The sharecropper's daughter rose quite far in the educational world of the nation's capital. Over 30 years, she has taught English in the District's public schools, then was dean of girls at a junior high. She has been an administrative intern, assistant principal, principal and finally assistant superintendent.
But in February 1998, Helena Nobles-Jones realized she wasn't cut out for the central office -- and, in particular, the bureaucratic maze of the District's central office. She had to get back onto a campus. So she jumped to a principal's job in Baltimore.
In July 2000, she got the chance of a career: to launch a new high school in Prince George's County. She soon steered Charles H. Flowers High toward the top of the county pack.
Now, Nobles-Jones wants to harness parental power to help take the Springdale school to the next level.
"We're five years old, and I'm trying to get a view of 21st-century education and preparation," she said. "We're going to have to move beyond the 20th century in our thinking and our mandates. We can't forget that parent component anymore, and it has to start early."
Among her peers, Nobles-Jones already is regarded as an innovator. A panel of administrators and principals chose her this fall from among the leaders of 199 county schools to receive The Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award.
"She has shared her love of learning with innumerable students, all of whom she has touched with her love for them, a sense of fairness and compassion, as well as a sense that they should always seek to do their best, and never stop learning," wrote Linda Bryant Aarons, an instructional coordinator at Flowers, in an Oct. 5 letter nominating Nobles-Jones for the award.
Other staff members and former students praised her as "stern but fair," "authoritative and professional." "Mrs. Jones is known for her tough love and no nonsense when dealing with the students and staff," wrote Patricia S. Brown, a career education coordinator.
She is unafraid to take stands. After Andre J. Hornsby resigned in the spring as county schools chief amid an ethics controversy, she praised his educational vision. When her PTSA president, Darren Brown, became embroiled in a summer dispute over delayed delivery of school uniforms and handling of purchase orders, she confronted him, and he was soon forced out. (Brown still heads the County Council of PTAs and has expressed bewilderment at criticism from Nobles-Jones.)
Nobles-Jones, 60, a native of North Carolina, was the third of eight daughters in a family of sharecroppers. She refers often to the push her father, Leroy, gave her to learn even though he had to leave school after third grade. She also draws on her own childhood to empathize with students from less-affluent neighborhoods who ride the bus every day past expensive houses to get to school in Springdale.
"I used to ride by homes like that," she said. "I lived in a shack. . . . If you don't come from a home where there's a sense of purpose and expectations are high all the time, what impact does that have?"
Education runs in her family. Her husband, Tony, is assistant principal at John Eager Howard Elementary School in Capitol Heights and their daughter, Kyva, is a special education teacher at Ernest Everett Just Middle School in Mitchellville.
The Flowers motto is "a mecca of excellence," and Nobles-Jones can cite some evidence to support that claim. Many of her students have gone to four-year colleges; two have been elected to the student seat on the county Board of Education. Test scores and graduation rates are high enough to ensure that Flowers is not on a state needs-improvement watch list.
The only other large high school in the county that is not on the watch list is Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt.
Yet Roosevelt, Nobles-Jones acknowledged, is a step above Flowers in academic reputation. Roosevelt's scores on high school assessments (76 percent passing English; 75 percent biology; 54 percent government and 72 percent algebra) are well above the Flowers marks (56 percent; 46 percent; 37 percent and 30 percent, respectively). To reach Roosevelt's level, she said she needs to get and keep more experienced teachers. Currently, she said, 47 of her 115 full-time teachers are in their first or second year.
Nobles-Jones said she spends the largest portion of her week observing teachers and preparing evaluations. She said she might sit in on a class of a new teacher four times a year.
"I'm very attuned to instructional effectiveness," she said. "I stay in their face. It all begins in the classroom."
As principal, Nobles-Jones is in effect mayor of a small city. About 2,700 students attend her school on Ardwick-Ardmore Road and another 230 people work there. She said she preaches "the four P's" in her management of the school: potential, passion, preparation and progress.
But Nobles-Jones said she is realistic about the challenges her teachers face. "We might as well deal with the facts of it. We've got kids moving from language arts into English who don't know the difference between a subject and a verb, or the difference between a poem and a short story, the difference between a short story and a novel."