The red letters and stars splashed against the white bumper sticker spell out, “You’re Special.”
Laura Seck found it on her office chair on her last day at Bartlett Elementary School in South Lyon, Mich.
When she started a new job as principal of Meadowland Elementary School in Sterling July 7, she posted it on the bulletin board — directly behind her new chair. “It’s a message for the children, so they know they are special too,” she said.
Seck has come home. After spending six years in Michigan, she has returned to Northern Virginia to fill the shoes of a principal who oversaw the school for 25 years.
Daunting? “Oh yeah,” said Seck, her eyes opening wide. It’s not every day that someone replaces not only the school’s first principal, but it’s only principal. Dennis Young retired last year.
Seck, a former reading recovery specialist, brings 35 years experience in administration and teaching. She plans to pick up where Young left off last year with the “guided reading” program that focuses on children’s individual learning needs. Whereas children used to read the same Basal reader book, they will meet in small groups and read different books. One group might focus on character development while another would focus on plot. Once a student masters one concept, he will move onto another reading group and tackle a different topic.
The Basal readers contain abridged versions of longer stories. “Not every child is successful with the Basal,” Seck said.
ANOTHER COMPONENT of guided reading is the approach. “What we do is teach to their strength, rather than their deficit,” she said. “Suppose I had a third grader reading on a first grade level. … Years and years ago, we would still have them read a third grade book. Now the child would read material at his reading level where he is functioning, and you will see more accelerated progress.”
“Education has gotten more research based,” she said. “We have best practices based on sound research — we know what’s best for children.”
Dividing the classroom into small groups can be difficult for the teachers. “Look at all the different groups you are juggling, and because its fluid, you have to keep assessing and moving them from group to group.”
Seck, who has 14 years experience with guided reading, recalled having 11 different reading groups, but four or five is the norm, she said. “You had to be good at classroom management.”
Students would work on their assignments while she taught one group. She would not give them busy work, but assignments that were “worthy of their time and effort,” she said.
The Meadowbrook Elementary School teachers started a “guided reading” library last year. Seck plans to work toward stocking up the collection.
Like Young, Seck also will offer reading, poetry and math incentives, “simple things, a pencil or something like that.” She met with her predecessor before he went on vacation. “Dennis had a real strong work ethic. ‘You work hard and you’ll be rewarded.’”
SECK ALSO PLANS to have students placed in small groups to learn mathematics. Young used the school mascot, a Mustang horse named Charger, to promote the subject. As the students progressed through basic math facts, they moved from one horse corral to another. “He would look at children and determine their needs and find a way to motivate them,” she said. “I’ll probably enhance what Dennis has done. He did a lot of creative, imaginative things.”
Seck said she plans to be a hands-on principal, assisting the teachers with instruction and assessing the students’ abilities if they need her help. “I’ve always been hands on,” she said. “I’m here as a resource, an instruction leader.”
Rhonda Baran, assistant principal, said she and Young often were engaged with the teachers and students. Seck’s hands-on approach fits well with the school’s prior experience. “We were very involved with the classrooms,’ she said.
Anne Lause, the office secretary, said she has enjoyed working with Seck. “She is very nice, and very knowledgeable,” Lause said. “It will be fun and exciting to see to how the kids adapt to her. It’ll be fine.”
Seck said she has inherited a great staff. “You can tell there is pride here.”
She is particularly impressed with the students’ high test scores and their motivated parents. The 2002-2003 SOL school performance report card shows a 92 score in English, 96 in Mathematics, 97 in Science and 97 in History.
Seck was a reading specialist in Fairfax County for 14 years before moving with her husband, John, and their sons to Michigan in 1998. They lived in Cascades for five of those years.
“It is amazing how fast Loudoun County is growing. Even though we lived here, it doesn’t look like the same place,” she said.
Seck was principal of the Bartlett Elementary School, 20 minutes from Ann Arbor. She said she is familiar with rapid growth, since South Lyon was one of the fastest growing districts in Michigan.
Bartlett also had about the same amount of schoolchildren, 550 compared to Meadowland’s 480. “We’re down from last year’s 515, but they’re predicting we’ll have more children by the start of school,” she said.
UNLIKE LOUDOUN, the real estate market and economy in South Lyon are stagnant. Despite a lake-front location, only one buyer has looked at the Seck’s house. “The economy is really bad in Michigan,” she said.
The couple is living in an apartment in Herndon while they wait for their new home to be built in Leesburg. They expect to move in on the first of October.
She and John have three grown sons, John III, Michael, and Bryan. “We used to call them Huey, Dewey and Louie.”
Seck said her greatest accomplishment, besides having children, has been teaching a child to read.
While she enjoys reading, biking, sewing and cooking, Seck does not expect she’ll have much time for anything other than Meadowland Elementary, her husband, her children, and her six grandchildren.
She said she is looking forward to getting to know the students. She has posted a sign outside Meadowland Elementary: “Mrs. Seck welcomes you.”
“Truly, I can’t wait,” she said. “They’re what it’s all about.”