Late one morning, Principal Mel Riddile was standing in the cafeteria in J.E.B. Stuart High School and looking proudly at a scene quite unlike what is typical for American high schoolers at lunch.
About 600 students were sitting close together and chattering happily -- nothing unusual about that. The surprise was that there did not seem to be even a scrap of trash or leftover sandwich on any of the tables, at a school where food fights used to be common. Several hundred more students were about to descend on the cafeteria for the second lunch period, and Riddile and his staff at the Fairfax County school had trained students and janitors to get the garbage out of the way before they arrived.
There are several reasons the National Association of Secondary School Principals and MetLife have named the tall, muscular Riddile, a 55-year-old former linebacker at the University of North Carolina, the national high school principal of the year. Test scores at Stuart have gone up. College-level courses are abundant. Absenteeism has been sharply reduced.
But Riddile's admirers say the clean and mischief-free lunch period, the result of persistent reminders and a new system for wheeling trash barrels past the tables, is one of the more visible symbols of his ingenuity, energy and commitment to teamwork. The experts say he has turned Stuart into one of the highest-performing and best-functioning high schools in the country, the academic results particularly impressive because 54 percent of Stuart students come from low-income homes.
When Riddile arrived in 1997, the typical Stuart student was absent nearly 23 days every year, but that number is now down to six. He discovered in his first year that 76 percent of his students were at least two years below grade level in reading; today, almost none of the students who have been at the school at least two years score that low. About 40 percent of students are enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program.
Daniel A. Domenech, a senior vice president of McGraw-Hill Education, was superintendent of Fairfax County schools during most of Riddile's time at Stuart. He said the principal "has been able to demonstrate that a multiethnic student population with high percentages of English language learners and students from low socioeconomic background can achieve when placed in an environment where diversity is celebrated and students are given every opportunity to learn."
The school has 1,450 students in grades 9 through 12. Ethnically, the student body is about 31 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic, 13 percent African American and 24 percent Asian and "other," including many students from the Middle East and North Africa. In five years, its average SAT score has increased 104 points, from 951 to 1055, according to a report from the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Kathleen McBride, president of Stuart's Parent Teacher Student Association, said Riddile collected reams of data on each problem he faced and then encouraged different and sometimes daring solutions from a staff that came to realize he was going to listen to them and back up their efforts.
The auto-dialing program that had been used to inform parents about school events was turned into a wake-up call system for students who were persistently absent or tardy. Each morning at 6 o'clock, the telephone rings in the homes of those students and a recorded voice says: "Good morning. This is Stuart High School. Breakfast starts at 7:05, and school begins at 7:20."
Some central office administrators balked when Riddile insisted on testing the reading abilities of all his incoming ninth-graders, but the appalling results were necessary to persuade everyone that all students who were below grade level had to take a reading course their freshman year. Different methods were used for different students, including mandatory after-school tutoring, with sports and other after-school activities beginning after the tutoring was done.
The emphasis, experts who have studied the school say, has been on finding new ways to solve problems and having the patience to stick with them while teachers and students adjust to the changes. An analysis of the Stuart literacy program on the National Association of Secondary School Principals' Web site acknowledged that Riddile's strong focus on reading did not immediately catch fire.
"The greatest resistance was among the teaching staff," the Principals.org account says. "First, teachers could not understand how they could cover course content and teach literacy strategies. Second, the teachers had no training in teaching literacy strategies. However, the data became key to convincing the staff that there was a need to make a dramatic change from the traditional way of teaching to a more explicit form of teaching to meet the learning needs of students."
Riddile found a job coaching and teaching social studies at Lee High School in Fairfax County right out of college, and he was recruited to be an administrator three years later. He worked at three county high schools and was a substance-abuse prevention coordinator at school headquarters before becoming principal at Stuart. His wife, Marianne, recently retired as a county teacher, and their children, Meredith and Mike, both graduated from Robinson Secondary School before going to the University of Florida.
At the beginning of his career as an administrator, Riddile said, he thought he would miss the daily contact with students in the classroom. But he grew to love the fact that he was now responsible for helping solve the most difficult problems in the school. "When you are an administrator, you are dealing with the kids who need you most," he said.
What other educators say they have noticed about Riddile is his unerring, and sometimes astonishing, focus on student achievement. "One day I was told he was on the roof of the school, fixing the air-conditioning system," said Paul Regnier, the Fairfax County schools spokesman. "When I asked him about it, he said that they could not get a technician to the school until the next day but that he had done so much to get extra instructional time for students that he was not about to let kids be unable to learn algebra for two hours because it was too hot to learn.
"Behind everything is Mel's strong and practical belief that education is the key to a better life," Regnier said, "and he is proving every day that it is true for people all over the world who come to this country looking for that life."