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Guiding Principals

A principal’s day starts before the students arrive and ends long after the students leave the building.

On this particular morning at Drew Model School in Arlington, Virginia, the students are dressed in their very best outfits for picture day, and Principal Kimberley Graves, MEd Education Leadership ’04, walks the halls of the school. She checks in with students, talks to teachers, and crouches down for a private chat with a boy waiting in the main office—all before she even attends her first meeting of the day.

Kimberley Graves, MEd ’04 principal of Drew Model School, chats with her students. Photo by Evan Cantwell

“Sleep is for wimps,” jokes Graves, who was the 2018 Arlington Public Schools Principal of the Year [1] and a finalist for the Washington Post Principal of the Year award. “I’m driven by a desire to make a difference. I’ve always tended to work in Title I schools because I feel that the need is so much greater. When you are working with students to ensure that they have everything they need to be successful, you’re countering some of the things that are associated with living in poverty or coming from disadvantaged families.”

Good Schools as a Magnet

Everyone wants the very best education for their child,” says Mark Ginsberg, dean of George Mason University’s College of Education and Human Development [2]. “As the dean of a college that prepares roughly a third of the teachers in Northern Virginia, I know that the quality of our region’s public schools makes a difference.”

Ginsberg says good schools are critical to the economic health of the region, and the fact that Northern Virginia’s public school systems are among the best in the United States is a selling point for employers looking to attract and retain potential hires.

“[The schools] attract the talent required for economic development and success,” he says. “They are the pull that keeps highly skilled workers and organizational leaders as residents of their community.”

And that pull helps bring companies like Amazon to the region.

Mason’s PhD in education is one of the university’s most popular doctoral programs, producing 48 graduates in May 2018. At the same Commencement ceremony, three of the top five master’s degree programs were in education fields: education leadership, curriculum and instruction, and special education.

Many of these graduates stay close after they leave Mason. Most are already working in local school systems when they start graduate studies. Fairfax County Public Schools is the second largest employer of Mason alumni, who are making an impact in their schools and being recognized for their achievements.

In 2017, Nathaniel Provencio, MEd Education Leadership ’07 and principal at Minnieville Elementary School in Woodbridge, Virginia, was named Washington Post Principal of the Year [3].

In 2018, several alumni—including Graves—were finalists for that same award and were named Principal of the Year in their respective school systems: Merrell Dade, MEd Education Leadership ’02, MA New Professional Studies ’98, of Forestdale Elementary School in Fairfax County; Amanda Wilder, MEd Special Education ’00, PhD Education ’12, of Richard C. Haydon Elementary School in Manassas City; and Robert Eichorn, MEd Special Education ’95, of New Directions Alternative Education Center in Prince William County.

The Washington Post’s 2018 Teacher of the Year [4] was Mason alumnus Dan Reichard, MEd Education Leadership ’17, of Kate Waller Barrett Elementary School in Stafford County.

These education leaders are helping shape the future of Virginia. Their success in preparing young people for the workforce and the world is directly linked to the future continued success of the commonwealth.

Setting the Tone

When looking at all the talented administrators who have emerged from Mason, some commonalities emerge, such as the desire to make an impact on children’s lives and, in some cases, be willing to take on the challenge of turning a school around, specifically underserved Title I schools where a majority of the students come from low-income families.

The Washington Post recognized alumnus Nathaniel Provencio as 2017 Principal of the Year for the metropolitan area. Photo by Evan Cantwell

When Provencio took the job at Minnieville, the elementary school was one of 485 schools across the state required to implement an improvement plan because it did not reach educational benchmarks. Now, it is one of the best performing schools in Prince William County.

“As the leader of this building, I set the tone,” says Provencio. “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.”

In fact, there is a saying that if the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold, according to Andy Jacks, MEd Education Leadership ’05, principal of Ashland Elementary in Prince William County.

Jacks’s school was ranked 420th among elementary schools in Virginia when he took the job nine years ago. Recently it was ranked as high as 49th. For his efforts, Jacks was recognized in 2018 as a Virginia Principal of the Year by the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals (VAESP) and received a National Distinguished Principal Award from the National Association of Elementary Principals.

“It’s really this idea that if I am negative, the school tends to be negative,” says Jacks. And Jacks is anything but negative. “I literally have a green light in my office. I took out the red and yellow bulbs. It’s on all day long as a reminder to me. I have to be ready to roll.”

Andy Jacks, MEd ’05 and principal of Ashland Elementary. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Jacks takes his leadership role seriously and considers it more than a full-time job. “Leaders lead all the time, not just some of the time. You can’t take days off if you want to be a leader. You have to always be ready to go, and that doesn’t mean you’re perfect and you don’t make mistakes, but you have to be ready to listen to people, to figure things out and resolve issues, and to help move things forward.”

Making an Impact

When Graves first moved to Northern Virginia, she was a history teacher in an alternative program at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. The program was designed for students with challenges, including teens who had been suspended numerous times and were at risk for not completing high school.

“Failure was not an option for these students,” says Graves. “We were able to hold them accountable but still create environments for them to be successful.”

One of her students got in trouble with the law, which was devastating for Graves and her colleagues. Graves went to her principal’s office and asked how something like that could happen and what she needed to do to make sure it never happened again.

“Her response was, you need to be in a position so that you make decisions so that those types of things don’t happen. You have to become a principal,” Graves says. “So that was the catalyst that pushed me to pursue it.”

And she hasn’t looked back. Graves has worked at all three levels at this point in her career: elementary, middle, and high school. She was appointed principal of Arlington’s Drew Model School in July 2018. The job is her third time serving as a school principal.

“I think teachers have the most important job in the world,” says Graves. “I’m almost jealous of them sometimes because they get to be with kids all day long and be a part of shaping the world that they’re going to come into. My role as a principal to get everything out of the way so that all teachers need to do is teach their kids.”

Rituals Matter
There are always emails to check and paperwork to complete, but Jacks emphasizes that a good principal needs to be present and visible around the school.

“Sometimes my biggest challenge as a principal is getting out of the office,” says Jacks. “If you’re away from the kids, you’re away from the action, and you’re away from the people who need you.”

He recommends creating routines, which he likes to call rituals. “Create a ritual,” he says, “something you can’t live without, and make it part of your every day, every week experience.”

Jacks has several of these rituals. For example, he reads regularly to every class in the school. Each month Jacks does a book talk video [5] promoting the book that is broadcast to the school. Videos are a big part of life at Ashland Elementary, and Jacks and the school have several YouTube channels. There is even a TV studio where students create their own programs.

“The principal’s job is amazing,” says Jacks. “It’s the best job you’ll ever have. It’s also the most challenging job you’ll ever have. That’s part of the fun.”

Damian Cristodero contributed to this story.