This is the first in a three-part series exploring how a principal in Prince William County starts a school from scratch.
The teacher from Cleveland strode into the school library at brand-new Glenkirk Elementary School in Gainesville with a confident air, dressed sharply in a gray suit and armed with her resume, certification and photographs of her former students. Surrounded by Principal Lisa Gilkerson and Glenkirk teachers, Diane Drescher detailed her strengths, candidly outlined her weaknesses and, in a wistful tone, urged them to talk to her old principal in Ohio.
"My principal loved me. She had tears when I had to leave," Drescher said, referring to how she was laid off because of fiscal problems afflicting her old district. "I do an awesome job."
Gilkerson and her staff members nodded with sympathetic looks. Despite Dresher's hard-luck story, they weren't about to act in haste. Hiring is a delicate matter, and principals must hire with caution.
Tucked away in a subdivision-in-the-making, Glenkirk Elementary is one of two new elementary schools scheduled to open in Prince William County come September, and this summer the school was attracting resumes weekly for four remaining teacher openings.
In Prince William, where each school has control over its budget, principals serve as chief executives. That means that Gilkerson, 52, has spent the summer figuring out how to stretch her funding over what she needs -- finding the best deals on printers, ensuring that the school's masonry gets finished and, perhaps most challenging, assembling a staff.
The challenge of hiring teachers is particularly stiff. It's also unpredictable, particularly when Gilkerson isn't sure how many students will show up for the start of school. The subdivision surrounding the school isn't quite finished, and families have been calling throughout the summer to enroll their children. If Gilkerson hires too many teachers too early in the summer and ends up with a small student body, then she could lose any extra teachers to other schools.
If she hires too few, however, and the enrollment ends up higher than her projections, the high student-teacher ratio could undermine learning. She can continue hiring teachers as the school year begins. But she thinks it's disruptive for students, especially those in primary grades, to switch in the middle of a semester.
"It's like nailing Jell-O to the wall," she said recently in her office. "It's hard to get it to stick because we have enrollment coming in every day."
The county has projected that her school will have 920 students; she was predicting 875. By the end of July, she had 800.
With a budget of more than $4 million under her control -- most of it earmarked for salaries -- Gilkerson must get that student-teacher ratio just right. Ideally, she wants one teacher per 24 students.
Recently, she and her staff were scheduled to interview a handful of applicants for the position of half-time kindergarten teacher, a job that could easily become full time.
The interviews, half-hour sessions in the school library, were mixed with tension and chattiness. Gilkerson led off by asking candidates how they got into teaching and where they currently work. Then she asked questions meant to elicit the teaching strategies of each candidate. She and the staff members scribbled notes as the answers came.
"What would you do for kindergarten for reading?" she asked Lori Smoczynski, who teaches pre-kindergarten students at a Fairfax county government day-care center. "What would a lesson be like?
"Start out with something they know. Try to get them into it and show them that reading is fun," Smoczynski said. "Take an ownership for learning and try to make it hands-on."
"What about classroom management? How do you handle that?" Gilkerson asked.
"You don't want to be nagging at the children. It doesn't make anyone feel good. I would actually implement a behavior management plan and give out punch tickets, and they would get a punch in their card if they behave inappropriately," Smoczynski said. "I would offer a gift or a treat if it was clear, and stay after school if there were three punches in one day."
The interview touched on other topics, such as how Smoczynski would interact with parents and how she would teach children who are at different skill levels. Gilkerson and her staff members kept straight faces for the most part, as did Smoczynski.
In her interview, Drescher repeatedly emphasized her passion for the job. She brought up several initiatives she had undertaken at her previous school in Cleveland, where she taught for several years.
"We had author's tea," she said. "They wrote stories and parents came in for a reading."
How does she communicate with parents?
"I always sent out a newsletter with student of the week," Drescher said. "I make phone calls and have conferences. It makes such a difference in the early grades to get parents involved."
At one point, Drescher explained that she wanted to move from Ohio to Virginia because her daughter has moved to Rockville.
"When do you expect to make a decision?" Drescher asked pleadingly at the end of the interview.
"Probably in two weeks," Gilkerson said.
"How many people are interviewing?"
"There are eight today."
"Oh," Drescher said, her eyes downcast. "Do you see any problems with what I've said?"
The kindergarten teaching position is still unfilled. The school's first choice was someone other than Drescher and Smoczynski, but that candidate's references "didn't check out," Gilkerson said.
The school called Drescher recently and asked her to interview for a first-grade teaching position, but she turned it out down. Another school system in the Washington area already had hired her.