When Nathaniel Provencio, MS Educational Leadership ’07, became the first in his family to attend college, he felt a sense of obligation more than privilege.
“I knew that if I was going to go to university, I needed to do something where I could give back to the community,” he says. “Teaching is one of the best ways to do that.”
As principal at Minnieville Elementary School in Woodbridge, Virginia, Provencio turned an underperforming institution into one of Prince William County’s best performing elementary schools. His efforts earned him recognition as the Washington Post’s 2017 Principal of the Year.
“I know my success is contingent on the success of my staff, the parent involvement, the kids who work hard to try and learn every day,” says Provencio. “It’s nice to have my name associated with the award. But to have the opportunity to represent the entire community, that’s what’s most important to me.”
The rise didn’t happen immediately. In 2012, Provencio’s second year as a first-time principal, Minnieville was one of 485 schools across the state required to implement an improvement plan because it did not reach educational benchmarks.
Now, 87 percent of students pass state reading exams and nearly 90 percent pass state math exams. The results are even more notable because of the school’s demographics. More than 80 percent of his 500 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and for 50 percent English is not their first language.
In response, Provencio worked with his staff to realign traditional literacy frameworks in order to have small groups of students receive 30 minutes of reading instruction every day with multiple staff members in the classroom. He encourages teachers to brainstorm on how to help students who are falling behind. He also is in the hallways, chatting with students, learning their names and developing relationships with their parents.
“We see our job as being community advocates for every one of our students and families,” he says. “As the leader of this building, I set the tone. At the end of the day our job is to create an environment where we are going to immerse children with a quality education the first time. We are not going to wait for our children to fail before they receive the support they deserve.”
Provencio, who grew up in rural Tennessee, earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at the University of North Alabama. After working for three years as a third-grade teacher in Prince William County, he started at Mason in 2004.
“The program [at Mason] was so personalized, I got more out of that experience than I could have with any other university,” he says.