When John Wittmann came to Chantilly High in Jan. 1993, he headed its vocational center, geared at preparing for the workplace students not going to college.
That changed in 1997 with the birth of The Chantilly Academy, integrating career education and academics, with the expectation that college would follow.
"The last three years in a row, 87 percent of the seniors from 18 different high schools that took courses here went on to college — in 20 different career fields," said Academy Administrator Wittmann proudly. "So Fairfax County was really ahead of the country in this concept and created a national model at high-school level."
Now, though, the man largely responsible for that success — Wittmann — is retiring May 1, after 32 years with the county, to become principal of a new technology, engineering and science magnet high school in High Point, N.C. His new job starts May 3, and former Chantilly and Westfield Assistant Principal Doug Wright will head the Academy.
"It's a great opportunity," said Wittmann. "If I wasn't working on my doctorate in education at Virginia Tech, I would have retired, last year; but I wanted to complete it." He'll head one of three schools being converted into magnets and, he said, "It attracted my attention because it's a combination of the academy concept and the Thomas Jefferson [high school] concept."
Born in Austria to Yugoslavian immigrant parents, he and his family came to America in 1952, settling in York, Pa. Twenty years later, he began his career here, including 14 years as a teacher at then Herndon Intermediate. But The Chantilly Academy is where he made his mark.
It offers 20 courses to juniors and seniors in subjects including Air Force Junior ROTC, advanced drawing, computer technology, criminal justice, culinary arts, dental careers, auto technology, early childhood, engineering physics, hotel management, construction technology, animal science, medical health technologies, the physics of technology, and network design and engineering.
Some 600 students were enrolled in the academy in 1997; now there are nearly 1,200. And a two-week, Tech Adventure Camp, each summer, gives middle-schoolers a taste of what's offered.
"We have educators coming from all over the U.S. and from other countries to see how we instituted this type of program," said Wittmann. "And I've been fortunate to testify about it in front of Congress and the House of Delegates."
HE ALSO consults with other school systems and does presentations across the state and country. And he's a consultant to the Pawnee Indian Nation in Oklahoma for its new technology academy based on Chantilly's model.
To compete for students from other Fairfax high schools offering excellent programs, said Wittmann, the academy constantly offers advanced and upgraded courses and keeps promoting them. And he considers the academy grads his greatest achievements.
"We've had students not only win $600,000-$800,000 a year in scholarships, but also be highlighted on CNN and in Time magazine, The Washington Post, Washingtonian magazine and the New York Times for their successes," he said. It especially pleases him when students who wouldn't otherwise be in the spotlight are "successful and recognized." And he derives satisfaction from the way the staff works with the students and "the pride they have in them and in the programs."
"I think what I'll miss the most is the staff and interaction with the students," said Wittmann. "And I appreciate the building principals here — Steve Wareham, Dale Rumberger and Tammy Turner — and the School Board and superintendent, who were all so supportive of the academy."
At High Point, he'll bring the academy concept to the whole high school, beginning with ninth grade this fall, until grades 10-12 phase out of their existing program and the entire school becomes an academy. Said Wittmann: "It'll be a challenge, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." However, he added, "Chantilly is such a great place with such wonderful people that I'll miss it a lot."