Creaking the classroom door open and stepping into a room that still smelled slightly of floor cleaner, Herndon Middle School principal Dr. Frank Jenkins motions to a large number of political campaign signs above the blackboard.
"See, in my school, you've got to know what the subject is right away, the second you walk in to the room," Jenkins said. "That's what's great about this room, you walk in, you know right away, 'OK, this is politics, this is elections, let's go.'"
"If you don't have the enthusiasm, how are you supposed to pass on the information to your students?"
Dealing with the specter of below average SOL scores and a former assistant principal charged with fraud in Pennsylvania over the summer hasn't appeared to reduce Jenkins' enthusiasm, who said he is excited for his doors to open to students once again on Sept. 5.
Those incoming 7th and 8th grade students will be greeted with new combination locks for their lockers, an increased number of mobile computer labs and a brand new literacy period devoted entirely to independent student reading when they return to school next month.
THE READING PROGRAM, dubbed Herndon Middle Literacy, is a 30-minute period devoted entirely to independent reading, designed to give students an edge in test-taking and high school preparation. It was made possible without an increase to the total time of the school day because declining enrollment numbers allowed for the elimination of one of five periods of lunch, Jenkins said.
The declining enrollment, which Jenkins believed to be due to the rising cost of homes in the region, has been a blessing in disguise for Middle School students, he said.
"Literacy is our biggest focus this year, and the bottom line is that we want kids to read," Jenkins said. "Regular reading gives the kids that advantage … in tests and classes."
The reading program was introduced by several members of the administration and faculty of Herndon Middle School after seeing studies showing the advantages that students gain when they regularly read, Jenkins said.
"Our reading scores are lower than they should be and one of the strategies is to allow children more opportunities to read in school," said Lenore Waggoner, an instructional coach for teachers monitoring the program. "Research has proven that children who only read for a few minutes a day … do better in school."
The program isn't just to improve testing, but to prepare students for education after middle school, Waggoner said.
"We're hoping that students will not just become better readers for better SOL scores, but that they're more prepared for high school and, in effect, more prepared for college," she added.
While reading courses will be monitored by faculty members, Jenkins said that the most important thing about the program is that students aren't made to feel like it's a chore.
"We want kids to have the joy of reading, we want the kids to enjoy that time of the day when they can come in after lunch and read a book," Jenkins said. "It's important not just for school but for living in society and having a more enjoyable life."
FIVE NEW TEACHERS, replacing five teachers who are leaving the district, will also be starting their first year at Herndon Middle School, he added.
Herndon Middle School students will also be benefiting from new combination locks for the school's lockers because of a fault in the former lock system.
"There was a point when you could hit this locker here, and that locker down there would open," said Jenkins as he pointed down a row of lockers. "I remember once trying to open a student's locker with my keys and couldn't get it open and another student just came up and hit the locker down there and it popped right open."
Three new mobile computer labs containing laptops with Internet access for classrooms have been added this year as well, Jenkins said.
"The big thing is technology is now so immersed in the curriculum and we really wanted the students to be able to take advantage of that," he said.
CONTROVERSY WAS not avoided entirely this summer at the school when Steve Wilcox, an assistant principal for special education at Herndon Middle School was charged in Pennsylvania in June with felony theft, conspiracy and conflict of interest.
Wilcox, who had been with Herndon Middle School for two years, has since retired from Fairfax County Public Schools after being placed on unpaid administrative leave after the revelation of the charges.
Despite the charges, Jenkins said that he would find it difficult saying that Wilcox wasn't an effective assistant principal.
"It's very difficult to pass judgment on somebody when you don't know all the facts," Jenkins said. "My only knowledge is what I got from him here and that … he was a phenomenal person, he was thorough, worked really well with the kids."
Jenkins added that when he was made aware of the charges against Wilcox, he wasn't worried that any fraud had taken place at Herndon Middle School.
"Fortunately in this building, all the financial decisions and data go through me," Jenkins said. "I'm intimately aware of anything that goes on with this school."
A NEW SCHOOL YEAR also brings a number of challenges, said Jenkins, who will be beginning his 10th year at Herndon Middle School this year.
Those particular challenges, he added, are more stringent expectations for tests and an increasingly diverse enrollment.
"I think we've made a lot of gains, but I'm not complacent to see it and just sit here," Jenkins said. "We're going to continue making efforts to improve this school."
Those efforts will include such methods as studying test-taking data of students to detect weaknesses and making sure that all students have someone they can speak with, he said.
"Where they are, we need to work with them and we need to challenge them and stretch them to reach their goals," Jenkins said. "That's our biggest challenge."