After seven years at the South Lakes High School helm, Realista “Rely” Rodriguez announced to faculty Tuesday afternoon that she will be stepping down as principal at the end of the school year.
Rodriguez has accepted a position, a special assignment, with the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Human Resources Department, which begins in three months. In the new position, she will be involved in recruiting underrepresented and minority educators and supporting their career development.
“This was a difficult decision for me knowing that our school is in the midst of many initiatives and challenges,” Rodriguez said in a written statement. “Your continuous dedication will ensure that these endeavors will continue to flourish and that you will overcome the roadblocks,” said Rodriguez, who replaced William Harper in 1998.
“She’s been talking about retirement for some time now, so I think some people were surprised and others had anticipated something,” said Ronnie Altobelli, assistant principal at South Lakes. Altobelli also said that people were pleased with what Rodriguez had written and what she had to say at the announcement.
RODRIGUEZ ALSO SAID that one of her reasons for announcing at this point in the school year was to allow time to find a replacement before the school renovation, which gets underway at the end of the school year. She said that it was important that South Lakes have a principal from the beginning to the end of the school renovation.
“I think that it is very farsighted on her part,” said Stuart Gibson, school board member for the Hunter Mill district. “It’s important that the school have that continuity during the renovations,” Gibson said.
During her time as principal, Rodriguez has been credited for several achievements, from bringing South Lakes into the International Baccalaureate (IB) program to developing a freshman mentoring program.
“She is responsible for the success of the IB program,” said David Dalton, assistant principal at South Lakes. “You have to appreciate the work that went into bringing IB to South Lakes, over one and a half years of work,” Dalton said. He also said that Rodriguez helped improve security in the building for students and faculty.
Altobelli praised Rodriguez for generating business partnerships and donations to the school. “She has an uncanny way to get money from people in the sense that she’s always looking out for what’s best for the kids,” said Altobelli.
In an interview at her office after the announcement, Rodriguez talked about some of her achievements and challenges during her time as principal.
“One of the big achievements,” Rodriguez said, “is paving the way for our international parents to feel comfortable coming to school and participating in school activities.
“I’m proud to say that we’ve won some grants,” Rodriguez said. She said that South Lakes won the METLife Bridgebuilders grant for two years. “That’s a biggie because they asked all the award winners why they should be highlighted, and we were one of the schools that were asked to present [their work] in San Francisco,” Rodriguez said.
“Also, when I got here there wasn’t a computer in every classroom. Now we are one of the schools with the most computers per student, enough to do testing for Standards of Learning (SOL) in a smooth manner,” she said of her efforts to make sure teachers and students have access to appropriate technology.
“We were selected to be in the second cohort of LEAD Fairfax (Learning, Empowering, Assessing & Developing), a leadership program that supports the career development of administrators,” said Rodriguez, describing another achievement.
RODRIGUEZ’S TENURE, however, has not been without challenges.
“Being a female, minority principal has special difficulties,” Rodriguez said. “It took some time for the community to accept me and my leadership, and of course the staff had to get used to my leadership style.
“I grew with [the staff] and always welcomed suggestions from the staff and community,” said Rodriguez.
Along the way, she also faced difficulties raising SOL scores and meeting requirements of the No Child Left Behind benchmarks.
Some people never adjusted to Rodriguez. Maria Allen, a parent in the South Lakes pyramid, said, “A new leader can re-energize South Lakes, raise expectations and raise achievement. South Lakes has great potential and the time is right for some big changes.”
“I think anytime you have a change, it’s going to have an impact on the building and I think just a lot of people thought she did a good job,” said Dalton. “Overall, it’s been a good seven years.”
On April 20, at 7 p.m., Cluster VIII Assistant Superintendent Betsy Goodman and other representatives from FCPS Human Resources will host a meeting to describe the process and set a timeline for finding a new principal at South Lakes.