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Learning Administration at Hybla Valley Elementary

New principal, assistant principal cut their teeth at diverse elementary school.

Lauren Sheehy, the new principal at Hybla Valley Elementary School, and Pam Simpkins, the school’s new vice principal, did not meet until Simpkins’ first job interview at the school, but they have a lot in common. Both are entering their 15th year working in Fairfax County schools, spent years teaching special education, hold a number of academic degrees and have spent all or almost all of their careers teaching at elementary schools within about five miles of Hybla Valley.

Also, both are new not only to the school, but to their administrative positions — this will be Sheehy’s first year as a principal and Simpkins’ first year as an assistant principal.

SHEEHY HAS WORKED only in schools receiving Title 1 funding, distributed to schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families, preparing her to head the school with the highest Title 1 budget among Fairfax County elementary schools.

"I think I enjoy being where I’m needed," she said, adding that she enjoys working with a diverse student body. Hybla Valley, she said, is "lucky enough to have diversity in ethnicity and economic status." Growing up in New York City, she said, gave her an appreciation for diversity.

The student population at Hybla Valley last year was 3 percent white, more than 25 percent black and almost 60 percent Hispanic. More than two-thirds of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Sheehy holds a master’s degree in reading education and another in education administration, as well as a doctorate from Virginia Tech in educational leadership. She taught special education at Riverside, Groveton and Gunston elementary schools before becoming an assistant principal at Crestwood and then Lynbrook elementary schools for three years each.

"As I became a more seasoned teacher, I saw that I could have an impact on different grade levels," she said, calling her move to assistant principal and now to principal "kind of a natural transition." She noted that the leadership opportunities that were granted to her as a special education teacher, co-teaching with other teachers in the schools, had helped inspire her to take on more responsibility. "I’m really big on shared leadership," she said, adding that she intended to give Hybla Valley teachers opportunities to lead.

To integrate herself into her new school environment, Sheehy said she had been doing "a lot of listening," and she noted that she had met with many of the teachers and staff members "to get feedback on what’s working and what needed to be tweaked."

Assessments of student learning will be a major focus this year, she said, noting that this year, Hybla Valley is one of 10 elementary schools in the county piloting the new eCART (Electronic Curriculum Assessment Resource Tool) program. This addition to the Fairfax County Public Schools’ Web site will provide ready-made assessments or let teachers create their own assessments, among other functions.

Sheehy said her longtime work in the Springfield and Mount Vernon areas, not far from where she lives, made her feel she has a stake in the community. "Not only do I care about my school community, but I care about the larger Mount Vernon community," she said.

Hybla Valley has yet to find an official liaison between the school and the parents in the community, in the form of a PTA president for this year, but Sheehy said she was working to find a way to involve parents without imposing titles, noting that many parents in the community want to be involved but may not speak English well or may work more than one job and have limited time.

SIMPKINS EARNED her master’s degree while teaching special education at Rolling Valley Elementary in Springfield. She taught at the school for 13 years before becoming an administrative intern at Westlawn Elementary in Annandale last year. She just received her doctorate in May.

"I’ve always worked and gone to school," she said. "I really enjoy learning. I’m a lifelong learner, and there are still things I need to learn." She said that if she continues taking classes, they will probably be Spanish language classes to help her better communicate with some of the students’ parents.

Simpkins said she moved into administration because she enjoys collaborating with other teachers and wanted to have a broader influence on student learning. "As an administrator, I can make a difference in several classrooms at the same time," she said. She added that she also wanted to make sure that all of the students were protected, taught and loved. "That’s kind of what I call my ‘PTL Method,’" she said.

However, the move does not mean she has given up teaching. An adjunct professor at George Mason University, Simpkins teaches a class on the characteristics of learning disabilities and emotional disturbances during summers.

With the summer almost over, though, she said she was "looking forward to growing and learning about administration with [Sheehy]."

Marianne Hayes would be teaching fourth grade at Lynbrook Elementary this year if Sheehy had not convinced Hayes to follow her to Hybla Valley to become the Step-Up Math teacher, a Title 1-funded position. "I think she’s a very strong leader," Hayes said of Sheehy. "I think she’s committed to her staff, the students and the community."

She noted that the two also shared a "New York connection," as Sheehy comes from Manhattan, and Hayes is from the Bronx.

"She needed to be in a principal position. I think it’s good for her," said Hayes.