When Lillian Lowery was a child growing up in Gastonia, N.C., she wanted to be an attorney because she used to watch "Perry Mason" on TV. But she changed her mind when she was a sophomore in high school.
"I had an English teacher, Mrs. Holloway, who was magic — really animated — and I loved her," she said. Then and there, Lowery decided on a career in education.
It turned out to be a good choice because now, after a distinguished career as both a teacher and an administrator, she's taking the helm as director of Cluster VII for Fairfax County Public Schools. As such, she'll oversee Centreville, Chantilly and Fairfax high schools and their feeder schools.
The job also marks a return home for Lowery, 49, of the City of Fairfax. After working several years in this county's school system, she'd most recently held a post in Fort Wayne, Ind.
"I came for the final interview on June 10 and got the job on June 11," she said. "I felt great — I was so happy. And my family [members] in North Carolina and New York were overjoyed that I was coming back to the East Coast."
Lowery majored in English and minored in education at North Carolina Central University in Durham, receiving her bachelor's in 1976. Next came a masters in Curriculum and Instruction in 1978 from UNC Charlotte.
SHE BEGAN teaching English, journalism and reading, that same year, at a middle school in her hometown. "I loved it," she said. "I was there four years." She then moved to Virginia, teaching English, journalism and photo journalism at Hammond Middle School in Alexandria. She was also the newspaper and yearbook advisor.
By 1988, Lowery wanted to switch to high school, but nearby T.C. Williams had no vacancies, so she instead taught English at Madison High for six years and coached its competitive-cheerleading squad.
Then, after a stint as English Department chair at West Springfield High, in the summer of 1995 she became an administrator, serving as assistant principal at Woodson High.
"I'd taught for 17 years and had been approached throughout my career about going into administration," explained Lowery. "Area Superintendent George Stepp urged me to go for an interview, and my older sister advised me that, if I didn't like it, I could go back to teaching."
But she discovered she had a knack for it and, after three years, Area Superintendent Paula Johnson — who supervised Woodson — told Lowery she needed central-office experience before she could become a principal. "She said I had to get the big picture so I could see how the system works," said Lowery.
In 1998-99, she was the minority student achievement monitor for Area II. As such, she examined school plans to see how each school used student data (test scores, discipline records, etc.) to map out classes and programs to close the achievement gap. For example, a school might then add a reading-enrichment tutorial.
Lowery noted how well schools identified students' weaknesses and celebrated their strengths. She learned which schools addressed certain issues well and used them as models. After that, Johnson appointed her principal of Fairfax High.
"IT'S PROBABLY the best job in the whole world," said Lowery. She enjoyed all the extra components of high-school life — band, chorus, sports, scholarships, etc. — and especially "watching our next generation of leaders form into adults."
She was there three years and, in 2000, was one of the principals Fairfax County chose to participate in the Leaders Count program. "The Wallace/Reader's Digest Foundation recognized 12 school districts in the U.S. as being exemplary in succession planning [encouraging teachers to become administrators]," said Lowery.
"I felt wonderful to be chosen — especially in a county like Fairfax," she continued. "They also looked at schools that were diverse and making positive strides in closing the achievement gap among this diverse population."
Under this program, Lowery went to national conferences. Fort Wayne, Ind., was among the 12 districts and, at one workshop, Lowery led a session moderated by the superintendent of Fort Wayne schools. "He had an area administrator position open [like a cluster director here] and offered it to me," she said. "I didn't know a soul in Indiana, but I thought, 'Why not?'"
She supervised 16 schools there (two high schools and their feeders) and will supervise 28 schools here. "I did it two years," she said. "I was part of the superintendent's leadership team and I loved it. Because of the opportunities I was given in Fairfax, I was very well prepared to do it."
THEN WHEN the Cluster VII position opened up here, some friends called and told Lowery about it — and she decided to apply. "I missed the East Coast," she explained. "I have high energy, and I missed the whole lifestyle and environment." So she put in her name and was selected.
"I think the fact that I worked with Fairfax County schools and was a principal in Fairfax helped, because I was familiar with the people and programs," said Lowery. "And I'd worked as a monitor for Chantilly and Centreville area schools with Paula, so that gave me the background." And in June 2003, she received her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Virginia Tech.
As cluster director, Lowery will supervise schools, evaluate principals and give them support with departmental issues so they can focus on educating. She even has a small, discretionary fund to help principals obtain materials and supplies not covered in their budgets.
She's the liaison between the school system and community, making sure policies and regulations are "appropriately interpreted and consistently administered" across the board. And she mediates between parents with concerns about these things and their children's schools.
Lowery's also on an organization that studies school systems nationwide, prepares people for urban superintendencies and examines issues that people in various occupations deal with daily. She says it's great being here again "because I know the people and they've supported me throughout my entire career. It's like I just got back on that bicycle and continued the trip."
Brad Draeger, FCPS chief academic officer, said the school system's thrilled. "She's an outstanding leader," he said. "She was a fantastic principal for us and now comes back as a principal supervisor. When we mentioned her name, everybody starting jumping up and down [for joy]."
Liberty Middle School Principal Audra Sydnor has known Lowery since she was Fairfax High principal and Sydnor was Lanier Middle principal. "I am just ecstatic that she's back," she said. "Lillian makes things happen for children, so I'm delighted she'll be working with principals. She's one of the finest administrators I've ever had the pleasure to work with."