To many students and parents, the thought of the following idea dreamed up by a school principal could easily induce pangs of nausea and self-loathing: Saturday school.
And yet for a handful of teachers and dozens of students at West Gate Elementary School in the Manassas area of Prince William County, Saturday school was quite popular -- and effective.
Armed with data that showed weak performance in fifth-grade science and social studies, Principal Diana Lambert-Aikens gathered teachers in March and proposed that they bring in some students on Saturdays for remedial work. The state Standards of Learning exams were coming up, and the students needed to improve.
"I said, 'Look, guys, I'll try to pay you.' Then they said, 'No, no, no. It makes us pay more taxes,' " Lambert-Aikens said. "That's what makes me want to do this. You see a need, and everyone is willing to go forward. That's what's inspiring."
The strategy ultimately paid off. The percentage of the school's students who passed the history SOL exam ballooned from 39 percent to 60 percent, and those who passed the science test increased from 73 percent to 80 percent.
After serving eight years as principal of a low-income, highly diverse school, Lambert-Aikens, 49, was named the Prince William County winner of 2005 Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards given by The Washington Post.
School officials have cited her successful efforts at closing the achieving gap, her openness with parents and high morale among staffer members as some of the reasons Lambert-Aikens was nominated for the award. The school, for instance, had made "adequate yearly progress" as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act for two years.
"She may appear in a room with a huge bag of popcorn to offer kind words and a small reward for students' hard work," Allison Nourse-Miller, an associate superintendent of the school system, wrote in Lambert-Aikens's nomination packet. "Whether dealing with students, parents, or teachers who have a concern, she tries to see both sides of all issues. One teacher observed that working with Diana has 'healed' her because Diana taps into who people are and demonstrates a sincere understanding."
Lambert-Aikens said she is particularly proud of the fact that she and teachers at West Gate have been able to get Hispanic parents more involved in school events.
"We've had literacy nights with literally 300 people there," she said. "In my first few years, no one showed up, but then we became more welcoming. We taught English to Hispanic parents in the morning."
Lambert-Aikens entered the field in the 1970s, focusing on special education. She said she likes working in challenging settings where she can preside over transitions and improvements and where there are needs.
Born in Prince George's County in Maryland, she grew up with great-aunts who were teachers and an uncle who once served as an associate superintendent of that county's school system. She graduated from the University of Maryland in 1978 and later got a master's degree from George Mason University.
She worked as a teacher for 16 years at Kilby Elementary School in Woodbridge under then-Principal Betty D. Covington, who is now a School Board member. She later landed at West Gate, where she took her first principal position in 1997.
With so much pressure coming from local, state and national officials to boost scores, Lambert-Aikens operates with an almost a CEO-like mentality
"Literally, there are no excuses" for low performance, she said. "I don't want to hear that parents don't read to their children. I don't want to hear that they don't speak English. Focus on the solution, not the problem."
Like many educators who inspire loyalty from colleagues and those they teach, she also is playful. For instance, when it is time to take the SOL exams, the school blasts a little music in honor of its mascot, Spike the bulldog.
"When staff and students hear the pumped up volume of the song 'Who Let the Dogs Out,' they know something good has happened or is about to happen," Nourse-Miller wrote. "Diana sings and dances as she rewards staff and students for a job well done or offers a 'can do' attitude."