Manassas Park Superintendent Tom DeBolt retiring after 15 years

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010

The graduations, assemblies and late-night school meetings will be coming to an end for Manassas Park Superintendent Tom DeBolt, who plans to retire this year after spending 15 years transforming an ailing school system.

"I felt my job was done, and I accomplished much of what I envisioned a long time ago," said DeBolt, 66. "It was also a difficult decision, though, because this has been my life."

DeBolt said he will announce his retirement Monday at the Manassas Park School Board meeting. He plans to stay with the school system until November, then leave to spend time with family and pursue personal goals.

"Fifteen years ago, the system was in disarray, and now, I think, it's outstanding," Manassas Park School Board Chairman Michael D. Wine said. "Tom had a vision for what he wanted and what we needed and was able, probably because of his enthusiasm, to really bring people on board" and get things accomplished, Wine said.

A native of Chicago, DeBolt worked in a steel mill after graduating from high school. Later, he was the first in his family to go to college, heading to Eureka College in Illinois and Vanderbilt University's George Peabody College for Teachers. DeBolt started his career as a teacher, then spent 23 years as a high school principal in different localities.

When DeBolt arrived in Manassas Park in 1995, the school system was just about 20 years old, served 1,561 students -- about half as many as today -- and was a mess, some Manassas Park officials said. Buildings had sagging floors and leaking roofs, quality teachers were hard to keep, and no one wanted to spend money on the school system.

DeBolt made it his mission to turn the school system around and give students a reason to be proud. His first goal: rebuild the dilapidated schools.

"I think he has been extremely visionary," Manassas Park School Board member Brenda K. Foster said. "He really understood the impact of the physical environment on the students and the city. If parents and students were proud of the building they were using, they would be motivated academically."

DeBolt rallied the community, and new members of the City Council were more willing to invest in the schools. Taxpayers embraced his vision, and the turnaround began in 1997, when the city broke ground on a $14 million high school, one of the most high-tech in the area.

"My mission was to give the city and the children an education system they could be proud of because I felt they deserved the best," DeBolt said, adding that students didn't even want to play home games at one point because they were ashamed of their school.

With new schools in the works, DeBolt turned his focus to attracting quality teachers. Teacher pay in Manassas Park went from being ranked 43rd in the state to between first and fifth under DeBolt. He introduced new teaching methods to give students more one-on-one attention, and Standards of Learning scores began to turn around. A full-day kindergarten program was added more than a decade ago, and he created a more open and family-like environment among staff members.

"One thing we've always appreciated is he has helped us develop and grow," said Manassas Park Associate Superintendent of Schools Ritchie Carroll, who gave DeBolt the full-day kindergarten idea. "He gave us a lot of autonomy, and he believed in the ideas we had."

Another new program under DeBolt is the band program, which starts in fourth grade and ensures that by fifth grade, every student has an instrument to play and take home to practice with. If they want, students can keep the instrument until high school. DeBolt said the school owns more than 1,000 instruments and has lost only two in the past six years. The biggest challenge, he said, was getting the tuba players on the bus with their instruments.

"Tom DeBolt has never hesitated to fight for what he believes in and is a staunch advocate for the things he thinks make the school as good as it is," Foster said. "The band program, in particular, is something he is proud of. It's very unique for a school system to offer the kind of program we have."

DeBolt's reign in Manassas Park was captured two years ago in the book "The Little School System That Could: Transforming a City School District," by Daniel L. Duke, a professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.

With several success stories behind him, DeBolt said it was now time to leave.

"I think I'm ideally suited to work with an expanding school system, but what we've seen is we've been downsizing and working with less dollars" like other school systems, DeBolt said. "Maybe someone else is better at that."

DeBolt said retirement will allow him to spend more time with his wife, Susan, two sons, Ross and Scott, and four grandchildren. An outdoors man, DeBolt said he wants to complete his mission of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. DeBolt has been hiking portions of it for 20 years and has about 700 miles to go.

DeBolt said he also plans to visit a friend in Australia and lease a camper to see the United States and the "places where time doesn't matter."

School officials said they will miss DeBolt's sense of humor, enthusiasm for school and interaction with students and staff members. Carroll said DeBolt hated declaring snow days because he always wanted to be in school.

DeBolt would spend much time in the classrooms, particularly at Cougar Elementary School, next to Camp Carondelet, a Civil War encampment, Carroll said. DeBolt would visit students and share his love of history, giving them tours of the historic site.

Wine said it will be up to the School Board to find DeBolt's replacement. Once board members receive DeBolt's official resignation letter, they will begin searching for his replacement.

"We're going to miss Tom, and he's been a good friend and mentor," Wine said. "But we're not going to lose focus either. We still have business to do and still have great kids to educate."

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