Top principals: leaders with vision and a plan

The Washington Post has honored teaching excellence in the Washington region for three decades, with more than 500 teachers winning the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award for their work in the classroom, creativity and contribution to the improvement of education. Find this year’s winners here.

The awards are named for Agnes Meyer, wife of Eugene Meyer, who purchased The Post in 1933. She was a staunch supporter and defender of public education and believed in the motto that still guides the awards: “Quality education is essential to the well-being of our society, and good teachers are the foundation of our educational system.”

The Post also honor the region’s principals with the Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards, recognizing those who go beyond the day-to-day demands of their position to create an exceptional educational environment. Winners are invited to attend an expenses-paid four-day leadership seminar. Read about some of those principals below, and for a complete list, click here.

The role that teachers play in helping children learn has drawn considerable attention during the past decade, as school improvement efforts have swept across the nation. But as many educators will tell you, teachers can’t do it alone: They need strong principals, leaders who offer a vision and a road map to achieve it.

“To be led is an honor and a clear path to causing rippling effects in my students’ lives,” wrote VanNessa Duckett, a fourth-grade teacher at the District’s Maury Elementary, of her appreciation for Principal Carolyne Albert-Garvey.

Albert-Garvey, affectionately known as CAG, arrived at Maury five years ago and helped transform it from a school largely dismissed by neighbors into one of the most sought-after academic options on Capitol Hill. She welcomed parent involvement and championed a strong PTA; she made a priority of developing a caring school culture; she gave teachers the training and instructional coaching that they could put to use in their classrooms.

She also put in 80-hour workweeks and insisted that great schools teach much more than math and reading. “CAG is the real deal,” Duckett wrote. “No drama; just guts and vision.”

Albert-Garvey is one of 18 principals The Washington Post is recognizing this year with the Distinguished Educational Leadership Award.

They work in large schools and small schools, in affluent suburbs and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. But they are all leaders who have created environments that work because of their ability to balance the competing demands of their jobs, such as addressing a mother’s concern about her child, coaching a struggling teacher and squeezing as much as possible out of a tight budget.

“I kind of thought being a principal was all about management,” said Robert Dodd, principal of Silver Spring’s Argyle Middle, a magnet school for digital design and development. “I don’t think I realized how important it was going to be for me to know a tremendous amount about teaching and learning.”

Dodd said he has enjoyed this part of his role. “I really love the whole art and science of great instruction, and what it means to create a great instructional program,” he said.

Dodd has worked diligently to turn around Argyle, a school of mostly poor and minority children, and to, as one teacher put it, “give the best possible education to the students who needed it most.”

Brandon Davis, principal of Alexandria’s Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology, said he can spot leadership when students can explain what they are learning and how they can use it.

Davis asks his staff to be single-minded about teaching students what they need to succeed in college.

Davis said: “Some schools, as you get to the end of the year, get kind of lax. We don’t do that. Every day, every minute of the day, we teach.”

In Davis’s six years as principal, Cora Kelly went from a struggling school to one of Alexandria’s top performers on state tests. The school is 93 percent black or Hispanic, and 82 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. In 2010-11, 98 percent of Davis’s students passed the state’s math Standards of Learning exam, the highest pass rate ever achieved in the school district.

In Prince George’s County, Carletta Marrow says she knew that she would need to build solid relationships with students, staff, parents and the community.

“The unexpected piece is being able to build relationships while dealing with the politics of the community requests and student requests, all while ensuring that the students are getting what they need,” said Marrow, principal of Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High, a high school of 2,200 students. “Then you have to address the political arena when it comes to test scores, zones and boundaries.”

Part of being a strong leader is being able to delegate, says Jay Pearson, principal of George C. Marshall High in Fairfax County.

Pearson has tasked one of his assistant principals to lead most aspects of the school’s renovation, “which allows me a broader oversight.”

Students, too, appreciate a principal who doesn’t try to control them but gives them space to explore and push boundaries.

Talley Murphy, a 2013 graduate who served as the editor of Marshall’s student newspaper, wrote in a nomination letter that Pearson supported the teens’ budding journalistic efforts. “Not only did Pearson give us the freedom and autonomy to produce a complicated, award-winning newspaper,” Murphy wrote. “But he also encouraged us to take on difficult topics, sometimes joining us in the classroom during production for extended interviews or conversations about stories relevant to the school.”

Principal Andrew Davis of Rolling Ridge Elementary, in Sterling, agrees that it’s crucial to let go of the impulse to micromanage and to trust teachers to take on real leadership roles. “I have folks that the more responsibility they got, the harder they worked,” he said. “And the more they wanted to succeed.”

Rolling Ridge was designated as a school in need of improvement in 2012, based on its state test performance. But the school met all of its federal testing goals in 2013. Nearly four in 10 students are learning English as a second language, and 62 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

David Huckestein, principal at Woodbridge Senior High School in Prince William County, said it is also crucial to develop a sense of how far-reaching your decisions can be. Woodbridge High is one of the county’s largest schools, with 2,800 students.

“Anytime, whether you are thinking about a new initiative or a simple e-mail, you have to think of the building in its totality,” Huckestein said. “If I make this decision, how will it affect the teachers, the cafeteria workers, the parents? You have to have that global perspective.”

Michael Alison Chandler, Donna St. George, T. Rees Shapiro and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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