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Academics in Focus

Sandburg’s new principal wants to bring in parents, but student success comes first.

Beginning an interview, Wendy Eaton did not hesitate to convey one piece of information before any other. “I’m a product of Fairfax County Schools,” she said. Eaton is the new principal of Carl Sandburg Middle School. But there is no straight line between her career as a Fairfax student and an administrator. “I did a lot of things before I got into education,” she explained.

After graduating from Falls Church High School, Eaton earned a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Radford University. She went on to work as a cancer researcher, a drug analyst for the Department of Forensics in Northern Virginia, a director of client relations for a national real estate syndication firm and an insurance salesman. While in the last job, which lasted two years, a friend suggested she become a teacher because she was already volunteering at her children’s schools and little leagues. Her first job was as a long-term substitute at West Potomac High School for a chemistry teacher who had been deployed to Operation Desert Storm. She was offered a contract by the county the next year and became a full-time chemistry teacher at Hayfield High School. After a stint in Alexandria as a science instructor for other teachers, she returned to Fairfax in 2000 as an assistant principal at Carl Sandburg. She held this position for six years until she was promoted this summer to replace outgoing principal Donna Pasteur. Along the way, Eaton earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from George Mason University. “I am firm believer in life-long learning and it just kind of evolved,” she explained.

“I think what she brings is a sense of continuity and stability,” said PTA president Carl McCants. “She knows the community and knows the student body. I think she’s well-qualified to lead.”

EATON’S VISION for the school is straightforward, “Always in the forefront is improving academic performance.” Algebra is one academic area she said the school will focus on. Sandburg is participating in the state’s Algebra Readiness Initiative, which allows the school to import an additional math teacher in the second semester to help prepare eighth-grade students for ninth-grade algebra.

Director of Student Services Ron James cited music as an area where Sandburg continues to excel. “We’ve been very lucky with our music department directors,” he said. More than half of Sandburg’s students participate in music programs. He said the music directors encourage participation by performing for visiting elementary school students and by taking music participants on fun outings. This year they went to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. “They do a really good job of promoting [the music program] in the community and the schools,” James said. “More and more students each year want to take music.”

Both administrators agreed that increasing parental participation was a major goal for the upcoming year. Eaton said she would like to begin offering parent coffees once a semester. Students at Sandburg belong to one of nine teaching teams, which comprise four core teachers and a counselor, who consult with one another about the 130 or so students they share. Eaton envisions allowing parents to mingle over coffee with the teachers in their children’s team.

Eaton said many parents are unsure about how to treat their middle-school-age children, sometimes allowing their children more independence than teachers would prefer. “They want to give [their children] more space, but we really like seeing them [in school].”

To this end, James said the school plans to “break down barriers” by sending out more mailings about school events with less “jargon” and in multiple languages. “We try to streamline those things all the time and just talk about the essentials.” They will also be sending out postcard-sized calendars every month for parents to put on their refrigerators.

McCants said the PTA would do its part to attract parents by continuing the practice it started last year of providing seminars on issues of current interest to parents like teens and the internet. He said this year they were planning a seminar to help parents recognize and understand the mental and emotional changes in their children.

“We’re just always looking for ways of getting parents involved and engaged so you see them walking around the halls,” Eaton said. “We’re trying to eliminate the response that they didn’t know something was happening.”