Heads of 2 Schools Win Awards

First-graders at McNair Elementary School in Herndon eat ice cream sandwiches while Principal Stephen Hockett reads to them.
First-graders at McNair Elementary School in Herndon eat ice cream sandwiches while Principal Stephen Hockett reads to them. (By Rafael Suanes For The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 2005

Dee Nebert, an office assistant at Hunters Woods Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Reston, recalls one particularly busy morning at the front desk last spring. Several people wanted a minute with Principal Stephen Hockett.

Hockett, Nebert said, asked her to schedule a meeting with two teachers who came to talk about a new technique they wanted to try. When another principal called to discuss an upcoming conference, Hockett promised to get back to her just after lunch.

Then a kindergartner showed up with a shining new soccer trophy that he wanted to show off.

"Send him in," Nebert recalled Hockett saying. And the boy, beaming, went into the office.

"That's how Steve is. When it matters to a kid, he puts everything else aside," Nebert said. "There is no time he is too busy for a little person."

Hockett, 51, who is now principal at McNair Elementary School in Herndon, is among 20 administrators in the area selected to receive the Washington Post's Distinguished Educational Leadership Award. Elisabeth Griffith, 58, headmistress at the Madeira School in McLean, a private boarding school for girls, also was chosen.

Hockett took a nontraditional route to becoming a school administrator. Inspired by his grandmother, a fifth-grade teacher, he'd always considered teaching. But when he graduated in 1979 from California State University at Stanislaus, where he studied psychology and history, teachers were being laid off, not hired. So Hockett got a job at Hibernia Bank.

He worked as an accountant and in human resources, and he helped launch the first ATMs in San Francisco. But one day, at a staff meeting, he questioned his career path.

"I was sitting around the table, seven years into it, thinking, 'This is not what I want to do,' " Hockett said.

So he became the first person to take advantage of the company's educational leave policy and enrolled in the University of San Francisco to pursue a teaching career. After teaching for a year-and-a-half in California, he came east and was hired in Fairfax County.

At Hunters Woods Elementary, the arts and sciences magnet school where Hockett was principal from 1990 through the spring of 2005, he encouraged learning about math and reading through music and art. Under his leadership, the sixth grade was transformed into an opera company, writing and performing its own production. And the school started a program in which every third-grader takes a violin class.

"He just has a vision unlike anyone else in this day and age of teaching to the test," said Lisa Foley, an art teacher. "He realizes that kids learn in different ways."

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