Frederick County Superintendent Jack D. Dale had been on the job for a few months when an employee made a personal request.
Walkersville High School was undergoing some construction, and its then-principal, Jay L. Berno, couldn't quite get a sense of its progress. He'd heard that Dale loved to fly and owned a plane. Could his new boss offer an aerial view?
So the two men, both West Coast transplants and lovers of the outdoors, met at Frederick Municipal Airport for an adventure that would define their relationship for years to come. A few minutes into flight, Dale turned to Berno and asked, "Do you want to learn to fly this plane or just be a passenger?"
"He explained to me step by step how to fly. And then he handed over control," Berno recalled. "That's how Dr. Dale is. As a teacher, he can procedurally explain things and then he lets you go. He empowers you."
Eight years later, Dale, 55, heads to Fairfax County for a job with the same title he held in Frederick: superintendent of schools. But more than a river divides the two jurisdictions. With 166,000 students, Fairfax is four times the size of fast-growing Frederick. And as news of Dale's appointment surfaced last week, some observers pondered whether overseeing Frederick schools had adequately prepared Dale for managing the Washington area's largest school district.
For folks in Frederick, such skepticism reeks of the outdated image of their home that those closer to the Capital Beltway might have.
Ask Berno, now the principal of the new Tuscarora High School, whether Dale can handle Fairfax. His answer is a tour of a school where every teacher has a laptop computer, where interdisciplinary cluster heads replace department chairs, where keyboards in the music room hook up to headphones so more than one person can play in seeming silence. Planned and constructed mostly under Dale's watch, sparkling, sky-lit Tuscarora is the place officials often point to when asked for a tangible example of Dale's legacy in Frederick.
Then ask Berno what exactly Dale did for the school, and his answer is more about what the superintendent didn't do.
"He does not micromanage his people," Berno said. "He allows us to create the vision and then he gets us the resources."
To Berno, Dale's message sounded familiar: I'll give you the plane but you fly it.
As he shows off a computerized sound system with dozens of dials and gadgets in a 700-seat auditorium, Berno can't help but say, "This isn't bad for rural Frederick, huh?"
After all, not so long ago, Frederick County still contended with the nickname "Fredneck."
In reality, some of the demographics of Frederick's schools are comparable to Fairfax's. At Frederick High School, one in three students is a minority, and one in five qualifies for a free or reduced lunch, a standard measure of poverty. A few years ago, the school offered Swahili as a foreign language because African American parents demanded it. The Future Farmers of America used to be one of the biggest clubs, but that designation now belongs to Connections, a diversity organization that preaches tolerance and harmony, said Frederick High's principal, Denise Fargo-Devine.
Dale comes to Fairfax with unanimous support from the School Board, which on Thursday approved a four-year contract and offered him an annual salary of $237,000. He replaces Daniel A. Domenech, who retired in March to work for a textbook publisher in New York and be closer to his aging parents.
Last week, elected officials in Fairfax peppered Dale with questions about his record on diversity, raising minority students' test scores and how he plans to combat gang violence. This month, a freshman at Herndon High School was killed in a suspected gang attack.
"You have to value diversity and then you act on that," Dale said. "I am working with analyzing our data and looking at ways to intervene systematically, not individually."
Educators in Frederick say Dale encouraged them to offer more Advanced Placement courses and include more minorities and underclassmen in the pool of students taking them.
On a recent afternoon, AP Biology students at Frederick High dissected cats and sharks and compared the animals' anatomies. Their AP tests had been taken weeks ago, and teacher Shelley Smith said the dissection exercises helped her fight end-of-year boredom. Every year, Smith said, more students, especially juniors, sign up for the course.
"This year, we have three sections of AP Bio," she said. "Last year, it was two."
Not all, however, are convinced that Dale's leadership has led to success in the schools.
"Our test scores have not improved," said Frederick Board of Education member Donna J. Crook, who abstained on a vote this year to extend Dale's contract. "Lately, test scores have dropped. He was in charge of the administration when it happened."
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, four schools in Frederick did not make the progress mandated by the law, namely among special-education and immigrant students. Parent and special-education activist Teresa Ankney said she thinks the reading program in elementary schools could be improved.
"Frederick County is in the Stone Age when it comes to reading reform," Ankney said.
The debate over how best to teach reading will likely wage on when Dale arrives in Fairfax on July 1.
Generally, Republican politicians and conservative parent groups in the county prefer a more phonics-based curriculum over the current approach, which combines whole language and phonics. Similar debates divide along party lines over sex education and the inclusion of certain books in schools.
In Fairfax, boutique course offerings begin with elementary-level foreign-language immersion and grow to include artificial-intelligence clubs for high-school students. Fairfax parents can be a vocal bunch, highly involved in their children's educations and mapping out college picks at an early age.
But that type of parents increasingly exists in Frederick, a growing suburb filled with new housing developments and disappearing cornfields.
"The families with children really do their research with the schools," said real-estate agent Tina Brink, who followed her parents, on Montgomery County's payroll, to live in Frederick 12 years ago. "They know particular areas they want to be in. A quarter of our people that have kids and have done research want to be where the new schools are."
School officials who have worked with Dale said he balanced the demands of more affluent newcomers with the needs of minority and immigrant students.
"The incomes went up and the demands went up. They want more services, AP classes, international baccalaureate programs," said Ron Peppe, who was president of the Frederick Board of Education for most of Dale's tenure. "At the same time, there are lots of pressures going on everywhere to make sure we didn't leave anyone behind. You're really pulled in two different directions. He did a good job of covering the spectrum."
That's signature Dale, residents of Frederick say. When he arrived in 1996, Dale was appalled at the lack of technology in schools throughout the district. But knowing that funding would be hard to secure, he assembled a panel of local business and technology leaders to study the problem.
Their recommendation came with a pledge of funding.
Last week, Fairfax officials lauded Dale's collaborative efforts and said they hope he can work with politicians and business leaders in a similar manner. Dale's predecessor, Domenech, was highly regarded for pushing high-performing Fairfax to provide additional resources to low-scoring schools and students but was often criticized for being combative.
Dale's supporters say the veteran educator's best ideas often come from other people.
"For a superintendent, it's quite often an innovation to let people do their jobs," Peppe said.
Staff writer Jay Mathews contributed to this report.