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First Day of School

Monday marked the first day of classes for grades 9 to 12.

Students wandered around looking for the right classroom, checking their schedules to make sure they were at the right place at the right time. Teachers checked their rosters and prepared their lesson plans. For Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center and T.C. Williams High School — both of which have new principals — Monday was the first day of school. Elementary schools and middle schools are scheduled to start classes on Sept. 5.

“It was a perfect school opening,” said Minnie Howard Principal Grace Taylor. “Everything was ready to go.”

Taylor took the helm of the school this summer. A 1987 graduate of T.C. Williams High School, Taylor moved back to Alexandria in 2003 to take a position as associate principal at the high school. For the past two years, she has been principal of George Washington Middle School. This year, she is looking forward to leading the city’s ninth-grade center on Braddock Road.

Her arrival at the school coincides with the school division’s system-wide focus on literacy, and Taylor said that she has high hopes for Minnie Howard’s new “Read Alive” program. The initiative will set aside a 15-minute block from 10:05 a.m. to 10:35 a.m. when all students will engage in silent reading. Last week, her voice could be heard on automatic calls to parents reminding them that their children would be needing reading material on the first day of classes.

“On the first day of school, almost all the students had something with them to read,” Taylor said. “I observed one students who was reading a thick paperback, and he was halfway through. Other students were reading National Geographic or popular fiction.”

Assistant Principal Nicole Clifton, supervisor of the Read Alive program, said that the goal of the initiative was to instill a lifelong love of reading. By setting aside the 15-minute block in the daily schedule, Clifton said, students would develop reading habits that are critical to their future success.

“They can read pretty much anything they want,” Clifton said. “As long as it’s not a comic book or something inappropriate for school.”

On the first day of school, Clifton observed several classes to make sure that everybody was reading. In some classes, she saw teachers reading to students. In others, she saw kids with their faces buried in magazines, books and newspapers. She said that parents seemed thrilled by the idea.

“One parent said that she had already recommended several books to her daughter,” Clifton said. “Her child was really excited about it.”

AT T.C. WILLIAMS, the principal’s office has a new occupant: Mel Riddile. A native of Pennsylvania, he built a nationally recognized educational career in Fairfax County — including being named Principal of the Year for 2006 by the National Association of School Principals and MetLife. For Riddile, Monday was an opportunity to introducing himself to the students.

“One of the things I enjoy is helping kids get on the bus at the end of the day,” Riddile said. “It gives me a chance to meet them in an informal way.”

Riddile spent Monday afternoon in the parking lot, his listing of bus schedules in hand. As he greeted the students, he was also able to give them practical advice about which bus they should board.

“Instead of me intruding on their world, I was able to help them,” Riddile said. “I loved it.”

Overall, he described his first day of school at T.C. Williams as “extremely smooth.”

“I can’t remember a day in 30 years when the first day of school went smoother,” he said. “I really saw a lot of evidence that the teachers and students have a great relationship. And that kind of a thing doesn’t happen everyday.”

Riddile said that the high school will not have a 15-minute block of silent reading time like Minnie Howard. Rather, he said, he will encourage the teachers to “embed” literacy into the existing curriculum of the school. Margaret Fitzsimmons, president of T.C. Williams’ parent-teacher association, said that she was looking forward to Riddile’s focus on literacy skills. Although she was sad to see longtime Principal John Porter leave the school to take a position with the central administration, she said that she was excited about Riddile’s energy and enthusiasm.

“He’s a great leader, and I’m enthusiastic about his vision for the high school,” Fitzsimmons said. “He’s looking downstream and working with principals of the feeder schools.”

Fitzsimmons said that many parents of students at T.C. Williams are looking forward to Riddile’s desire to raise scores on standardized tests and increase the number of students who take Advanced Placement classes.

“It’s important that we push all our kids to be the best they can be,” Fitzsimmons said. “To do that, we are going to have to constantly adapt to make sure that T.C. Williams is as rigorous as it can be for all the students.”