James Dallas, Discovery Elementary School

September 3, 2013

Q Have you ever opened a school before?

First time. It’s always been a dream of mine, so now the dream has come true, and I will certainly take advantage of every opportunity.

What are your thoughts about the undertaking?

I think the most exciting thing is the opportunity to build a school from the ground up, to have the opportunity to hire your staff and bring in people who share your philosophy regarding what our kids need to be successful, not just in school, but in life. That all lends itself to the type of culture that you’re trying to create in your building. I think any principal would tell you that’s the most important thing we do . . . to build this collaborative culture, this culture where we’re all working toward the same outcome. I can’t think of a more exciting experience.

What’s the most important quality you look for in hiring staff members?

The very first thing that I look for is someone who genuinely loves their work, that they have a passion for that work. And people say, “How do you know that in an interview?” Well, it’s the conversation you have. It’s not a series of questions that you ask. It’s the conversations that you have with people, and being able to try and determine what their core values and core beliefs are, as it pertains to this important work that we do. And I look for people who love to collaborate, teachers who enjoy working with [and] learning from one another, and teachers who understand the purpose of our work.

Our work has a solid purpose behind it. We’re shaping the minds of future doctors and lawyers and perhaps a president. So to be able to bring folks on board that understand that, that understand why we’re here, what we’re charged with doing, that’s what I look for.

What kinds of outreach have you been doing with the parents and children?

Early on, I had the privilege and pleasure of going around to all of the feeder schools to meet the kids, to introduce myself to all of the kids who are going to be coming to Discovery, and I took them a little hand bracelet with “Discovery” on it. It was a way for me to say, “You are now a Trailblazer.”

I met with the parents back in April at our very first parent organizational meeting to really talk about what we aspire to become as a community, and giving them a chance to meet me and understand a little bit about my philosophy regarding school
. . . and everybody’s role, and making sure that our kids have access to an incredible experience. We’ve already had a PTO meeting. I’ve gone to homeowners association meetings just to talk a little bit about the school, who we are and what we’re all about.

Did the kids vote for the name
Trailblazers?

We identified five mascots, and then the students had the chance to vote on the mascot. And Trailblazers — which I thought was very fitting — happened to be the one that received the most votes.

Why do you think that’s fitting?

Because when I think about Discovery, of course you think about the [space] shuttle. But also, our motto is, “Experience the thrill of discovery while blazing the trail to an exciting future.” So we are a brand-new school, in this process of discovering a lot of things as learners. But also, being a brand-new school, we’re going to be able to blaze this trail to new and exciting adventures throughout this entire process.

Your color scheme appears to be unique — navy blue, khaki and light blue.

It is one of a kind. We spent hours on the county Web site, looking at every school in Loudoun County, looking at their colors, because we wanted to be different. We wanted to blaze a trail to an exciting and new future, and that also pertained to our color scheme.

What do you see as the biggest
challenges between now and the first day of school?

My biggest focus is really building a community here at Discovery. These are students . . . and families we are uprooting from other schools around the county, places they called their home. And some are excited, because they’ve always been looking for their neighborhood school. But to be able to blend these traditions and these philosophies together under one roof, under one umbrella of Discovery, that’s my biggest focus right now.

I want our new community to come together here at Discovery . . . where the parents can recognize that “this is the place where my kid not only was able to meet expectations, and the staff was able to exceed my expectations”; where the kids are able to walk away and say, “Wow, I never knew that I could be so engaged in the day-to-day operation of my school, that my voice was important, my voice was represented in some decision making”; and where teachers can look at this and say, “I never knew that I would be able to stretch my wings so wide and do the things that I’ve always wanted to do in my career as a teacher.”

There are a lot of times where we are pigeonholed. Well, there are no boxes here at Discovery. We are in a position to do creative, innovative things. I believe in opening up people’s minds and working together to be the very best that we can be, day in and day out.

Have there been any surprises in this process?

There haven’t, really. If anything has been a surprise, the biggest [one] is how quickly this thing has come together. The pace at which the school has been operating — that, to me, has been very surprising and, quite honestly, it’s really been amazing.

If you had one message for the parents, what would it be?

That our success depends on the mutual trust that we have. If they trust us, and we trust them, and we’re able to engage in open, transparent, honest dialogue and discussion about the future we all want for our children, then this experience this year and for years to come will be something that they look back on forever and cherish.

What would be your message for your students?

To be prepared to enjoy this ride. It’s going to be an amazing ride.

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