Visiting South County Secondary school, it is common to see students and staff alike dressed in green and blue "spirit gear," eager to show off their devotion to their school and a community that didn't exist two years ago.
South County exudes a strong sense of community, something many believe is due to the enthusiasm and dedication of the school's principal Dale Rumberger, who last week was named Fairfax County Public School's Principal of the Year.
"I can think of many principals deserving of this honor but he's consistently gone above and beyond," said Betty Fenske, the Cluster V administrator. She credits Rumberger with creating an atmosphere of belonging at the school, encouraging students and creating relationships with them while ignoring the politics and controversy that sometimes come with starting a new school.
"Dale has had a stellar career, and he's done a great job in pulling that community together," she said.
Rumberger began his career with Fairfax County Public Schools in 1976 as a teacher at Lake Braddock before moving to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in 1985. He directed the Summer Institute for the Arts for two years and became a subschool principal at Hayfield Secondary in 1990.
Rumberger left Hayfield for a four-year stint as principal at Chantilly High in 1995 before opening Westfield High School, the first of two schools he opened. He remained at Westfield until he was named the first principal of South County, which opened in September 2005.
"Dale has given so much time to his students and staff and faculty, he deserves this," said Jane Lipp, assistant principal at South County. "As a team leader and a team builder, he's created a very strong community from scratch not once but twice."
Lipp said part of Rumberger's strength comes from his support of families and students, by attending sporting events to the creation of the RU OK? Corral, a new way of providing parent-teacher conferences by opening the school to parents so they can meet with all their child's teachers at once.
"Dale is a very solutions-based principal and I think his strongest strength trait is that he's an includer," Lipp said.
HOWEVER, LIPP SAID, Rumberger exhibits a glimmer of rebellion in his methods, possibly a carryover from his college days at Kent State in Ohio.
"He'll always have that and he knows that sometimes it's best to challenge things," she said.
A total of 17 department chairs from South County, at both the high school and middle school level, signed the nomination form for Rumberger's recognition, she said.
While this is the third time he's been nominated for the award, it's the first time he's received it, making him the first secondary school principal to be recognized as Principal of the Year, Lipp said. He was also recognized as one of the 18 top educators in the Washington area by the Washington Post last week.
The nomination for Principal of the Year came from outside the school, from Fairfax Station resident and school advocate Elizabeth Bradsher.
"Sometimes you come across someone who just wows you," said Bradsher. "There are very few people who make a real impression on you at first. When I met him years ago, I knew we needed to have him when we opened up South County."
Bradsher said she respects Rumberger for his willingness to handle the problems given to him, like the adoption of a modified nine-period class day to accommodate the 3,000 students attending a school built to hold 2,500.
"We're so fortunate to have him here, I guess the stars were in the right place," Bradsher said. "With Dale, it's always about the staff, always about the students. He's their biggest supporter, and he's created the best environment for kids and teachers."
Despite having a negative connotation, Bradsher said its Rumberger's stubbornness that makes him a good principal.
"He knows when to say you might be right and when to say no, I'm right," she said.
School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) said Rumberger has done an outstanding job in his first year at South County.
"The challenges he faces are real, and I think it's great we have the chance to recognize him like this," Storck said. "It's well deserved and highly earned."
When Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jack Dale arrived three years ago, Rumberger was the planning principal for South County. Since then, Dale said Rumberger has done "stellar work" in seeing to it that the school opened smoothly.
"He's able to address issues and design programs to meet the needs of his students," Dale said, which was exemplified in the nine-period day this year.
The support and respect Rumberger receives from his staff and faculty, from teachers and assistants to custodians and aids, is evident in the fact that some teachers have actively followed Rumberger when he's changed schools, Dale said.
"His plans work because of the quality of leader he is," Dale said.
For Rumberger, he'd rather see the honor extended to include his staff, students and parents.
"I'm so overwhelmed with this, I'm....I just don't know," said Rumberger, uncharacteristically speechless.
He first knew something was in the works when he spotted people trying to meet in secret and had a feeling when people started asking him about his career that whatever they were talking about was something positive.
SINCE MOVING to South County, Rumberger said the work hasn't necessarily been more challenging than at other schools, but he's encountered things that have been "really astounding."
"I think we're better prepared to respond to the challenges presented to us," he said. "The bottom line is, and has to be, what is really the issue, who are the real players, what is it you're trying to do and how does it affect student achievement and learning?"
The award is not so much an appraisal of his work, but what he's been able to accomplish in the school because of the students, their parents and his staff, Rumberger insisted.
"This is an affirmation that we're going in the right direction," he said. "It's a continuing evolution and genesis of our program and how it all comes together."
In each school at which he has worked, Rumberger said he has always asked students and staff to do more work, harder work, than they've been asked to do before. Each year, the accomplishments have been greater and greater.
"I'm not saying it's been a merry-go-round, but they've never let me down," he said. "Part of this is because I show them that I'm a work in progress as well, and so should they be."
Part of that work in progress and the desire to start South County with a clean slate came through with the naming of the school. Rumberger sided with students who didn't want to name the school after a person or particular area, they preferred to create their own identity with their actions.
In the past week, Rumberger has been contacted by students and parents he hasn't spoken with in decades, congratulating him on his success.
"All of us leave footprints on each other's hearts," Rumberger said, looking back on his career thus far. "I'd like to believe we're beginning to do that here at South County."