, in order to help those considering a career transition to teaching.
But he also plans to get some rest and play some mean games of golf.
"I plan on playing a lot more golf than I've ever played before," Ostlund joked.
Ostlund's colleagues at Oakton say they will miss him once he departs.
"He often says that it is not what grades they achieved but what kind of person they are when they leave here that is the most important thing we accomplish," said Knight in an e-mail. "I have greatly enjoyed working with and for Charlie Ostlund and will miss him greatly. He has made this a significantly better school. It will not be the same when he's gone."
Guffain agreed. "I believe his love for the kids and Oakton High School has made a great difference in the positive attitude of the kids and is evident to me by the incredible involvement we have had by the parents."