Deanna Williamson remembers a Walt Whitman Middle School that “was mismanaged, lacking in technology, unkempt, where staff was disgruntled and the community was not proud.”
That is no longer the case, and in her letter nominating Otha Davis as Principal of the Year, she said, “Whitman Middle School is now recognized as a model for academic programs that are successful for struggling students. His custodial staff has won awards for the pristine condition of the building. Faculty morale is at an all time high, and Whitman Middle School is a constant source of pride to the Mount Vernon community.”
Williamson’s was one of five letters sent to the Fairfax County Principal of the Year Selection Committee. Others were sent by Gretchen Warren, mathematics teacher, parent and PTA secretary; Dean Norton, parent and PTA member; Isis Castro, former Fairfax County School Board Chair; and Dr. Marlene Reagan, long time community member and educator.
Warren said that when they came to the area, they researched schools and found out about Whitman’s reputation.
“This is due to Mr. Davis in part — he’s such a strong leader,” Warren said. “He’s very active in every realm — from children’s classrooms to being at events. All the students said that he knows their name and makes visual contact with them — a handshake, a pat on the back.”
Warren is the secretary of the PTA, and said that she’s more involved than in other PTAs because Davis is so good. “He keeps us informed, gets us grants; everything is for the kids,” she said.
In her nomination letter, she said, “As a parent, I find myself continually amazed by Mr. Davis’ dedication to his students. His motivation is centered on educational excellence. Over the last two years, I have seen him at numerous extracurricular activities … His dedication is so passionate that it radiates to all that interact with him.”
Williamson said, “The children are so excited [about the award]. They love him. He’s strong and firm, but they respect him. He expects a lot from teachers and students, and we love him for it.”
WHILE WARREN is relatively new to the school, Williamson has been at Whitman for 26 years. As she indicated in her nominating letter, she’s seen the changes effected by Davis, who has been at the helm of Whitman for the past 10 years; she’s been the director of student services for the past seven years.
“I was going to retire, but he talked me into staying,” she said. “He’s a fabulous leader — he definitely turned the school around and made remarkable progress in the school and the community. He loves the children and loves the building. He lives here — he’s here for every event and often comes in on Saturdays and Sundays.”
Dan Storck, Fairfax County School Board Representative, was at the ceremony, and said, “He [Otha] has done an outstanding job to lead Whitman Middle School to the best results. It is a leader in the county.”
Also in attendance at the ceremony were Davis’ wife, Mae; his sons, Marcus and Christopher; his daughters Stephanie and Lashon; and Lashon’s husband and daughter.
“I was very proud to have them all there,” Davis said.
He lists the birth of his first grandchild up there with the highlights of the last 10 years. Other high points include: the introduction of the Middle Years IB (International Baccalaureate Program); the many recognitions and honors received by students and faculty; the building renovation that took place in 1998-99; and the media center.
“The media center has become the hub of the school, thanks to Cynthia Jacobus [librarian and media specialist],” Davis said.
Just as he acknowledges Jacobus, he is quick to give credit to the rest of his staff.
“I am very excited and honored to have been selected as a finalist,” he said. “But I give much of the credit to my staff, the parents, the students and the community. It’s very important to have a partnership with the community.”
NOW THAT HE HAS received this honor, Davis is not about to stop moving forward.
“I appreciate the accolades, but duty calls and I’m not going to rest,” Davis said. He feels that he has accomplished much of what he set out to do, saying, “When I was first appointed, I had a vision for the school, the community, and the students. I wanted to establish a collaborative environment that recognizes all students and helps them to be successful. We needed to focus more on instruction and discipline — I think we’ve reached that goal.”
One of the goals he has not reached is making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). He said that they did not meet the goal of students with disabilities; they account for almost 20 percent of the school population. Davis said that they have students from over 18 countries, speaking as many languages. He has five ESOL teachers working with them, who he says give them as many experiences as possible. To communicate with students whose languages are not spoken at the school, Davis gets help from the county or uses students who are fluent in the language to act as go-betweens.
Davis is not planning to retire any time soon, but when he does leave, he said, “I’d like to leave a legacy where all students can learn and be successful and recognize their diversity.”