Praised for Leadership

Praised for Leadership

A Herndon principal and her staff are blazing new pathways in elementary education at one of the town's most diverse schools.

Excellent skills in leadership, a deep connection with the student population, highly sensitive interpersonal communication abilities and a supportive attitude are the qualities that make up the best school principals, according to Steve Greenburg, vice president of Fairfax County Federation of Teachers Local 2401.

Those are also the words teachers chose to describe Carolyn Gannaway, the principal of Herndon Elementary School, who earlier this month was named as one of the top three best principals by participating FCFT-union teachers at Herndon Elementary.

"One of the most outstanding things about her is that she is the most honest person that you could ever hope to work with," said Greenburg, who worked as a sixth-grade teacher at Herndon Elementary during Gannaway's first year as principal. "She has an outstanding understanding of the guidelines and regulations in which to run a school, but also a very holistic connection with the students."

"It is a phenomenal feat to be able to balance all that," Greenburg added.

Of the approximately 100 educational staff members employed at Herndon Elementary, about half are members of the FCFT, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, an AFL-CIO union, according to Greenburg.

Those teachers were contacted by FCFT to fill out a survey that recorded their opinions of the administrators at a total of 180 schools of all levels in Fairfax County, with the purpose of finding the highest-scoring teachers to be held as examples of leadership for their members, Greenburg said.

It is the first such time that such an award has be given since 1998.

"This is not about trying to point out who are the worst [principals] — but trying to exhibit the best of those who administer our schools," Greenburg said. "This is a way of positively impacting the school by acknowledging what works well in administration."

"It's to say, 'this is the kind of person who can work with teachers to create an environment to help children learn,'" he added. "Someone that, according to the teachers, best helps them to do their jobs."

HELPING THE TEACHERS with everything they need to do their job is not a simple matter at Herndon Elementary School, Gannaway said.

"You hear some schools call themselves a school of all nations, well we really are," said Gannaway. "We have literally over 40 languages spoken here."

Students who spoke only limited English totaled 28.63 percent of the children who attend the school in the 2004 to 2005 school year, according to Fairfax County Public Schools records.

The cultural breakdown of the school is one of the farthest from homogenous, as not a single ethnic background has made up a majority of the students in at least the last three school years, records show.

"We have children from all over the world," Gannaway said. "We have children from more fortunate families and less fortunate families [financially], but it is not something that is noted. You wouldn't know that one child is from a family that is on food stamps or another is from a family that is a bit more affluent."

"This can be a pretty challenging school because it's more diverse than a lot of other schools," said Joann Shackelford, a reading specialist for students of all levels at Herndon Elementary who is not a member of FCFT and did not take part in the survey. "She [Gannaway] tries to make this school an environment that is welcome to any students, teachers, parents — she does anything if it will help the students."

GROWING UP ALL around the United States as the daughter of an Army sergeant, Gannaway learned quickly how to adapt to new environments and new cultures.

"It was very enlightening, getting the opportunity to live in different places," Gannaway said.

After deciding to become a teacher at 21-years-old, Gannaway began her odyssey throughout the country, teaching in five states over the course of her 36-year teaching career in everything from poor, rural environments to those of affluent suburbia.

One of her most memorable experiences came when she as a teacher at the Coeur d'Alene American Indian Reservation in northern Idaho, she said.

"I learned a lot working [in Coeur d'Alene]; I experienced a lot about the native North American culture," Gannaway said. "You have a totally different approach to things working in an environment like that. Here in Fairfax [County] you can have essentially anything you want, but there we were struggling for paper."

Her experience teaching a marginalized community at Coeur d'Alene was not singular.

Gannaway was also a teacher at an all-black high school in her hometown of Augusta, Ga., when the state became one of the last in the country to dissolve racial segregation in schools.

"Wherever you're working you're integrating yourself and become a member of the community," Gannaway said. "You're living with the families of your students, and their lives and cultures become more personal, more real."

"You eat it, you touch it, you feel it," she said. "You learn the lives of the people very intimately and you learn about human nature as a whole."

LEARNING TO ADAPT to different cultures is a large part about being a student at Herndon Elementary School, which features a volunteer French Immersion program for students whose parents want them to learn a second language.

Students who enroll are given French language classes daily, but also spend half their time in school speaking and listening to their teachers and peers during math, science and health classes, delivered entirely in French.

The program, which was established by the school board 11 years ago, before Gannaway arrived, now boasts about 200 students, or a little more than a quarter of the student population, according to Gannaway.

"If you can start students early in a language program, they will have so much better of a chance to learn to speak at a native, fluent level — and understand the culture so much better," Gannaway said, as she walked past a wall covered with cartoon faces where beginning French students filled in their names after the phrase, "je m'appelle" — "my name is".

"I think in this world that we live in now it is becoming so important to learn as many cultures and as languages as possible," Gannaway added. "We aren't just Americans anymore, we're global citizens."

SOME OF HERNDON Elementary School's third-graders expressed their firm beliefs that Gannaway pays attention to each one of them.

"She sends us cards every year for our birthday," said Deion Owuseo.

"She sent me one when I broke my arm," said Janey Carballo.

Although she said she doesn't ever think about, Gannaway, the tall woman with the sunny office who can't walk down the hall without getting calls from her students, said that her experiences as a teacher burrowing into several of the cultures distinct to North America are part of what make her what she is today.

"It's broadened my belief in the goodness of people," she said. "Whenever you don't know something or aren't familiar with someone or their culture, you might not understand it and you could be afraid. But once you're seeing that person and his culture you notice about how these people have the same hopes, the same aspirations and the same dreams as you might have."

"I think you are what your experiences have taught you — but to be honest, I don't think I ever think about it," Gannaway said. "I'm just too busy working."