Manassas schools chief Gail Pope to step aside

The superintendent of Manassas public schools is stepping down after nearly six years in the job, she said in an interview Wednesday.

Gail E. Pope, who joined the school division after working as an associate superintendent in nearby Manassas Park, said she is stepping aside to pursue other options.

“There are some wonderful opportunities that are beginning to present themselves,” said Pope, who didn’t name any specific jobs. “There are many, many things going on and I’m going to open myself up to them.”

Pope, who will leave the job June 30, said she has been considering retirement for a while. Future work could include working or consulting for nonprofits or education associations, she said.

Manassas School Board member Kermit Holmes Dance said the board would first decide on an agency to undertake a national search for Pope’s replacement. The board will have a public hearing some time in the next year and solicit the thoughts of parents and school employees through surveys as to the qualities they want in the next superintendent, he said.

Pope is leaving at a time when the city school system is under greater scrutiny. Four members of the School Board are up for reelection May 1, and City Council candidates, who have an election the same day, have made improving school performance a key issue.

“We’ve got to work together and improve our schools so people choose to move to Manassas rather than move elsewhere,” said council member Mark D. Wolfe (R) before the recent Republican convention.

Pope said she is proud of Grace E. Metz Middle School’s improved math test scores since she arrived, among other achievements. “They became fully accredited within three years and have continued to experience student success in mathematics,” Pope said. She is also proud of how the school system and community responded when the roof at Mayfield Intermediate School collapsed during the huge D.C. area snowstorm of 2010.

Thousands of students and staff had to be relocated, she said, but students lost just four days of instruction time.

Pope has received mixed reviews from area parents, who have long complained about dropping test scores and graduation rates, especially compared with peers in Prince William, Fairfax and Arlington counties.

Rick Bookwalter, a father of nine, all of whom have spent time in Manassas schools, said that Pope has good personal relationships with parents but that many think she hasn’t been aggressive in addressing the school system’s challenges.

“The impression was that she was too reactive and not proactive,” Bookwalter said. He said her departure could be an opportunity for the school system to start fresh. “I wish her well. I think it’s a good thing for everybody; there needs to be some changes at the top and this is a good start.”

Pope said that a downturn in the area economy and “radical demographic shifts” have changed Manassas and the school system dramatically. Schools around the area and state have struggled with similar challenges, she said.

“Who would have anticipated those types of things?” Pope asked. She said she and staff members have worked hard to address the changes.

About 60 percent of Manassas students are considered impoverished and 40 percent have limited English proficiency skills, Dance said.

He said the community often focuses on test scores, which are more complicated than they can sometimes appear due to shifting state guidelines and other factors. Pope shouldn’t be judged solely on scores, he said.

“We take [students] and move them forward, and we do a good job of doing that,” he said.

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