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Building a School From the Inside Out

Rodney Moore, the new principal of unfinished Stone Hill Middle School, spends the first day of school at Belmont Ridge Middle School.
Rodney Moore, the new principal of unfinished Stone Hill Middle School, spends the first day of school at Belmont Ridge Middle School. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 7, 2006

Stone Hill Middle School sits at the end of a dirt road just west of Dulles International Airport, a concrete-and-steel skeleton surrounded by bulldozers and rolls of hay rather than school buses and chattering children.

It's a year away from opening, but it already has a principal.

Rodney Moore, who spent the first day of classes Tuesday at a middle school a few miles north, is governing a school still under construction. It's a common occurrence in Loudoun County, where more than 30 schools have been built in a decade, and in many cases principals have been hired more than a year in advance.

"I looked around, and all I saw were a bunch of trees and fields, with a huge building going up in the middle," Moore, 36, of Sterling, said of the first time he set eyes on the property a few weeks ago. "It's daunting, but it's tempered by an excitement that I am helping to open this school."

County school officials typically try to hire middle and high school principals about a year before their schools open, asking that they keep tabs on construction while hiring the teachers, secretaries and janitors who are needed to open the school on time.

It's a time-consuming job, one that keeps administrators busy all year.

"There are a lot of things that need to happen before a school opens," said schools spokesman Wayde Byard. "You don't just turn the key and find everything in the right place."

For example, Byard said, shifting students to a new school can be traumatic because families tend to feel connected to their old schools through parent-teacher organizations and extracurricular activities.

So principals are likely to spend their first semester meeting with parents, students and other principals to try to build excitement around the school's opening. To that end, the principal gets to choose the school colors and mascot, a decision Moore said he plans to reach with input from his future students.

The most important job, however, is choosing the scores of staff members to run the school, Byard said.

"[Moore] will set the overwhelming tone of the school for many years by the staff that he hires," he said.

School officials bring on elementary school principals a bit later. Five principals of elementary schools opening in fall 2007 will start work in January, officials said.

"It's like opening a new business," said Theresa Redd, principal of Belmont Ridge Middle School, who was hired a year before the school's 2002 opening. "Just think of all the millions of details you need to deal with to get the business up and running by your target date."

In addition to administrative details and hiring for his school, Moore said he would travel to job fairs and help with overall teacher recruitment for the district this year.

Moore also must become familiar with Loudoun's culture. For the past two years, he was principal at Sidney Lanier Middle School in Fairfax County, a more ethnically and economically diverse school than Stone Hill is likely to be. Before his time in Fairfax, Moore was a teacher in rural North Carolina, near his hometown of fewer than 10,000 residents.

He spent Tuesday getting acclimated to Loudoun -- meeting hundreds of middle schoolers who poured into Belmont Ridge in the morning, walking among them during lunch and helping them find the right buses home in the afternoon.

Construction of the school is progressing well, Moore said as he sat in an office at Belmont Ridge, munching on a lunch of potato chips.

He noted cheerfully that crews had recently paved the parking lot at Stone Hill -- though now it is accessible only by a pockmarked dirt road.

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