Balas, 33, was an administrator at T.C. Williams High School for four years and a teacher for six, but he had no elementary experience. Teachers asked him what he knew about educating younger kids.
But Balas was there for a reason. Mount Vernon has below-average test scores overall and a growing achievement gap between its white and Latino students. The disparity became so glaring that last year Superintendent Morton Sherman marked it for “transformation,” or a top-to-bottom makeover. Balas had worked on a similar metamorphosis as an executive associate principal at T.C. Williams, where the passing rate on English tests rose to 95 percent in 2011, from 84 percent two years prior. Now, Sherman hopes Balas can help replicate those gains at Mount Vernon.
“A successful transformation isn’t just about new programs, it’s about a spirit,” Sherman said. “Peter Balas has that spirit.”
Classes began Aug. 1 at Mount Vernon, one of the few schools in the area that opens at such an early date. (Because of the school’s modified calendar, the school’s summer vacation is shorter but there are more short breaks throughout the year.) Balas strode through the halls one day this week, patting heads and saying hello. He worked the crowd in the cafeteria and reminded students that the most voracious readers would get to dunk him in a tank at the summer reading party at the end of the week.
“It’s nice to have my kids come home laughing about the funny things he’s said,” said Lisa Guernsey Krupicka, a mother of two at the school. “Our previous principal was known for her whistle.”
Academically, Mount Vernon faces challenges familiar to many public schools in economically diverse areas. A third of the 713 students are non-Hispanic white, and 57 percent are Hispanic. About 40 percent of the students are English-language learners. Sixty percent come from families poor enough to qualify for meal subsidies.
“Some kids get to kindergarten not knowing that letters make sounds,” said Maria Fletcher, a third-grade teacher.
While the school’s white students perform above the city average, its Latino students are far behind. In third-grade math, for example, the gap in passing rates widened to 24 percentage points in 2011 from 12 points in 2007.
“The teachers were doing everything they could do as professionals and not seeing the results,” Balas said. “They felt beat up.”
He wasted no time in making changes.
Among the biggest challenges was employee morale. Twenty teachers left Mount Vernon within the past year, out of 50 total, citing a combination of personal reasons and frustration with the school’s trajectory. There had also been turnover at the top. Tina Radomsky, Balas’s predecessor, resigned in the spring after less than two years as principal. The previous principal, Scott Coleman, served from 2007 to 2010.