Tomorrow, Loudoun County public schools will reopen with record numbers of students (28,885) and school buildings (45). More than 400 new teachers will join Virginia's fastest-growing school district this year, and 22 portable classrooms will dot campuses.
Edgar B. Hatrick III has been superintendent of Loudoun schools for eight years. The Washington Post interviewed him early last week about a number of issues facing the school district.
Q. Just a few days before school resumes, have enough teachers been hired? Will the new schools be finished? And what kinds of last-minute details are you dealing with?
A. The pace before the school year opens for students always quickens, it becomes almost frantic in the last few days. I keep checking with personnel, and we are very, very close now to having our full complement of teachers and I say probably within half a dozen or less, and there are people who are considering contracts even for those positions. . . . Schools are finished, yes. The good news is that all of our new school construction is done. There are four new schools opening this year: Round Hill Elementary, Horizon Elementary in Cascades, Cedar Lane Elementary in Ashburn and Harper Park Middle School here in Leesburg. They are all finished and, as a matter of fact, full of teachers right now.
How about bus drivers?
We're still short bus drivers. All of the buses will run on the first day, but many of our buses on the first day will be driven by supervisory personnel, who are certified, licensed bus drivers, and they'll be trying to supervise the overall transportation movement on the first day at the same time that they drive a bus.
Tell me, what are some of the most pressing issues facing the district this year?
Growth continues to be something that we can't ignore because it affects almost everything that we do. We are committed, as a school system, to the proposition that we can't let growth get in the way of the education of children. And so from their standpoint, we need to make the growth a non-issue. Although I know it is an issue. If you can't attend the school that normally serves your place of residence because there is no more room in that school, then growth affects you. If your class has to be divided after the beginning of school because there are too many students, then growth affects you. But growth has to come at or near the top of the list.
School districts nationwide are installing metal detectors and issuing identification cards as a way to stem school violence after the tragedy at Columbine High School. What changes in school safety measures, if any, will we see in Loudoun this fall?
I don't know that we'll see major changes this fall. What we will see are enhancements to safety measures that we've been taking now for several years. Several years ago, we developed a comprehensive school emergency plan for the whole county, and we have continued to improve that plan, trying to make all of our schools as secure and safe as they can be. We have used hand-held metal detectors for a number of years. We use them with anybody that we think may be carrying a knife or a weapon on campus. We have cameras that cover the exits and entrances to schools. In some places, we have cameras inside the schools that are used for surveillance to monitor areas that are blind spots in hallways. We use identification badges for all school personnel and insist that any adult who comes into the building who doesn't have an identification badge has to report to the office to get a visitor's pass. . . . For several years, we've been very careful about keeping doors to elementary schools locked so that we control access to the school to one or two points that can be monitored. We're now looking at middle and high schools and doing the same thing. The doors have to be able to be opened from the inside so that in an emergency, exits wouldn't be blocked, but we want to limit the number of points of access.
Probably the biggest change that people will see at the secondary level for us this year is the addition of full-time security officers to all of our schools. We have the school resource officers, who are provided by the sheriff's department and town police in the town in each of our high schools and middle schools. These are uniformed officers who have full police powers. And then this year we will be adding . . . school safety specialists to our high schools. And I think in all cases, these are folks who have a law enforcement background but who will be working as part of the school system. They will help us with this whole issue of being proactive on safety. It's real clear from what happened across the country last year that in every instance, there was some warning of what was going to occur. And what we have to do is improve our ability to hear what kids are saying, improve our surveillance to be sure that we know what's going on. And frankly, to do that, we've got to have complete open lines of communication with parents, and they have to do the same thing that we're trying to do. They really have to listen to what their children are saying, watch what their children are doing, monitor Internet use and really communicate with their children so that we understand what's going on in the minds of young people.
When you spoke to teachers [Tuesday], you said you want to--and I'm going to quote from your speech--"promote issues of character that are at the heart of our human existence and that are essential to our survival as a free country." Can you talk specifically about how you teach values?
I think the way we teach values is the same way . . . we teach everything we teach--by modeling the behavior that we want to see. We, as adults, simply have to demonstrate to our students honesty, sincerity. We have to demonstrate that one does not steal, that one does not lie, that one does not cheat as a way to accomplish anything.
The virtues that I think run throughout religious doctrine, whether it's Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or Islam--the virtues that really are the bedrock of the way this country was founded--that kind of character development cannot be separated from the teaching we do.
As an old English teacher, I can tell you there is no way to teach children western literature without talking about the qualities of character and virtue. They run through all of the literature that we study. They run through the history of every nation on Earth. . . .
Now some people would say, "Well, isn't that the Ten Commandments?" Well . . . I'm certain it is . . . but I'm equally sure that if you look into Judaism, if you look into Islam, if you look into Buddhism, if you look into any of the other systems of religion and thought around which man has gathered, you find the same sorts of patterns for living in communities.
The House of Representatives recently passed a bill that allows a copy of the Ten Commandments to hang in schools. Presumably you think that doesn't go far enough?
No, I really don't. I just don't think that's the answer. Because the fact of the matter is, putting something up on the wall or even reading something is not enough. What we have to do is we have to live out the virtues that we espouse.
On to one of your favorite subjects, the Standards of Learning tests. Loudoun students scored higher this year than last, and four schools met the state's benchmarks for performance. But the majority of schools have not met the state standards. Can Loudoun reach the benchmarks before penalties take effect? What changes will you make this year to improve Loudoun's scores even more?
I think Loudoun can reach the benchmarks. What we really have to remember is that the benchmarks don't take full effect until 2007. We're in 1999 talking about something as if it should have already been accomplished. From the beginning, we acknowledged that this was going to be an ongoing process.
Yes, I think we can reach the benchmarks. I think chances are getting better for our doing that because the state is beginning to acknowledge some of the benchmarks may need to be refined. Some of the targets that have been set for children are simply so unclear that it's difficult for us as teachers to figure out what it is we are supposed to be teaching students so that they can succeed on the test. I think the area of social studies, perhaps it's the best example. The state is beginning to realize that the problem may very well be just as much in the test as it is in the teaching or the learning that's going on because the way children are dealing with the social studies test is completely out of sync with how they are achieving in other areas.
But you can go into any of the areas of the SOLs and find standards that need to be refined. We need to be specific. . . .
As students prepare for the SATs, the MCATs if they're trying to get into medical school or the LSATs if they're trying to go to law school, students have access to old tests, to banks of questions, so that they can develop an understanding of the nuances of the way questions are asked. Because the SOL tests are so new, those banks of questions don't exist yet. As we spend the money that has to be spent to develop more questions from which we can draw, students, teachers, parents--everybody involved in this process--will have a better understanding of what are the questions I'm going to be asked. . . . We've got a lot of time at our level to revise and refine, at the state's level to revise and refine. And it's going to happen. I'm absolutely convinced it's going to happen. Short answer for Loudoun County: Yes. We'll achieve the 70-percent pass rates within the next couple of years--two, three years probably.
As we saw this year, though, achieving it one year doesn't necessarily mean the same school will achieve it the next year. Dominion Trail [Elementary] passed the first time. It didn't pass the second time. So we've got to decide how are we going to deal with that, too. When different children take the test each year, we can't say the child isn't a factor in the testing. Clearly the child is the one taking the test. So if I have the same teacher, the same material taught the same way to different children and I get different results, well that's to be expected.
Maybe the state needs to look at this business of deciding whether or not a school should be accredited--not based on what happens on one test on one day in one year--but on whether or not a school is showing improvement, on whether or not over a period of time--three, four, five years--there is a certain level of performance demonstrated by a school. That might be a much fairer standard.
And ultimately, what we really have to figure out is not just getting 70 percent of the kids to pass the test but how do we get 100 percent of our students to pass the test. Because I am not going to leave 30 percent of our kids standing on the platform in the train station while the rest of us have a good seat.
You have said, with the School Board's support, that teacher salaries must increase to what's offered in Fairfax County and other neighboring districts to attract and retain the best instructors. How much power do you have to do that when it is the Board of Supervisors that ultimately decides the school budget?
I don't have any power whatsoever to make the final decision, but I have, frankly, the responsibility as the instructional and educational leader of this school system to put the issue out for those who can make the decision to make the right decision. It is my job as the superintendent of schools to make the case and to convince the Board of Supervisors--I don't think I have to convince the School Board--and to get the kind of support from the community that we need that says we know what excellence is. We know the people we have to have in order to achieve excellence, and we know that we have to compensate those people as well or better than any of our neighbors in order to achieve that level of excellence.
It's a fundamental principle of business. If you ask any of the high-tech businesses that are locating in Loudoun County right now, they know that if they don't treat their employees well, their employees will move to another job. Because jobs are and will be available. . . . Not that they do it only for the money. But to think that somehow income doesn't matter to educators is just, well, it's just nonsensical. And I don't see any fundamental economic reason that Loudoun County cannot be offering salaries that meet or exceed those in Fairfax County for all of our employees. And I just want to stop the drain. I simply want to stop any movement of our best employees to other counties over dollars when I know that we as a county can and must afford the excellence we say we want.
The Rural Loudoun School Study Committee recently issued a report to the School Board that said old, small schools in the western reaches of the county shouldn't be closed and that new schools built in the area should be capped at an enrollment of 600 students. How possible is that when residential development is heading that way, bringing more children? And is it fair to eastern Loudoun residents, whose children must attend much bigger, 800-student schools?
Obviously, the report reflects the people who did the research and wrote the report. I would have been surprised if when you got rural Loudoun citizens together they had not come up with suggestions that are designed to protect the schools that they value. Frankly, if you got citizens in eastern Loudoun together, they would do exactly the same thing. They want quality schools for their children where quality programs exist.
I think the key to construction in the future of this county is going to have to be to try to locate schools where children live. We've always done that to the greatest extent possible. Middle and high schools serve regions because they are large. Elementary schools serve neighborhoods and subdivisions and areas. To try to predetermine what the size of a school should be because it's in one part of the county versus another part of the county, I don't think is a useful exercise.
If the Town of Waterford grew to the point where we expected there to be 800 elementary children in that town, then I would recommend we build an elementary school for 800 children to serve that area because we've got 800-student elementary schools that are doing phenomenally well all over the county.
But if in fact that area isn't going to generate more than 200, 300 or 400 children, then we need to build a school that fits the size of the area.
I think what we heard the rural Loudoun citizens saying is that they want neighborhood schools. Frankly, that is no different than what I hear from the citizens in Ashburn Farm, Ashburn Village, Cascades, Sterling Park. They say the same thing: "We want neighborhood schools. We want schools that feel like they are part of our community."
I think the School Board has to consider the issue of equity. This is a county school system, and we have to do everything we can to assure ourselves that students are getting the same quality of education no matter where they are in school and that they have the same opportunities available to them.
Frankly, there are some special services--such as computer labs, art rooms, rooms devoted just to the use of music--that are not economically feasible in a school of 125, 140 or 150 students.
There has to be a certain critical mass to say to everyone who's funding this operation that it's worth it to put a separate room in this building for the teaching of music, it's worth it to put a gymnasium in this building, a full-size gym.
That's the balance that's going to have to occur as western Loudoun develops. But I don't think the future of western Loudoun has been fully written either. We're aware that we have to pay just as careful attention to the development of western Loudoun as we pay to the development of eastern Loudoun because the impact on schools is just as great.
Stone Bridge High School will open next year, debuting as the county's largest campus because of its 1,600-student capacity. School Board member Harry Holsinger has suggested that in the future, the district should consider construction of two high school buildings on one campus, each with a 900-student capacity, as a way of reducing school size. First, if you could comment on that particular idea and, in general, this issue of schools getting bigger and bigger in Loudoun and what you can do about it?
Frankly, I haven't changed my opinion one bit over the last several years, and I have done about as much reading as I've been able to find about this issue of school size. I am as convinced now as I have been since my days as a high school teacher and as an assistant principal and principal that high schools in particular, but schools in general, need to be smaller than they are. I think the high school that has to go above 1,200 or 1,300 students is in many ways asking for trouble simply because when you bring that many people together in one place, anonymity develops. And when you reach the point where not just the teachers who teach students but where every teacher doesn't recognize the children in a building, I think you're setting yourself up for communication problems.
The problem I have with even school-within-a-school construction, although that helps to get at the problem . . . is that you're still bringing that huge mass of children to one place, to one campus. And whether you put them into the building and then segment them into sections of the building or not, they're still all there together. At the end of the day, there's still only going to be one president of the SCA, a certain number of roles available in the play that's being put on by the drama department, x number of slots on the basketball team or the football team or the baseball team or the softball team or the gymnastics team--all of these other activities that are important in school.
And so I hope that what we will continue to debate is whether or not we want to build any school any larger than we are currently building them. We have demonstrated that from a cost-efficiency standpoint, going larger than 1,600 students simply does not result in significant savings, and even if it does result in some immediate short-term savings in construction, those are more than eaten up in operating costs over the next 40 or 50 years that that school will serve students, at least. I mean, we have schools that are 60 and 70 years old, still serving students.
So I am really hopeful that the debate about school size will move back into the much more rational zone of high schools that don't get any larger than 1,600 students, that we hold the line on middle school size at 1,100 and that we hold the line on elementary school size at 800, and I'd like to see it smaller than that. I really would like to see our elementary schools be for 600 students, our middle schools be for about 1,000 and our high schools be for 1,350.
But we can make it work. The point is how do you make up for the energy that you lose making it work that could be better spent on things that really benefit students. I think that anybody who does a cost analysis of not only what it costs to build a school but then what it costs to run a school, to maintain it over time, will find that building larger does not reduce costs for the long term.
If that doesn't reduce costs, do you think that there will be some people who will revive that discussion of using less expensive materials in our schools?
We have as our goal . . . to make sure that our schools are coming in at or about an average price that competes with our region. That's where we look realistically. It's fine to go hopping halfway across the country and find a school district that's doing something different. But you really do have to be realistic and look in the region in which we're building. Our elementary schools and our middle schools--the construction costs on those schools are at or near the best--not only in the region, but in the whole state. We're working on getting our high schools to the same point.
Now, once you go to construction costs, you then go to space within the building. We have programs available for our students that are not available in other places. There's a price attached to those programs. So far as quality of construction is concerned, again, if you only look to today and you make that the determination of what you should do, then build it cheaper means build it better. But if you look beyond today to a year, two years, five years, 10 years from now, what will it cost you to put in the cheapest form of heating and air-conditioning equipment in the long term when it breaks down? When it has to be replaced prematurely? Then those sort of cost analyses--we've done them, there are public documents available on this--show you that you don't save money in the long run.
Ask anybody who moves into a house where the contractor has cut corners, has done the minimal work that needs to be done to meet the code requirements, and they will tell you that if you live in that house 10 years instead of one year, you, the homeowner, pay the price. Well, we're the school owners. The whole community owns these schools. And what we know is we're not building Taj Mahals. We are building functionally strong buildings that serve the purpose for which they're built, that put kids into the environment that is conducive to learning, and ultimately I think that's what we need to do.
As the pressures of surging enrollments continue to grow, how will you stay in contact with teachers and get to know students? I hear you drive by the schools every Sunday after you attend church services. How do you continue that if you have, say, 60 schools?
I don't want to tell my police friends, but you drive a little faster. It's something that I have to work on and everybody in the central office does. It's one of the points I've tried to make about leadership in the school system in general. You know as each new group of 25 students comes, we build a new classroom, we hire another teacher to work with those students, we put all of the services in place that those 25 children need, until you look up to the county level. We haven't kept pace at the central office level. How I personally will do it--I will get some relief in the middle of the year when we bring on a deputy superintendent who is going to help me with some of the day-to-day administrative responsibilities in the school system.
I think that it is essential for me to stay in contact with what is happening in the schools and with the people who work in the school system. I wish that I could be in our schools every day. I wish that I knew every teacher by name. I do not and I will not. I've come to accept that fact.
Was there a time--when the system was much smaller--that you did?
Almost. At least recognized everybody. That's a long time ago, though. But I think it is important. I will continue to do what I've done in the past. I meet with every faculty once a year, at least once a year as a group, to listen to what they have to say. I encourage staff members in the county--and they're good about doing this--to share their thoughts with me via e-mail, via notes, to come in and talk to me if they have ideas or suggestions. I have a responsibility to keep the lines of communication open, and everyone who works in the school system has that same responsibility.
In the old days, we used to say you have to learn to work smarter and not just harder. Well, I think that's true. I think we have to take advantage of all of the technological resources that are available to us. As I meet with teachers throughout the county, I encourage them to send me e-mails because I respond to e-mails, probably more quickly than I do notes or phone calls, because you can kinda do that any time, any place.
I don't know the ultimate answer to your question. I know that as I talk to superintendents in larger school districts . . . they do share the common concern of losing touch, losing touch with what's happening. I think part of what you have to do is you visit a classroom, and you make that classroom representative of what's happening at a grade level. I can't visit every kindergarten classroom in the county, but if I visit enough kindergarten classrooms, I get that sense of what's going on.
I also depend--I will more and more--on the senior staff members, on the assistant superintendents and others who are also out in the schools. I meet every month with every principal in the county, and I won't stop doing that. The room may have to get bigger, the table will get bigger, but every month I sit down for an hour and a half to two hours in a meeting with all of the elementary principals at one meeting, all of the middle and high school principals at the other, and we have a chance to talk about what's going on in the schools and what we can do from a central office perspective to help with the primary mission of the school system, and that is to educate children in classrooms throughout the county.
It's a matter of time management. I guess one of the advantages I have is that I've gotten to grow with the school system. It's a little bit like watching your own children grow. You see your own children every day and you're not quite as aware of the rate of growth as if you're the grandparent who only sees them once a year, and you say, "Oh my goodness, how Johnny has grown." It's 40-plus years that I've been associated with this school system in one way or another, and I think that gives me a terrific advantage because I get to know people incrementally.
I also feel a very strong need to be known by and to know the communities that are developing in Loudoun County. We have wonderful new communities growing up all over this county. They don't all have town names, but they are communities nevertheless. What's really interesting is what draws many of these new communities together is the school. It is their focal point. So I realize how important this relationship is.
New Loudoun Principals
Cedar Lane*: Nancy E. McManus, former principal at Lovettsville Elementary.
Hamilton: Carol A. Thomson, a past principal at Emerick Elementary.
Horizon*: William H. Raye, former principal at Sully Elementary.
Harper Park*: Francis R. Fera, former principal at Farmwell Station Middle.
Park View: Anne L. Brooks, former assistant principal at Broad Run High.
* Indicates a new school. In addition, the new Round Hill Elementary School replaces the old school built in 1911.
Loudoun County School Board
The School Board usually meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month except during December, when no fourth Tuesday meeting is scheduled. Meetings are held at the Loudoun County Administrative Building, 102 North St. NW, Leesburg. Meetings usually begin at 4 p.m., recess at 5 p.m. and reconvene at 6:30 p.m. Members of the board can be reached at 703-771-6410 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The school system's home Web page address is http://www.loudoun.k12.va.us.
Joseph W. Vogric
Harry F. Holsinger
Blue Ridge District
Harry J. Brown
Candyce P. Cassell
Sugarland Run District
Wendall T. Fisher
Susan N. Hembach
Broad Run District
Edward J. Kiley
Jeffrey M. Maged
D. Kim Price-Munoz
Edgar B. Hatrick III
Loudoun County Public Schools
Aug. 30: First day of school.
Sept. 6: Labor Day holiday.
Oct. 11: Columbus Day holiday.
Nov. 2: Teacher workday; student holiday.
Nov. 25-26: Thanksgiving holiday.
Dec. 23-31: Winter break.
Jan. 17: Lee-Jackson-King holiday.
Jan. 24: Teacher workday; student holiday.
Feb. 21: Presidents' Day holiday.
April 7: Schools closed.
April 10-14: Spring break.
May 29: Memorial Day holiday.
June 12: Last day of school.
Numbers to know
All numbers are area code 703.
Administrative offices: 771-6400.
Public information office: 771-6440.
Curriculum and instruction: 771-6435.
Elementary education (kindergarten through fifth grade): 771-6534.
Secondary education (sixth through 12th grades): 771-6545.
Vocational and adult education: 771-6406.
Special education: 771-6430.
School attendance areas: 771-6436.
Pupil transportation: 771-6480.