When asked about the best aspect of becoming Mount Vernon High School’s new principal, Nardos King described the stress she’d felt during the last year. Since high school, King had worked deliberately to become a leader. In recent months, she had been poised only a step away from this goal, ready. But she believed that achieving it would mean walking away from the school where over the last 11 years she had learned to be a teacher and an administrator.
The previous principal Eric Brent had begun at the school only a year before. “I didn’t think that the opportunity to be a principal at Mount Vernon High School was going to be here for me,” King said. “I was out there looking for matches, because I was ready.”
King’s loyalty to the school that had given her a vocation made the anticipation of becoming a principal bittersweet at best.
“It wasn’t a good feeling in the inside knowing that I would be leaving a school that I love,” she said.
But when Brent abruptly announced in the spring that he would be leaving Mount Vernon to take a job at Forest Park High School in his hometown of Woodbridge, to be closer to his children, the opportunity arose for King to fulfill what she knew was meant to do at the place she believed she was meant to be. She interviewed for the position at the end of June and was offered the job of Principal of Mount Vernon High School on July 25.
KING LIVES in Springfield with her husband Stanley, who is in the army. She has a 17-year old son who will be a senior at Mount Vernon and 14 year-old daughter who will be a freshman there.
She grew up in Mount Holly, NJ. As King took her first steps toward adulthood, she was already beginning a methodical trajectory towards leadership. She was active in high school as an athlete and a leader in student government.
“I’ve always seen myself as a leader,” she said. “I always felt like I had leadership skills within me from the time I was a teenager.”
By the time she left Virginia State University with a bachelor’s degree, King was already on the fast-track. She graduated with a degree in business and a fiancé.
But her vision of personal success was complicated when she returned home for eight months to plan her wedding. To earn some extra income, King began working as a substitute teacher at Mount Holly High School.
“That’s when I said, ‘Hey I should have majored in education,’ because I really, really loved it,” King explained.
She spent the next few years juggling success in diverse fields: parenting, finances and teaching. When she moved to Germany with her husband, who is in the military, King split time as a bank teller and a substitute teacher. She said she had no trouble synthesizing the different requirements of each field.
“I liked my job at the bank because I’m a people person,” King explained. “But I really liked working with kids … It wasn’t a bad transition. Actually it was good because on the bank teller days I got to work with adults and on the other days I got to work with teenagers.”
After her husband was transferred to Oklahoma, King found a job that combined her business skills with her growing zeal for working in schools. She became a finance officer at a high school, where she also volunteered with its student government.
When her husband was transferred again, this time to Alexandria, King made enquiries about being a financial technician in a high school, but discovered it would be much harder to step into such a job in Fairfax County, which had limited openings. She was advised to become an elementary school principal’s secretary because they receive the same training as high school finance technicians.
She got the training and began working for Hunt Valley Elementary School in Burke. Six months later, a finance technician job opened at Mount Vernon. She started work there in January 1996.
KING ENJOYED her work as a support staff-member at the high school, but she wanted to be in the classroom.
“I always knew that I would go back to being a teacher,” she said. “I just had to find the time with my family schedule and the work schedule, my obligations as a wife and mother, to go back to school.”
In 1997, she took the opportunity to attend a program from George Washington University that allowed her to remain at Mount Vernon as an instructional assistant, then a provisional teacher while she earned a Masters in Special Education.
After earning the degree, King spent five years as a special education teacher. “I loved it and I missed it,” she said of her time as a teacher. “There’s nothing more rewarding, I think, than being a classroom teacher.”
As she had done in other schools, King became sponsor of the Student Government Association. She also began teaching a leadership class.
In 2001, King participated in a new county schools initiative called Project LEAD – Learning, Empowering, Assessing and Developing. It was established to train promising teachers to become administrators.
“I wouldn’t be a leader here today in education if it hadn’t been for the opportunities provided for me in that program,” King said. King said that of the twenty participants in the first year of the program, all have at least achieved the rank of assistant principal.
She herself spent five years as a sub-school principal. The class she shepherded through all four years of high school graduated this spring.
King also earned a Masters in Educational Administration from George Mason in 2002.
KING BELIEVES her diverse experience will be an asset. “It gives me the unique opportunity to see the principalship from many different eyes,” she said. “When I’m making the decisions, I can remember how that decision would have affected me,” as a support staff member, teacher and sub-school principal.
“What I hope to accomplish with this position is to continue on the path we started two years ago: raising academic standards at Mount Vernon High School …. I have eleven years of knowledge of what has happened in this school, some of what’s worked, some of what didn’t work.”
King praised the school’s professional learning communities, which allow teachers to meet during the school day in groups based on subject. In these groups, teachers can collaborate on the details of their individual classes and fit them into the larger framework of their direction as a department. The teachers also use their meetings to create common assessment tests for their students that uncover problem areas while there is still time to correct them.
King said she also plans to turn her attention outside the school.
“One thing I want to do is have more community and parent involvement in the school” she said. “I’d like to come into a PTA meeting and see over 100 parents ready to work and collaborate with the school.”
“This year I’m going to take the time to go to [Homeowner’s Association] meetings and invite people to come in … You have to make those personal contacts with people.”
“IT WAS an absolute joy working with Ms. King,” said former Principal Brent. “She brings a lot to the table, [like] the passion she brings to the community.”
He cited her “open-door” policy for parents and teachers and her willingness not only to listen, but defer to their expertise and take their advice. “She’s very open to what other people have to say,” Brent said.
Science Department Chair Joy McManus, who has been at Mount Vernon for 12 years, agreed that the commitment to her students and respect for her colleagues King had demonstrated over the years would be her greatest assets.
“Nardos is a very passionate leader who has a very clear vision of where she would like to see Mount Vernon go,” McManus said. “She’s supportive [of staff] as well. She’s very much a team-player in listening to other people who have been there a long time.
McMillan recalled a program King had started that brought students out into the neighborhood around the high school to rake leaves for the elderly. “She was always a very big advocate of the students being involved in the community,” McMillan said.
McMillan added that she’d noticed that how King motivated her students to pass the SOL’s when she was a special education teacher.
“They did it for her, with her, alongside her,” said McMillan. “She inspires people to join in and make a difference. She truly, truly cares about our kids.”