It's hard to argue with success. And if Dale Rumberger had chosen to spend his remaining years until retirement as Westfield High's principal, no one would have blamed him.
After all, since the school opened in September 2000, it's achieved milestones in academics, athletics and other activities that few would have dreamed it could do in such a short time. Its students are excelling, and the trophy cases are filled with awards.
But when explaining his decision to leave Westfield and, instead, become principal of the new south county high school opening in Lorton in 2005, Rumberger referred to a quote.
"I can't remember who said it, but it goes, 'A ship is safest when at harbor — but that's not what it's designed to do,'" he said. "And I want the opportunity to open and lead a school again and affect a new group with the spirit of learning. It's an exciting time and an exciting challenge."
Rumberger gave the news to his staff on Tuesday, March 2. "The room went dead silent," said former PTA president Lynn Terhar. "It was a stunning announcement. I know it's not a decision that he came to easily, and I was surprised. But as his friend, I'm very happy for him because he really wanted it. He's so smart and energetic, and as much as he loved Westfield, he'd gotten it up and running and pretty much accomplished all his goals here."
And considering all these things, said Terhar, "What a smart decision by the school system — especially after how well he got parents and students [from the diverse areas of Chantilly, Centreville and Oakton] to come together at Westfield and create a real sense of community here. It's been incredible."
STUDENTS AND PARENTS were told last Thursday. "We have become what we wanted to be, five short years ago — a school recognized for excellence in all we attempt," Rumberger wrote in his letter to the parents. "I am sure you will continue to support the faculty as Westfield's journey as a learning community is refined and expanded."
This coming August will mark Rumberger's 28th year in Fairfax County education, including four years as principal of Chantilly High School. He's now 50 and hopes to stay with the school system until full retirement at age 55. "I still have a son in the eighth grade, and he'll go to a the new school," said Rumberger. "And I'd like to be there at least three more years after it opens."
Once the school system decided to build that school, Rumberger began receiving inquiries about his interest in running it. But it wasn't until after winter break that he decided to pursue it in earnest. After a series of interviews, the matter went to the School Board for final approval.
"The size and scope of the challenge" were just too tempting to pass up, said Rumberger. The new school will open with grades seven through 10 and later add 11 and 12. It'll be the same design and capacity, 2,500 students, as Westfield.
But even though Rumberger may be familiar with it, he's still willing to do different, creative things with the building because of its middle-school component and the respect he has for those students. At the same time, though, he wants to offer them "a clear vision of high school and what will [later] be expected of them."
Actually, said Rumberger, the most difficult part of his decision was deciding to try for the new job, at all. "What makes Westfield so great is that so many parents put aside their own issues and self-interests and became colleagues in problem solving," he said. "All the staff members — including custodians, cafeteria workers, etc. — all transcended colleagues and became friends."
RUMBERGER IS proudest of the fact that the students, staff and parents all made that "maximum effort to form [Westfield] into a learning community." And he sings the praises of the students. "There's a tremendous, overwhelming number of kids that work hard at it, every day," he said. "There's an overriding ethos at Westfield about the importance of education that they [understand]."
Besides winning several Cappie awards for theater and the 2003 state football championship, Westfield's forensics team, marching band, track and volleyball teams, yearbook and music program have taken top honors in their fields. And just recently, 22 Bulldog students were named National Scholastic art award nominees — five of them gold keys (the top award).
"I had high expectations, and the school exceeded them and will continue to do so," Rumberger said. Likewise, opening the new school will afford him another opportunity "to meet new students, forge new relationships and partnerships, and continue the same message of excellence that all the principals expound."
A bonus is that, unlike Westfield — which is nearly 21 miles from his home, the new school will be just 1.1 miles away — about a three-minute drive. And that proximity will allow him to see his own family — wife Claudia; son Scott, 14, an eighth-grader at Hayfield Secondary; and son Nicholas, 23, who received a bachelor’s in political science from Virginia Tech and plans a career in defense and security.
"Because of my family, I've been able to do a lot of the things I've done," said Rumberger. "My wife is my hero and my role model."
Westfield assistant principal Mike Campbell well understands the sacrifices Rumberger's made over the years for his job. "He built Westfield from the ground up, and he'll always be a part of the school," he said. "But it's a credit to him that he always says family comes first."
Rumberger once taught theater arts, and now Scott acts in plays. "He'll be in high school [next year], and this [new job] will allow Dale to be closer to him in school and see him grow," said Campbell. "As a principal, you spend a lot of time attending night functions, and it's tough for him to attend his son's plays if he's here."
"The boundaries aren't yet set; hopefully, they will be before February," said Rumberger, of the new school in Lorton. "I'm just beginning to meet with the administrative staff in Cluster V. On April 14, we'll have a 'Meet the Principal' meeting at the Cluster V office at the Virginia Hills Center." The meeting will start at 7 p.m. The Virginia Hills Center is located at 6520 Diana Lane, Alexandria.