During his 15 years as a teacher and administrator at Centreville High, Jim Oliver spent lots of time telling students to remove their hats in the building because that's the rule.
But at Mountain View School, he said, "Our philosophy is 'We'll buy you a hat, as long as you go to school.' You can't fight every, little battle with our type of kids. The caring and nurturing is what makes Mountain View a family."
And as the new head of that family — just named principal of Centreville's alternative high school — Oliver, 49, couldn't be happier. "I'm really excited," he said. "It's a great opportunity."
Actually, he's been there since July 2003, switching jobs with former Mountain View Assistant Principal Ting-Yi Oie, who replaced him at Centreville. And, said former Mountain View Principal Barbara Gernat, "Jim did a wonderful job connecting in the world of alternativeness. He's got a lot of vision for the school, and he connected very quickly with the kids and faculty."
Sharon DeBragga, the school's career development coordinator, is also delighted with Oliver's selection as principal. "There were a number of extraordinary candidates," she said. "We're lucky to have Jim. He has a real sense of the unique mission of Mountain View and already has an excellent feel for the school."
She believes he'll bring new ideas to continue Mountain View's legacy while putting his own stamp on things. "I think it's going to be a good match, and I'm anxious to start working with him," said DeBragga. "He has a good heart for the kind of kids we serve."
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Falls Church, Oliver lives in Warrenton with wife Cheryl, an office manager, and sons Jimmy Jr., 14, and Tommy, 9 1/2. He obtained a bachelor's in Spanish in 1976 from Lockhaven University in Pennsylvania, and a master's in education and administration in 1995 from GMU.
HIS MOTHER is from Spain and he has relatives in Argentina, so he grew up speaking both Spanish and English (his dad's American) and further learned Spanish language and culture during summers in Spain. Now, it'll come in handy at Mountain View.
"[Hispanics are] our largest student population here, and I can communicate with parents on their own level about their concerns, and they feel more comfortable," said Oliver.
Spanish and P.E. teachers inspired him to become a teacher and, in spring 1978, he became a Spanish teacher and football and track coach at Herndon High. From 1980-82, he taught and coached at Gar-Field High in Woodbridge, and in 1982 his team won the state track championship.
Gernat — then assistant principal at Langley High — hired Oliver to teach and coach there. But he returned to Herndon High in 1983, until 1988 when he and Bill Trussell left there to help open Centreville High. Trussell was its first principal, and Oliver taught AP Spanish, was head track coach and varsity football defensive coordinator.
During his time there, Centreville grew from 500 to nearly 3,000 students and Oliver flourished. "One of my proudest moments there was winning the first state championship at that school," he said. "It was in girls track in 1994."
He also served as Hispanic liaison between the school and community, as the Hispanic population grew and Trussell sought more parental involvement. Oliver wrote a grant that got approved, and this was his first administrative experience.
Around 1993, Fairfax County developed an Administrative Cohort Group, encouraging teachers to become administrators, and Oliver was among the first selected for the program. Both GMU professors and a school-system leadership team — including assistant superintendents — taught it and, said Oliver, "It was a fantastic opportunity; I learned a great deal."
That December, Pam Latt became Centreville's principal and also encouraged him. And when an assistant principal job opened up in 1997, he applied for and got it, serving in that position until coming to Mountain View last summer.
"I felt this was a great opportunity to grow administratively, and learning the situation at an alternative school would help me do that," explained Oliver. "It's a new challenge, and I wanted to have more input developing instructional programs."
Mountain View averages 325-350 students/semester and, said Oliver, "It's amazing how quickly you learn that Mountain View is truly a family — administrators, kids, teachers and staff. We're small and we can do that. The teachers know all the students here — not just the ones in their classrooms. And we have rolling enrollment — every two weeks, we get six to 13 new kids."
With honest enthusiasm, the new principal says he really wants to promote Mountain View and what it offers students. "It's not a school where you come when you're in trouble," he said. "It's where you go when you want to be successful."
For many students, said Oliver, this school is a good fit: "Maybe they're not good at sports, but they still want a quality education. And a Mountain View diploma is still a diploma from a Fairfax County public school. It's the same SOLs, same vigorous curriculum and verified credits like everybody else. Our students are academically very strong."
During his past year there as assistant principal — which he described as "fantastic" — he's helped change the vision of where alternative schools should go. "And that's been so rewarding for me," he said. "At Mountain View, we can offer flexibility in how we approach learning. Because we're smaller, we can have smaller class sizes and more individualized instruction."
Furthermore, Gernat and Oliver brought resource teachers into the school. They work one-on-one with students and assist classroom teachers with remediation, SOL preparation and whatever academic areas are giving students trouble. So because of its size, Mountain View can be more innovative with its instruction.
"IT'S HARDER to do at a big school because of the numbers," said Oliver. "Here, we can target our students and work on their problems before they have to take a major exam or SOL. Our teachers really get to know their kids' weaknesses, as well as strengths."
Mountain View also instills in its students the fact that they control their own destinies. "They can graduate on time and be successful, but it's up to them," said Oliver. "We will not give up on them, but it's their responsibility and, sooner or later, it kicks in."
Calling Mountain View a "school of second chances," he said most of the students take full advantage of the opportunity to succeed. Said Oliver: "Hearing their stories at graduation, I was just blown away because they're from the heart and their words are real."
Students come there from 17 different schools but, said Oliver, that's what makes Mountain View unique — each student brings his or her own point of view to the mix. "It's amazing to watch kids blossom and grow here and have leadership roles in the community, and we want to encourage that even more," he said. Meanwhile, he hopes to accomplish a great deal there academically.
He'd like to offer more electives, including foreign languages — a course such as "native speakers of Spanish." And he wants to continue growing the school's core classes and eventually offer AP courses. The goal is to offer pretty much what the base schools offer — more wide-ranging and broad-based — especially the technology classes.
Except to hire someone to replace him as assistant principal, Oliver says the school's fully staffed with 36 teachers. In June, he held a two-day retreat with all the instructional chairs and had them propose an instructional-leadership vision for the school and their departments for this year.
"I wanted everyone to have an opportunity to blend together in one, cohesive group," he explained. Their proposals will be reviewed in August, October and June to see what worked and what didn't. Students will eventually be involved, too, said Oliver, "so they'll know we're also listening to them and they're a part of the process."
Encouraging new strategies to help students succeed, he's allowing the English department to restructure the way it teaches English, and he hopes other departments will do likewise with their subjects.
As acting principal, the last two months, Oliver felt "blessed to take the kids and staff through graduation. Being able to hand those kids their diplomas pulled at my heartstrings." And being a principal is something he's dreamed about for a long time: "I feel very fortunate, and I'm excited about my next steps."