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Leading by Example

James Dallas starts summer as new principal at Cedar Lane Elementary School

Ask someone about their first impressions and experiences with new Cedar Lane Elementary School principal, James Dallas, and three words come up often: confident, professional, a visionary. But for Dallas himself, one word stands out more than any other: parent.

"I am a parent first," he said. "The most important thing you have to do is keep kids first in all decisions. I have to think like that because I’m a parent and these are parents we are working with."

Dallas began applying his passion for children to the Cedar Lane community July 2, when he took over at the helm of the elementary school and has not slowed down since. He has spent his days meeting with teachers and staff members, talking to parents, attending training seminars and anything else that will help him to make the upcoming year successful and the transition for students and faculty seamless.

"I consider myself the quarterback of a team," the Virginia Tech alumni said. "Education is a collective effort. It includes the parents, teachers and all the other folks that are affecting an individual child."

Sue Ann Gleason, a first-grade teacher at Cedar Lane, said she was impressed with Dallas from the start.

"He’s already contacted the team leaders to find out how we’ve operated in the past," she said. "He seems confident, sincere, organized and genuinely interested in shared leadership."

DALLAS’ JOURNEY to Cedar Lane began in Martinsville, Va., where he grew up. Dallas started college as a business and finance major at Virginia State University, but after three years took time off from school.

"When I was home I started working in a rec center," Dallas said.

Dallas worked with children at the community center and realized how much he enjoyed it.

"I decided at that time that I wanted to work with kids," he said. "So I decided to go back to school and get my degree."

Entering Virginia Tech soon after, Dallas earned his Bachelor of Arts in elementary education in 1989.

"I like to catch [children] early," Dallas said of his decision to focus on younger students. "I felt elementary school was where I would make the biggest impact."

Immediately after graduating, Dallas began working at Fairview Elementary School in Burke.

"I was a second-grade teacher for the first two years," he said. After working in the second grade, Dallas taught both fifth and sixth grades. In 1995, Dallas earned his master's from Virginia Tech in education, curriculum and instruction.

From 1996 to 2000, Dallas took a job in Fairfax County’s central office, working with schools and principals on best practices and how to apply them.

"It gave me a real opportunity to see the relationship between the central office and schools," he said.

During his time at the central office, Dallas started taking classes at Virginia Tech, working toward his certification as an education specialist and administration, which he received in 2002.

"I wanted to have a different kind of impact on children," Dallas said. "The best way was to do it through administration. I knew that I wanted to go into it early in my teaching career because I worked for good administrators."

After leaving the central office, Dallas began as assistant principal at William Halley Elementary School in Fairfax Station, before becoming principal at Hybla Valley Elementary School in Alexandria, a position he kept until this summer.

"I am a very visible principal," he said of his leadership style. "People will see me in the halls with a broom or in the cafeteria wiping down tables. You’ll see me out front planting in a suit. I don’t believe in asking anyone to do a job I wouldn’t do."

DALLAS’ MOVE TO Loudoun County was driven by two different factors, one personal, one professional.

"I had encouragement with some people who I had worked with in other situations," he said. "With some Fairfax people moving on board, they kept saying what a great school system it is."

In addition, Dallas, a Leesburg resident with a daughter at Freedom High School, said he wanted to do more in his home community.

"I wanted to have more impact on my own neighborhood," he said.

"He has a real connection with this community," Gleason, who was on the principal selection committee, said. "One thing he said that impressed me was that now it was his time to give back to the community in which he lives. That speaks volumes."

MARY KEALY, ASSISTANT superintendent of pupil services, worked with Dallas on a committee for behavior support services for all students, while the principal was still in Fairfax County and said she was immediately impressed by his abilities.

"The committee was focused on proactive and positive approaches for discipline issues," she said. "He implemented the program successfully in his school. He became a leader by training and sharing with other schools because his school had been so successful."

In addition to his leadership skills, Kealy said she was impressed with Dallas’ knowledge about instruction and education.

"He knows about all areas, from students with special needs to gifted-and-talented students," she said. "That’s going to make him very successful."

Gleason as well said she was pleased to see how committed Dallas was to the complete education of children.

"He truly believes in shared leadership," she said. "We have teams that are related to a plan for instruction and we continually work on that plan to make sure our children are learning. He is going to take that plan to the next level. To ‘Where do we want to go as a staff?’ To me, that’s vision."

After a three-hour meeting with Dallas, Cedar Lane’s PTA president and staff member Deborah Schwind said she sees him as "an explorer, a journeyman, not a tourist" and "someone who appreciates the art and science of teaching."

"He is a professional, yet very welcoming and collegial," Schwind said. "He is supportive and devoted, truly a part of the team and will lead the team."

CREATING THE SORT of positive working environment he has already laid the groundwork for is important to Dallas, who said he believes in listening to the parents and teachers of his students whenever he makes a decision.

"Parents are more aware of how their child learns than anyone," he said. "They know their kids. I want to provide an opportunity for our parents to show what they know about their kids and figure out ways to implement that into the classroom."

Schwind said she was amazed by Dallas' attitude toward the PTA and its role in the school.

"He sees the PTA as a tremendous asset to the school and the community and already has his sleeves rolled up," she said.

Dallas said he is also interested in listening to the students and making sure there is a structured student government where students can express their opinions.

"I believe children deserve the opportunity to have a voice in how they’re school is governed," he said.

After all, for Dallas, children are the bottom line.

"The most important thing is to think about what our children need to be a productive member of society," he said.