It seems like only yesterday that Audra Sydnor stood outside Liberty Middle School in September 2002, welcoming the first students to the newly built school.
NOW, THOUGH, those students have graduated, and she, too, has moved on to become assistant superintendent for Cluster I. And although she also served five years as principal of Lanier Middle School prior to coming to Liberty, this school will always hold a place of honor in her heart.
"The opportunity to open a new school was the pinnacle of my career," said Sydnor. "Leaving Lanier was hard, but leaving Liberty is harder because I helped create this school."
Her leadership there also meant a great deal to Liberty's students and staff. Anne Hall, seventh-grade English teacher and English Department chair, worked with Sydnor all five years at Lanier and all three years at Liberty.
"She's a lovely person, and I'm very sad to see her go," said Hall. "She motivates people and has very high expectations for them. She inspires them to stretch to become the most effective administrators possible. And she sees the potential in everyone on our staff. She's just a class act."
Sydnor's been in education more than 30 years, and in Fairfax County's school system for 21 years. She taught English at Edison High in 1983, then spent five years at the Central Office working with minority-student achievement and serving as English curriculum specialist and secondary coordinator. Next came four years as associate principal at Robinson Secondary School before she went to Lanier.
At Liberty, she said the biggest change has been in the school's programs — especially the development of the honors program on every level in every subject in math, English, social studies and science. "At first, we had GT in some classes and honors in others," said Sydnor. "Now, we're a total honors program; only one curriculum is taught throughout the entire county."
IN ADDITION, she said, "We now have all four languages — Latin, French, Spanish and German. French had disappeared for two years and will be restored next year." Enrollment grew from 1,040 to 1,150 students (building capacity is 1,250), so there are fewer teacher workrooms now and more rooms used for classes because "we don't want trailers, and we don't want teachers to travel from classroom to classroom."
Sydnor's also pleased that one of Liberty's assistant principals, Rodney Moore, was made principal at Lanier, this school year. "It's always exciting when APs make the principalship, and I've had three [do that]," she said. "Rodney was my intern at Lanier and then my AP here for two years."
She said the hardest part about being a principal is "putting in such long hours" — anywhere from 10-12 hours a day — during the week and on weekends, too, to make sure everything's running smoothly. However, in these unsettled times which brought the terror of 9/11 and the sniper attacks, she also had the extra worry of the children's security.
"That's what kept me up at night," said Sydnor. "The whole tenor of being a principal has changed. But I had a crisis-management team, and we went through threat-assessment training to make sure the school was safe."
Most satisfying, she said, was "watching the improvement in student achievement and academic growth." But she knows it was because of a unified effort. Said Sydnor: "I'd like to thank the community and PTA for being so supportive of our initiatives at Liberty, and the teachers for working so hard to carry out the vision for this school."
Highlights of her years there include the back-to-school fairs with 1,000 parents visiting and the annual school dances. "I love the eighth-grade dances," she said. "I'll look back on them and chuckle. It's so exciting seeing the students all dressed up, looking so darling and having so much fun."
SHE WAS also delighted with the "wonderful participation" of the PTA in Liberty life. And in May, the PTA planted a crepe myrtle tree in the courtyard and installed a bench, both in her honor, for being the school's inaugural principal.
"And of course, I'll look back on how wonderful it was to be named Principal of the Year [last year]," said Sydnor. "That was a pleasant surprise." As for her new position with Cluster I, she said, "It's not something I planned now. It was an opportunity for growth that had presented itself."
Her title of assistant superintendent for that cluster is the same thing as being its director, but all cluster directors are now called assistant superintendants of the school system. In this role, Sydnor will supervise principals in grades K-12 in 22 different schools. She'll be responsible for Langley, McLean and Herndon high schools and their feeder schools.
She and her husband Otha have been married more than 30 years and live in Burke. He's now the contract manager for SICPA Securink Co., an ink-making company, and is also a retired Army officer. And, said Sydnor, "Being a former military wife, I like to change and grow. So [my new job] will be something totally different, and I'm really looking forward to it."
She had to apply for the position and go through several panel interviews. "It was very challenging," she said. And because the competition was stiff, she was surprised to learn she'd been selected. "I felt humble because I now have the opportunity to continue my career on a different level, working with principals," said Sydnor. "I did that at the Central Office and enjoyed it."
She began her new job last Friday, July 1, and will be involved in hiring and evaluating principals, monitoring student achievement and attending functions at all 22 schools. She'll also be part of Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Jack Dale's leadership team, helping make systemwide decisions that will affect even more students.
"It was difficult leaving Liberty, but the teachers and students were happy for me," said Sydnor. "We're at a good point in student achievement, and I leave behind good parent support and a strong administrative staff."
SHE SAID the cluster position "was an opportunity too good to turn down," and she's eagerly anticipating working with and supporting the Cluster I principals because, she said, "I understand the Cluster I principals are outstanding."
However, stressed Sydnor, "I absolutely loved being a principal, and the past eight years have been very rewarding because I do love children. Liberty will always hold a very special place in my heart. Every day I came here, I was so proud of all we were able to accomplish in a three-year period."
Yvette Bedford, her administrative assistant here and at Lanier, is thrilled about Sydnor's promotion, but "sad because I'll miss her; we've worked together closely. She's personable and really cares about people. It's not just part of her job — she's genuinely concerned." Bedford called Sydnor's promotion "an honor, and a testament to how well she does her job and what people think of her."
Pam Cunningham, Liberty's director of student services, also worked with Sydnor the past eight years and said she has "a strong sense of integrity and believes in and supports the people who work for her. She has a great sense of humor and is a very compassionate woman."
While sad that Sydnor's left Liberty, Cunningham said, "There isn't anything I'd want more for her than to go to her peak. So I'll wish her the best — and cry a little in the background."
PTA President Diane Belden first met Sydnor "in February 2002 in a construction trailer, when she was named principal and we were putting together the PTA. She was so glad to have the parents involved already."
BELDEN SAID she's been a "great principal, and I think she truly loves every one of these kids. I'm sorry to see her go, but I'm happy she'll still be in Fairfax County. It's a great promotion for her."
Theater teacher Jody Scott said the students and faculty will miss Sydnor tremendously. "She was always out in the halls, interacting with the kids," said Scott. "And she truly made sure, in all areas, that no student was left behind, so all students were successful." But, she added, "She'll be an awesome cluster assistant superintendent."