Principal of new Loudoun high school talks about start of new year

August 4, 2012

The Loudoun County public schools will open a new high school in the rapidly growing Dulles South area when the school year starts Aug. 27. John Champe High School, which is in the Stone Ridge subdivision south of Route 50, will be the county’s 13th public high school. It is expected to have about 600 students in three grades, with no senior class.

John Gabriel, 39, is the school’s first principal. A native of New York City, he grew up in northern New Jersey, received a bachelor’s degree in English from Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington) and a master’s in educational leadership from George Mason University.

Before moving into school administration, he taught high school English in four school systems. He was assistant principal at Park View High School from 2004 to 2011 and was appointed principal of John Champe High School in July 2011.

Gabriel recently talked to The Washington Post about the new school.

You haven’t been a principal before, and yet you are opening a new school. Did that appointment surprise you?

That’s wild, right? It’s a humbling experience that they have the confidence in me being able to do that.

What do you look for when hiring teachers?

There are two kinds of teachers, and this is a question that I will posit to everyone: “Are you a fire starter, or are you a fire extinguisher?” I want teachers who are going to keep that fire burning and to start that fire rather than extinguish it. Get them interested in wanting to come back for more rather than going home with a backpack full of books and having a bunch of papers . . . about policies and regulations from each class. Why not light that fire rather than extinguish it on day one?

What do you see as your most important job, as the principal of a new school?

It depends from day to day. The most important part of my job back in January was staffing. The most important job right now is making sure that we are up and running and fully operational. But I would say that one of the most important pieces throughout all of this . . . is setting the tone and establishing that culture. There’s a phrase, “When the principal sneezes, the building catches a cold.” So I think it’s really important to establish that culture, that positive climate . . . and that’s what I’ve been doing, both with the community and the kids, for over a year, [and that’s what] I’ll be doing with the staff when they come in for a retreat.

Have you been doing outreach to the parents and students?

We had a “meet and greet” one night, right before school started last year, and unveiled the school, what our goals were, and gave them the opportunity to raise questions. . . . We did several others throughout that next month or so. Then we went to each of the schools and had meetings with the kids. Starting in October, we had a student ambassador team. Once a month, we would meet and discuss rules. I gave them a lot of input and flexibility — for example, what would you like to name the school cheering section? What would you like to name the school store? What are your thoughts on the cell phone policy? So we would talk about it, and I would get some feedback from them. And then I would send them, as ambassadors, out into their schools — the feeder schools [Mercer Middle and Stone Hill Middle schools] and Freedom High School, where the kids are coming from — and spread the word and get input from their friends. Then we would reconvene the following month and have a conversation on a whole new topic.

Who was John Champe?

He was a Loudoun County native, Aldie native. He was a double agent tasked with capturing Benedict Arnold [during the Revolutionary War]. He was told that this would be his mission, and he didn’t want it. He wanted to pursue a career as an officer. But he was told. “General Washington wants you to do this,” so he did. He got in with the British and was able to ingratiate himself with Benedict Arnold. He was going to execute the plan of capture, but the night before it was supposed to happen, Arnold moved his camp. [Champe] ended up marching back into Virginia with the British forces and . . . came back to the American side.

Do people ask why the school is named after him?

Because of the courage he showed — the courage to stand up for and do what was right, the courage to make that difficult choice. He sacrificed his own wants and needs and put his country’s needs ahead of his.

If you had one message for th incoming students, what would it be?

I hope that they appreciate this great opportunity, because they will most likely never go to another new high school. Most kids in the country don’t get to walk into a brand-new high school — state of the art, top of the line. And I hope they appreciate that. It’s something we talked about with the kids early on when we picked “Knights.” What does a knight represent? And we felt that in some way to be symbolic of John Champe — courage, honor, loyalty, perseverance. So we’ve been talking with [our student ambassadors] a lot about what it means to be a knight. We’re going to talk again, when our whole student body is here, about some of those virtues — character, honesty, integrity — so when I say to the students, “We are Knights,” that means a whole lot more than just our mascot.

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