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Rhein Takes the Reins at Willow Springs Elem.

Actually, new Willow Springs Elementary Principal Liz Rhein planned on becoming a doctor. A pre-med student, she even majored in biology at USC in California.

But when she passed out after observing her first surgical procedure, she said, "I figured it wasn't the career for me." She switched to accounting, since that's what her father did, and got a bachelor's in business administration in 1982.

Rhein began working as an accountant but, still, it just wasn't her. "It's numbers-oriented, not people-oriented," she explained. Meanwhile, her mother was a bilingual, third-grade teacher in Los Angeles.

"Seeing how much she loved working with kids and families, I decided that's what I wanted to do — and I never looked back," said Rhein, 44. "It's the right fit — I love it."

HER FAMILY'S from Colombia in South America but, when she was 2, her parents moved to Idaho where her mother's sister lived. But it was too cold there for them and, after three years, they moved to Los Angeles. (Rhein speaks Spanish, but grew up speaking English at home).

While obtaining her teacher's credential through Cal State, L.A., she became a teacher in the L.A. Unified School District, teaching fourth-grade in an inner-city school. She then spent the next seven years teaching fifth and sixth grades in the Sulphur Springs School System, an L.A. suburb.

Rhein also finished her master's in education administration at the University of La Verne. After serving as a summer-school principal, she realized school administration was something she wanted to pursue "because I could affect the lives of more children that way, than in the classroom."

She also became a wife and mother; on Aug. 7, she and her husband Mark will celebrate their 22nd anniversary. They have two sons and a daughter; Austin, 20, is in the Army, stationed in South Korea; Adam, 15, and Ashley, 7, are home-schooled by their dad, a former teacher.

They live in (Little) Washington on a nine-acre farm — "We call it our farmette," jokes Rhein — where Mark raises and trains homing birds for their business, White Dove Releases. The doves are used in weddings, funerals, grand openings and baptisms. "It's a blast," said Rhein. "We bring a lot of joy and happiness to a lot of people."

They originally came to Virginia as tourists to visit her sister in Centreville and, said Rhein, "We fell in love with this area; it's so beautiful, steeped in history and family-oriented." Then they moved here in 1994 when both were hired as teachers by Fairfax County Public Schools.

HE TAUGHT at Spring Hill Elementary, and she taught sixth grade at Haycock Elementary. But after just a month, she was hired as an assistant principal at Hollin Meadows Elementary in Alexandria. After four years there, she served another four years as assistant principal at Rose Hill Elementary.

Afterwards, Rhein took a year's leave of absence when her son was transitioning from university life to the military. "I thought it was a good time to focus on my family's needs," she explained. "And I'm glad I was home then and could spend that quality time with my kids."

She spent the past year as assistant principal of Cardinal Forest Elementary and began her new job at Willow Springs, July 12. (She replaces Sandra Culmer, who retired after 30 years with FCPS and moved to Greensboro, N.C. to head an elementary school there).

Now that her daughter's 7, Rhein decided to pursue what she'd wanted to do for a long time — become a principal. So she applied for the opening at Willow Springs and got it. "I was very impressed by what I'd heard about this community and this school," she said. "And when I received the official word on July 9, I was thrilled."

"The selection panel really liked her," said Cluster VII Director Lillian Lowery. "She's had a lot of different experiences, taught in California, worked in Fairfax County nine years and is fluent in Spanish. And she has a lovely personality; she's a people person and a knowledgeable woman."

Willow Springs PTA president Lisa Mountjoy is also delighted to have Rhein there. "She has been very genuine, eager, enthusiastic and considerate," said Mountjoy. "I feel certain she's going to be a wonderful leader for our school."

Rose Hill Principal Marcie Mager agrees. "She was a fabulous assistant principal, and I had no doubt that she would make an excellent principal," said Mager. "She's able to see the big picture — evidence was that she created our testing program when all the Virginia Standards of Learning came into effect."

"But in addition, she also gets right down to the detail level," continued Mager. And besides all that, she said, "Liz has incredible integrity and fairness that influences everything she does, and she's a very warm, human and fun-loving person."

Since starting at Willow Springs, said Rhein, many parents and staff members have come in and said hello. "The community is fabulous," she said. "I really appreciate the people who've taken the time to [stop by], and I'm glad to get to know Willow Springs and connect faces to names."

SHE'S CURRENTLY scrutinizing the technology available in the building and looking at updating the Willow Springs Web site to make it as parent-friendly as possible. She hopes to make it "like an electronic backpack, with information available to parents 24-7, and put information on it that'll answer their questions."

"I think of myself as a new parent from L.A. and it just snowed," said Rhein. "'What do I do?' Go to the Web site. Or, 'I have a sick child. When is it all right to send children back to school?''' She wants it to have a "visually inviting, warm feel" and, she said, "We're working on it and hope to get it up and running by August. Then we can put information on it about open houses, back-to-school nights, etc."

She's also looking into bullying prevention and how to address it at school — "to the extent that we can teach our corner of the world to be a kinder, more respectful place," said Rhein. She wants people to know "how bullying and being called a name can affect the rest of your life and the choices you make. Parents teach it, but we're in a wonderful position as educators to do it, as well."

It's important to her to create an environment "where children feel safe and valued — where what they do well is positively reinforced. These children are our legacy to the future, so we have to safeguard their self-concept and educational possibilities — and it's exciting." Noting that children's ideas of what they are and their future are shaped by the parents, school and community, Rhein said, "It's an awesome responsibility."

She also recognizes that leadership takes teamwork. "The vision, focus and tone of a school are set by the principal," she said. "But a wise principal knows it's a team effort that achieves results, so you have to bring your team together. I include community, staff and parents in that."

Rhein also encourages them to come talk to her. "I value those relationships," she said. "I'm here, I'm accessible — my door's open." She expects the hardest part of her new job to be making the tough decisions.

"There are some decisions that must be made where the information [fueling them] is not always privy to everyone," she explained. "But if people trust you — if you have a relationship — they'll know you made the best decision possible in the interests of children."

Rose Hill guidance counselor Joan Lee knows firsthand that Rhein "makes great decisions based on what's best for kids. And she combines that with being a personable administrator, which is sometimes rare." Describing her as a fair, strong and loving person with a positive attitude, Lee said Rhein "will do great — I'm convinced of it. She'll be a wonderful principal."

RHEIN SAYS her greatest satisfaction as an administrator comes from "seeing children move up the grade levels in development. I love it when children who needed lots of intense care all of a sudden make a baby step that, for him or her, is a milestone. Being there to share it is the most awesome thing for an educator. If we don't believe that every child can learn, we're in the wrong business."

Similarly, she says it's exciting to see kids who are "cognitively gifted" excel, too. "I look at my own, three children and see their unique gifts," she said. "How can we expect our own community to be any less uniquely talented and gifted? And how can we not embrace and encourage that?"

Willow Springs Assistant Principal Saunie Wolstenholme is pleased with Rhein's focuses on technology and bullying prevention. "I feel that we'll see clear communications and a feeling of openness and good will so we can truly work as a team and enhance the terrific programs already in place," she said. "It will be a real pleasure to work with Liz; I know we're going to have a fantastic year."