In a time when major diplomatic initiatives seem to slip from public officials' memories, Dorothy Mulligan is an anomaly.
Just ask her the percentage of Alexandria students in the free or reduced school lunch program (34 percent). Or how many National Merit Scholar finalists Alexandria had this year (eight). Or what students achieved honorable mention. (Too many to mention, but she can identify many by name.)
Mulligan knows Alexandria's schools, and her knowledge is not only the sort one memorizes. For 27 years, Mulligan has experienced the schools from the inside and out. A concerned parent eager to aid in her four children's education, the 62-year-old Mulligan today is the school's public relations specialist charged with disseminating information to the public. Insiders call her a workhorse who provides a vital link between the classroom and the people.
An outgoing talker with a thousand tales to tell, Mulligan is a walking history of the schools. She observed a predominantly white crowd become completely silent when integration was announced. She was in the midst of the outcry when standardized test scores were made public for the first time -- and they showed that blacks lagged significantly behind whites. She has seen superintendents come and go. She can even tell you how Alexandria public schools were founded. (George Washington left money in his will.)
Two experiences in Mulligan's past, she says, still guide her in her work today.
After graduating from college, she worked as an editor of a small weekly newspaper where she engaged in all aspects of the operation. Sometimes working as many as 100 hours a week, Mulligan said her newspaper days polished her writing skills, showed her how reporters think and taught her that long hours and hard work pay off. She says she hasn't forgotten any of those lessons.
Today, Mulligan puts in 50-hour weeks and is preparing a notebook full of all the statistics that reporters are always seeking about the school system. "I know what they're going to ask ahead of time," she said with a smile.
Mulligan and her husband moved to Alexandria in 1959 so he could take a nine-month course at Navy Intelligence School. When the course was over, she said, "we just stayed on and on; we loved it so much."
While her husband was working at the U.S. Naval Academy, Mulligan learned about education under fire. There was a constant shortage of teachers at the school for children of academy personnel and Mulligan, with not a day of teaching experience, was recruited to lead a class from January to June, some of the most hectic months of her life. The principal of the school asked all the other teachers to give two children to Mulligan's class. Ending up with a classroom of troublemakers, Mulligan said, she learned that compassion is a critical part of the educational process.
Mulligan can recall the beginning of her involvement in Alexandria schools, the day she took her oldest child to his first day of classes. "I was thinking, 'I hope this is going to be a good experience,' " she said. Since that day, the school system that many criticize has fulfilled her expectations. "Because I'm grateful for the education my children got," she said, "I want to keep that up."
"Dorothy from Kansas," as she calls herself, is a mix between her mother, who used to read aloud to the family, and her activist father, who sat in the Kansas legislature. For Mulligan, active parent involvement in education, both in the schools and at home, is crucial.
Mulligan has heeded her own advice, putting in hundreds of hours as a volunteer for the schools. Initially writing newsletters for her children's schools and tutoring students in reading, Mulligan has served as president of the PTA, has held committee posts and, three years ago, became a full-time member of the public school staff.
She wrote a letter in 1983 to then-superintendent Robert W. Peebles requesting that he hire her to handle school public relations. Mulligan said it was a combination of her writing ability and enthusiasm that got her the job.
Her days as a journalist have made her dislike verbosity and carelessness, both spoken and in print. "I'm aghast when I see a high school English teacher who can't spell," she said. She cringes when people say, "I would like to take this opportunity to thank . . . " or when a scholarly paper begins, "This paper will show . . . " or when she spots a misspelled road sign.
Mulligan has plenty of opportunity to put her skills to work. She writes synopses of school board meetings, prepares releases highlighting students' achievements and often edits letters written by members of the school staff. Although writing is still the main focus of Mulligan's job, you'll rarely see her name in print. Even when talking with reporters, Mulligan frequently insists that her name be withheld. She insisted on a job title that would put her outside the hierarchy of the school system. Working behind the scenes is one of her trademarks.
Alexandria's school system, where test scores have consistently lagged behind other local jurisdictions, has been struggling to overturn a negative image that has sent many students to private schools. Mulligan battles that image every day. But public relations to Mulligan-the-journalist means dispensing all the facts, not coloring or withholding them.
When someone asks Mulligan about the school system, she offers the truth. "I think we should give out all the information we have," she said. "If you hold anything back people start doubting you." But along with information about declining enrollment and discouraging test scores, Mulligan is continuously plugging students, the stellar scholars who win scholarships and others who would otherwise be ignored. "I come from a parent's point of view," she said. "I think like a parent . . . . The parents are the consumers acting for their children."
After considering retirement when she heard that Peebles was stepping down from his post, Mulligan decided that much more needed to be done. She predicts smooth sailing as long as new Superintendent Paul Masem, who took over Aug. 1, is open with school information.
"I'll be around for a while," she predicted, "for as long as I . . . can contribute."