Alexandria A sign from Mount Vernon Community School’s staff on Peter Balas’ office door states: "Mount Vernon is like a hockey game … we all work overtime!" Looking at it, the school’s new principal laughed. "The staff here has been very warm, very welcoming," he said.
Balas is a former T.C. Williams High School administrator who recently transferred to Mount Vernon, along with Mark Eisenhour, a T.C. Williams Pathways principal. Eisenhour is splitting his time between Mount Vernon Community School, Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, and T.C. Williams High School as a Principal on Assignment.
Balas first began working with Alexandria City Public Schools in 2001 as a social studies teacher at Minnie Howard, then moved to the T.C. Williams King Street campus as the Executive Associate Principal in Curriculum and Instruction in 2007. Eisenhour began teaching at the Minnie Howard-T.C. Williams campus in 1994, then came to T.C. as an administrator in 2008.
"It was very cool first coming to T.C. because I got to see kids I had taught years before," Balas said. "And as an administrator, I got to see things through a different lens; I was supporting both teachers and students, as opposed to just students."
Originally scheduled to come to Mount Vernon on July 1, Balas found himself saying goodbye to T.C. on May 2 when the school’s former principal, Tina Radomsky, left earlier than expected.
"I thought that it would be hard coming from high schoolers to elementary school kids," Balas said. "But it hasn’t been at all. All of these kids are great," he said, gesturing to the crowd of school children lining up for their bus rides home.
"I will miss high school wit," he said wryly. "Kids [at T.C.] are the best. There was something very satisfying about seeing them progress to the 12th grade and then seeing them move on from high school … something very satisfying in that."
T.C. WILLIAMS’ SENIOR Abby Cox will miss Balas’ personal touch within the school. "He knew my name, which was really refreshing in a big school like T.C. He knew a lot of kids on a personal level," she said.
"Mr. Eisenhour was a good administrator," said senior Grace Garrahan. "He was a little strict, but he was always fair and he would always greet kids on the way into school."
But Balas is looking forward to his time at Mount Vernon. "There have been several principals here over only a few years," he said. "During my second week here, I went to every classroom to talk to the kids. A lot of them asked me how long I would be staying. And that to me was very significant. It shows that even elementary school kids feel a change in leadership. So I want to give them some continuity."
Mount Vernon Community School has failed to make federally-mandated Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for five years, and is in its third year of school improvement, or corrective action.
"[Superintendent Morton] Sherman’s decision to put Mount Vernon under a similar plan as the one T.C. is currently undergoing is a sort of preemptive strike," Balas said. By acting early, the superintendent hopes to turn Mount Vernon’s academic record around before the federal government has to intervene.
IN ADDITION to raising SOL scores and increasing competence in literacy and mathematics, Balas is determined to strengthen and structure Mount Vernon’s approach to its dual language program. The immersion program has students taking some classes that are taught entirely in Spanish.
"While the dual language program has gotten a lot of support over the years, we’ve also heard parents say that it isn’t structured enough," said Balas. "So something we’re working on is strengthening that program."
Eisenhour’s main goals for each school he is currently serving vary widely. "I am the project lead for the Jefferson-Houston School of the Future," he said, referring to the new Jefferson-Houston building which is in the works with the city. "At T.C., I am the head of the Pathways program, which is actually ending at the end of this year." The Pathways program will be replaced with new satellite campuses around the city. And at Mount Vernon, Eisenhour’s main task is to support Balas and the rest of the staff in their task to turn around the school academically.
"Right now as a staff, we’re determining where we want to be as a school," Balas said. "We’re planning with the end in mind."