It was just last June when Bruce Butler watched the class of 2005 graduate from South Lakes.
As assistant principal, Butler, 46, had been the students’ administrator since they were freshmen, following their progress and getting to know each of them.
Butler, who took over as principal of South Lakes in July, now has more than 1,600 students to get to know.
Butler replaced Principal Realista “Rely” Rodriguez, who announced last March she was taking a position with the human resources department in Fairfax County Public Schools.
Already, Butler has spent time introducing himself to the community. Earlier in the summer, the PTSA hosted a “Meet Mr. Butler Night.”
“I met a lot of supportive parents and learned a lot about their perceptions of the school,” said Butler. “I am working to have as many lines of communication open as possible between the community and the parents with the school.”
Maria Allen, recently named president of the school’s PTSA, said that parents have responded positively to Butler. “They see him as somebody who is going to be a strong leader,” said Allen. “This is a cliché, but he’s an instructional leader.” Allen said that Butler has been “grooming himself for this job a long time.”
Butler has many years of experience to draw from. He’s entering his 25th year with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). For 12 years, Butler taught earth and environmental science at Herndon High School. He became an assistant principal at Herndon, where he stayed for another five years before transferring to South Lakes. For the past seven years, he’s been an assistant principal at South Lakes. Butler received a master’s of education in secondary administration from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
OVER THE SUMMER, Butler has focused on getting the school ready for the fall, including hiring a dozen or so new teachers. “We didn’t have a lot of hiring to do, but I’ve been working to bring in the best teachers we could find,” Butler said.
He also had to find a replacement for his old job. Butler hired Kim Brophy, a South Lakes graduate, to be the newest assistant principal. “She brings to us an absolute wealth of instructional knowledge,” said Butler.
In addition to hiring new employees, Butler has had to get the school ready for renovations, which are slated to get underway sometime in November and are expected to last for more than two years. “The planning has been ongoing for two years,” said Butler, “but the real construction begins around Thanksgiving.
“They’ve begun to move in the trailers or the quads as we call them,” he said. Butler credits the staff and faculty for their work over the summer in getting the school prepared before students return in the fall. He said two technology specialists, Tom Stanley and Craig Oglevee, have worked extra hard to get the computers up and operational at the new sites.
By staying on top of all the changes caused by renovations, Butler is optimistic that distractions can be kept to a minimum. “For the kids, I think it will be pretty transparent because the students will go where they need to go,” Butler said. “But the reality is whenever there is a major construction effort there will be some inconvenience and inevitable frustration that comes with big projects, and we’ll work through that in a positive manner.”
Butler also said that he’ll keep people focused on the end result, which will be a much improved “instructional environment.”
AS NEW PRINCIPAL Butler thinks communication will be the key for the school’s success. “Our goal is to improve communication because I’ve found that most problems people have with their schools are caused by a lack of communication,” said Butler. “I’m a firm believer that parents have to be given very timely information on the progress — or the lack thereof — of their kids.” With increased communication with parents, Butler said that parents will have more opportunities to influence their child’s progress.
Butler knows that communication with students will also be important. “As assistant principal I worked really hard to stay connected to the students and I’m going to do that as principal,” Butler said.
While Butler said that some of the previous negative perceptions of South Lakes are “unfair,” he doesn’t sugarcoat challenges. “Instructionally, we really need to strive to find ways to better serve our second language kids and our kids from socio-economically challenged homes,” said Butler. “The reality is that these are areas that we need to do better and though we have lots of success with kids in those groups, in the big picture we have room for improvement.”
Last year, minorities at South Lakes did not meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements in math and science, set at 59 percent on standards of learning tests. In 2004, 53 percent of blacks and Hispanics met AYP in mathematics. In science, 51 percent of blacks and 55 percent of Hispanics met the marks.
Butler plans to turn this around. “Some of the subgroups did not achieve at state-mandated level, so our focus will continue to be on identifying students that are not mastering concepts and develop timely intervention strategies to get them back on track,” said Butler, who noted that scores in general have increased.
“SOLs have continued to rise,” said Butler. “The unofficial scores [this year] show some continued progress, especially in mathematics.”
Allen thinks that many people see this as a new start for South Lakes. “I think achievement is going to go up,” said Allen. “I think Bruce Butler is ready to raise the bar for everybody.”
Other programs at South Lakes, like the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which helps prepare students for college, are doing well at the school. Butler noted that 27 out of 31 International Baccalaureate diploma candidates last year received the full diploma. “We passed eighty-plus percent in all the individual tests for all students taking IB tests this last year, which ranks us near the top in FCPS on how students fare on university-level exams.”
Keeping Butler going through the work ahead, he said, is the reason he first began teaching. “I really like to interact with students and it starts with just talking to them and being real visible,” said Butler. “That’s the joy of the job — being around young people.”
Butler lives in Sterling with his wife, Ellen, and his two children. His daughter will be a junior in high school this fall and his son is going into the eighth grade. Butler has three brothers and three sisters. His brother, Larry, is the parks and recreation director for the Reston Association.