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Principals Prepare to Close the Gap

On the morning of Friday, Aug. 25, Seneca Ridge Middle School principal, Mark McDermott, cleared off his desk, getting ready for the 2006-2007 school year.

On Tuesday, Sept. 5, approximately 900 students will begin their first day of school at the 29-year-old middle school. In preparation for the new year, the middle school went under an 18-month renovation process McDermott described as "painful," due to dust and constant disruption.

Seneca Ridge Middle School renovations included improvements to the auditorium, such as new seats, carpet and acoustics, new gym bleachers, a new fire alarm system, a new main office and bathroom, cafeteria and classroom renovations.

"It was a long and difficult process," he said, "but it was worth it and will be done by the first day of school. We hope."

In addition to new classrooms, the principal welcomed 15 new teachers to the 130-person staff, in the areas of language arts, math, physical education, science, civics and special education.

"We have five alumni returning to Seneca Ridge to teach," McDermott said. "I think that says a lot about this school."

SENECA RIDGE Middle School is made up of a diverse group of students, predominately from Latin American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

The Sterling school will offer two new Spanish language electives next year. The first program, Spanish at Middle School (SAMS), will be offered to students in grades six through eight. They will receive Spanish language classes for 30 minutes every other day. Another program called Spanish for Native Speakers will be offered to sixth-grade students who speak Spanish at home. This program will help them to not only speak, but read and write Spanish well.

"We’re really excited about these two new electives," McDermott said. "A large portion of our students speak Spanish at home."

As of now, McDermott’s biggest challenge is narrowing the achievement gap.

Last year, Seneca Ridge Middle School was recognized by Standard and Poor’s, an independent rating service, for narrowing the achievement gap, but McDermott said the school has a long way to go.

"We’re on our way, but we’re not there yet," he said. "We have some work to do."

In preparation for this year’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, the principal said his teachers will start remediation in the late winter and into early spring and will focus on "at-risk" students. Teachers will continue to align their curriculum with the tests, he said.

"Some people say that’s teaching to the test, but that’s the nature of the beast," he said. "We want to close the gap. It’s a very big deal to me."

ACROSS ROUTE 7, Sterling Middle School principal, Michael Williams, prepared for the school’s open house Tuesday, Aug. 29.

Williams plans on welcoming approximately 873 students to the Sterling school Tuesday, Sept. 5.

"That’s nothing," he said. "We’ve had as many as 1,300 students in this building."

In addition to welcoming new students, Williams welcomed new teachers that, he said, mirror the diverse student population.

"We have teachers from four or five different cultures," he said. "The students will find that their teachers ethnically look like themselves."

Students will also find new lockers, locker room and bathroom renovations to their school on the first day.

Williams said the school received minor renovations, unlike last year, when they moved students out of trailers and into eight new classrooms.

Like Seneca Ridge, Sterling Middle School will offer two new Spanish language programs. The first, Spanish Language Arts, will be offered to sixth- and seventh-graders in advanced English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. The language arts classes will help Spanish speakers, not only communicate, but read and write in their first language fluently.

"There are 10,000 Spanish speakers in Loudoun County, but very few read and write in Spanish," Williams said. "Research shows if they can read and write in their first language, they can pick up a second language more quickly."

The second program, Spanish for Fluent Speakers, will be offered to eighth-graders, to prepare them for accelerated high-school Spanish classes and advanced placement (AP) Spanish classes.

"The goal is to take Latino people, formalize instruction to read and write in their language so they will acquire English more quickly," he said. "They will become more academically engaged."

Williams hopes these two programs will help close the school’s achievement gap.

"I think these programs will help ESL students connect with other academics much more quickly," he said.