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In Principal Search, Schools Find Leadership in Familiar Places

High schools made AYP in 2006, middle schools didn’t.

In 2006, Carl Sandburg Middle School and Mount Vernon High School looked within to find new principals. After Eric Brent was hired as Mount Vernon’s principal in 2005, Nardos King believed she would be leaving the school after 11 years as a teacher and administrator. “It wasn’t a good feeling in the inside knowing that I would be leaving a school that I love,” said King, who thought her ambitions to become a principal could no longer be pursued at Mount Vernon. But when Brent abruptly announced in the spring that he would be leaving Mount Vernon to take a job at Forest Park High School in his hometown of Woodbridge, to be closer to his children, King’s options opened up. She interviewed for the position at the end of June and was offered the job of Principal of Mount Vernon High School on July 25.

As a former support staff member, teacher and sub-school principal at the high school, King said her diverse experience will be an asset. “It gives me the unique opportunity to see the principalship from many different eyes,” she explained. “When I’m making the decisions, I can remember how that decision would have affected me.” King said she would continue on the path set by Brent, to continue to raise the high school’s academic standards.

Mount Vernon has now made the federal government’s No Child Left Behind benchmarks for Adequate Yearly Progress two years in a row. In 2006, 86 percent of students at Mount Vernon passed the Standards of Learning reading tests that have become the basis for evaluation of schools’ . 89 percent of high school students in Fairfax passed the reading test, and 84 percent passed statewide. AYP required a minimum 69 percent passing rate for reading. On math tests, 81 percent of Mount Vernon students passed, compared to 82 percent in Fairfax and 76 percent in Virginia. The AYP requirement was 67 percent.

Meanwhile, Rima Vesilind, the principal of West Potomac, said her school will be focusing on critical thinking for the 2006-2007 school year. Teachers have been asked to set aside time in class for students to read, write and think critically about the material being presented.

The school also began a new schedule that gives students more opportunity to structure their own learning. Students have a new “flex” period once every two days. Some may decide to use the period to review material in classes they are failing, while others use the time to pursue an advanced project in subjects they have already mastered.

After failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks in previous years, West Potomac made AYP in 2006. 86 percent of West Potomac students passed the state’s Standards of Learning reading test. West Potomac students also performed above the state average with an 81 percent passing rate last year.

In April, when some Congressional representatives were proposing legislating that would have made it possible to charge illegal immigrants and people who helped them as felons, West Potomac students joined in the protest movement that sprang up across the country. On April 5, Robert Castro was among the 50 or so students who walked out of school to carry signs on Route 1. “A lot of people would stop and honk and give us thumbs up,” Castro said “we had a lot of people flick us off too.”

Nancy Kreloff, an assistant principal at West Potomac, Kreloff tried to turn the protest into a “teachable moment” by holding an after-school forum for the students. About 30 students attended. Jocelyn Garay told her classmates, “There is a negative connotation with Latinos. That is our generation’s fault. You can’t complain about it if you aren’t doing anything to change it.”

“I feel that I’m here to make a difference,” she added.

AFTER SIX YEARS as an assistant principal at Carl Sandburg, Wendy Eaton was promoted to replace outgoing principal Donna Pasteur, who had been at Sandburg for nine years and in Fairfax County Schools her entire career, 34 years. “Over 34 years I’ve seen a lot of changes in education,” she said. “This county is so great because it’s moved with the demands and challenges and has always met the needs of the students and the people who work in the schools.

Eaton said she will be focused on “improving academic performance.” Sandburg is participating in the state’s Algebra Readiness Initiative, which allows the school to import an additional math teacher in the second semester to help prepare eighth-grade students for ninth-grade algebra.

Walt Whitman Elementary is encouraging reading by putting libraries in every classroom and designating time every day for free reading. To improve school discipline, Principal Otha Davis said he and his staff have put into place a county program called Positive Behavior Support.Teachers can nominate students with improved behavior to be entered in a Friday raffle. To encourage participation on all sides, the teachers who nominate students are also entered in the raffle. “It helps teachers focus on good behavior in the school,” Davis said. This summer, Whitman was given a PBS “Exemplar Award” from the county for its implementation of the program.

Neither Carl Sandburg or Walt Whitman made AYP last year.

IN OCTOBER, a contentious plan to replace a 55-foot light pole on the baseball field with a 69-foot cell-phone monopole was killed by the School Board in a 6-5 vote. The defeat for the pole came after months of debate between people in the community who favored the plan because of the income it would bring to the school and the improvements in cell-phone network it would bring to the area, and those who opposed it for a variety of reasons, including the size of the equipment shed that would have been required on the school’s athletic fields. Mount Vernon school board member Dan Storck voted against the pole, saying that T-Mobile and the pole’s builder, Smartpole, should explore other options in the area.

On April 24, about 25 people showed up for a “District Dialogue” at Walt Whitman Middle School. It was one of 31 such meetings across the county, in which school board members asked for the public’s reaction to the board’s proposed statement of goals for the entire school system that would make it easier for the board to identify budgeting priorities. “We need to make sure that our funding is consistent with our goals and the direction of our system,” Storck explained. Several people stood up to advocate for the schools to take a more active role in helping students self-actualize. Examples ranged from developing a strong sense of self to choosing the right career path. “I always tell my staff I don’t want to raise smart evil people and I don’t want to raise nice idiots either,” said Tish Howard, principal of Washington Mills Elementary. The subtext of many of the comments seemed to be a running, and never resolved, debate over ambition versus realism. One participant asked how the school board could make participation in the arts mandatory if every school did not provide the same access to them.

2006 WAS THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW that Mount Vernon Woods Elementary failed to make AYP. In order to meet the sanctions triggered by this failure, it has made free private tutorial services available to all of its low income students. 77 percent of students at the school received free/reduced price lunches in the 2004-2005 school year. To pass the AYP, a school must satisfy requirements for reading and math for 29 categories of student, broken down by race, income and special needs. According to Principal Marie Lemmon, Mount Vernon Woods did not pass because two of its 29 groups did not do well enough on reading tests. In the 2004-2005 AYP test, three subgroups at Mount Vernon Woods – “low income”, “limited English proficient” and “Hispanic” - failed to pass the reading test. In that year, 55 percent of the school’s population was Hispanic and 44 percent had limited English proficiency.

Principal Lemmon, who is new to the school after serving as an assistant principal at Hybla Valley Elementary for the last three years, said the school’s response to the AYP results will not be restricted to the optional tutoring. She said the school would reach beyond the demographic data that drives the test results to focus on the needs of each student. “There’s a lot of things that go into how each individual child performs on a test,” she said. “One of the things we’ll be working on each year is making sure that each of our individual children progress at the rate they need to progress.” She said that although Mount Vernon Woods had failed within two of its subgroups this year, its overall rate was passing, an improvement over the 2004-2005 result.