While in college, Elizabeth Dela Rosa-Pandza developed a passion for criminal justice. She is now an elementary school principal. Her passion, said Dela Rosa-Pandza, has never changed, though.
"Anything you do, it should all be about helping people," said Dela Rosa-Pandza, the new principal at Crestwood Elementary in Springfield. Dela Rosa-Pandza took over as principal in November after Judith Lewis moved to Pennsylvania. She came to Crestwood in July, when Lewis took over as principal after the departure of Dr. Patricia Cissios, now working at a school in Alexandria.
"This is where my heart is," said Dela Rosa-Pandza. "This was a great opportunity to come here and work with a student population I know."
After majoring in criminal justice at Old Dominion University, Dela Rosa-Pandza worked for four years as a personal bond officer, working in Austin, Texas, to determine whether those who had been arrested could be released on their own recognizance with the promise to return to stand trial.
"I saw an awful lot of 17-year-olds who were in very serious trouble, and I knew they were going to be locked up," said Dela Rosa-Pandza. "I began reflecting on why this was happening."
Through those experiences, and volunteer work at a local recreation center in Travis County, Texas, Dela Rosa-Pandza began thinking about switching careers.
"That was really my introduction to working with kids," she said. "I loved being around the elementary-school kids."
WHEN SHE moved to Virginia in 1992, Dela Rosa-Pandza began working as a primary-grade teacher in the Arlington County school system, where she taught for six years. She completed administrative classes through George Mason University and started as an assistant principal at Silverbrook Elementary in Fairfax Station in 1997.
"We're looking for future leaders, and when she was hired at Silverbrook, my sense was that she would be a future leader within our school district," said Silverbrook principal Bob Holderbaum.
Dela Rosa-Pandza spent four years at Silverbrook, and Holderbaum said she established herself as an administrator concerned about relationships.
"She's always comfortable with people," he said. "Crestwood is very fortunate to have her in that position. She really has a strong sense of community."
Fluent in Spanish and with a heart for students of diverse backgrounds, Dela Rosa-Pandza said she was excited about transferring to Crestwood this year.
"I had the experience of working in a more affluent community, and you're dealing with a different set of challenges there. This was an opportunity where Crestwood had a lot of things I was looking for: a diverse student population, academic challenges — which we all face — and I thought I could make this situation better by working with the families."
Debra Lindsay, a music teacher at Crestwood and co-president of the school's Parent-Teacher Association, said she doesn't envy the quick transition Dela Rosa-Pandza had to make this year.
"I'm glad I'm not in her shoes, because we had a principal until July 1, and then a principal until Nov. 3, and then she stepped in," said Lindsay. "She's had a lot to cover in her short tenure with us."
Lindsay said she has appreciated Dela Rosa-Pandza's proactive approach since she started and believes her ability to connect with parents and students alike is a plus at Crestwood.
"Her ability to speak the language [Spanish] will be a real thrust forward for us," she said. "I think it's an extra avenue for reaching out to the parents."