Under Principal Brian Hull, students at Colin Powell Elementary have soared academically and become caring, well-rounded children. The school is a shining star in Fairfax County Public Schools' galaxy and its staff has won acclaim.
It's no wonder then that Hull was just honored by FCPS as its 2008 Principal of the Year. But it's not just for the big, obvious reasons, but also for the myriad little things he does each day that make students and staff there feel like a family.
HE'S THE KIND of principal who gives needed encouragement to a first-year teacher apprehensive about trying something new. And when a class behaves well in the cafeteria for six months, he'll wear a tuxedo-like apron, adorn the class's table with a cloth and candelabra and serve ice-cream sandwiches to each student.
"The small touches can mean so much," said Assistant Principal Susan Shadis. Just recently, a fire ravaged the home of two siblings who attend Colin Powell. When they came to school the next day, they were given breakfast, and Hull was there to greet them personally. Said Shadis: "He wanted to know the minute they came in so he could welcome them back to school so they'd feel comfortable."
And that's just the way he is, says his staff. "He's a great listener and a wonderful motivator," said office assistant Kim Burke. "He sets the pace for the school so it's a caring, warm, professional, yet nurturing, environment. He's a wonderful principal to work for, addresses any issues you need, is very diplomatic and pays attention to parents and students. It's what you want to see in a principal — someone who really cares."
Shadis said Hull "recognizes the differences in students and encourages us to meet each one's individual need. He makes us want to work better and smarter and see the whole picture. And he tells us everything he knows so we can make the best decisions for all 912 students."
"HE'S RESPECTFUL of teachers' creativity in the classroom and very encouraging in terms of staff development," added third-grade teacher Ashley Page. "And he makes sure we have time for our families and any family needs that come up. He's just a great, human being."
In September, Colin Powell teachers, administrators and PTA members sent a packet of letters to the school system, nominating Hull for Principal of the Year, and Page wrote one of the letters. "I cried when I found out he got it," she said. "I was filled with so much happiness, not only for him, but for the school."
Jill Apperson, an office assistant/teachers' aide, also praised Hull. "I've worked in the county for 19 years, and he is clearly the best principal I've ever worked for," she said. "He's totally passionate about his job and sets that example for everyone."
She said Hull even teaches a mentoring class for teachers mentoring other teachers. "He knows what it takes to be a teacher, and he encourages everyone to be and do their best," said Apperson. "And he's understanding about what it's like to be both a parent and teacher at the same time. [His award] couldn't have gone to a better person."
Tammy Wallace, Hull's administrative assistant, described him as easygoing and approachable. "He's always got time to talk to you, and he's fair," she said. "He's just a great boss."
County schools Superintendent Jack Dale presented the award, Oct. 31, in the school library, in front of several school board and cluster officials, plus Hull's wife Laura. "It was well-deserved and a long-time coming," said Wallace. "He has such compassion for kids — and he knows every kid's name."
P.E. teacher Jack Kelly wasn't at all surprised by his principal's honor. He said Hull has a positive attitude toward students, staff and parents, as well as various programs and projects. And, said Kelly, "He's really professional. He allows teachers to do their jobs, is caring with everybody and is considerate of the whole, school community. He even does bike rides to raise money for cancer research."
AND HULL, himself, couldn't be more thrilled to be named Principal of the Year. "I am on Cloud 9 — this has been unbelievable," he said. "What's been so gratifying are all the e-mails, calls and notes I've received; I've heard from people I haven't heard from in years. The outpouring of support from our community, plus colleagues in several states, has been wonderful. I even got a note from [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell, himself."
In his 28th year in FCPS, Hull's been at Colin Powell Elementary since it opened in September 2003. Prior to that, he was principal at Franklin Sherman, Willow Springs and Brookfield elementaries, acting principal at Jermantown Elementary and assistant principal at Brookfield.
In the mid- to late-1980s, he was principal at both the Fair Hill and Bush Hill centers for the physically disabled. And before that, he was a teacher for seven years. At Fairfax High, he taught math in the special-education program, after coming from Milwaukee where he taught fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade special-ed students.
At Colin Powell, said Hull, "We want to make sure every child is succeeding to the level they're capable of doing and find effective ways of supporting them. We also take student safety seriously and have [practice] lockdowns, tornado and fire drills. The students know they'll be well-taken-care-of in this building."
Of course, academic excellence is also stressed by raising the bar and providing every opportunity for students to reach it. Said Hull: "We're proud to be truly supporting the instructional needs of our community — gifted-and-talented students, kids who are struggling and those in the ESOL program."
He believes the school's instructional program is strong because "there's a common thread of trust; teachers can take risks in trying new strategies." Acknowledgement is also important. "I try very hard to recognize the staff for their dedication, professionalism and commitment," said Hull. "Everyone likes compliments and, [here], everyone knows they're supported and appreciated."
He said another of the school's attributes is that "diversity works in this building. The community embraces it, works with it, celebrates it and welcomes it — and that's what makes Colin Powell a special place to learn."
THE PTA helped establish a minority-student achievement committee, and both the SCA and the in-house TV program regularly highlight achievements of famous people of all cultures and nationalities. And Hull and the PTA implemented a phone-message system through which school information is translated into multiple languages.
Korean, Indian and Hispanic parent liaisons have improved communication with minority parents. And the African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern and Caucasian PTA board members mirror the school's diversity. "It sends a message that the leaders in our community are us," said Hull. "And I think that's a key piece in bringing in the community to be as involved as it is in the school."
Colin Powell also has a welcoming committee. "The PTA and school identify folks who want to contact people of their own, cultural backgrounds and welcome them into the school," explained Hull. It helps to bond them, and we have several families involved in it."
Each classroom also has student hosts who welcome new students, take them around the building and introduce them to others. "So every child feels that he or she has a friend on the first day of school," said Hull. "And that's what it's all about — relationships."
He's also proud of his relationship with the school's namesake who sent him a handwritten note saying, "Congratulations on the well-deserved recognition ... keep up the great work for our kids."
The commendation came in conjunction with the Washington Post's annual Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards, and Hull will speak at the Dec. 20 School Board meeting and reception feting all the Principal of the Year nominees.
"I'm ecstatic," said Hull. "I'm honored by this award and am blessed to work in a school system with such dedicated and committed professionals at all positions."