The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Longtime leader of ‘overachievers’ stepping down at Walt Whitman High

Principal Alan Goodwin, center, mingles with students last month at his last graduation rehearsal at Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. Goodwin is retiring after 14 years as the elite school’s principal.
Principal Alan Goodwin, center, mingles with students last month at his last graduation rehearsal at Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. Goodwin is retiring after 14 years as the elite school’s principal. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)

This time, graduation was more emotional.

Alan Goodwin was on stage giving a final send-off to students at one of the Washington region’s highest-achieving high schools. He was about to retire, at the end of an especially painful school year. His speech hit many points he had made before. But his voice broke as he sounded a personal note, thanking the Class of 2018.

In his pause, the crowd took over.

“We love you, Dr. Goodwin,” someone called out. Others burst into applause. Soon, much of Washington’s Constitution Hall was on its feet, giving a standing ovation to a leader who many said encouraged academic success at Maryland’s Walt Whitman High School without losing sight of student well-being.

He was leaving after 14 years at its helm and more than four decades as an educator in Montgomery County.

“I enjoy the job, and I love the kids,” he said in an interview, looking back. “There are a lot of challenges in running what is often like a small town, but it’s been a very emotionally satisfying job.”

Goodwin’s departure brings a rare change in leadership for the Maryland school of 2,078 students, which has had just three principals since it opened in 1962 and is the epitome of a high-performing school in an affluent suburb, with a culture of high expectations.

But the shift also reflects a larger changing of the guard at schools across the region, as the academic year draws to a close and some principals move on while others arrive.

Goodwin exits with great regard. He is 65 and bespectacled, with a good sense of humor and knack for problem-solving that help him navigate long days. A onetime English teacher, he married his teenage sweetheart, raised two sons, and jokes that he could not afford to live in the community where he works. He and his wife, Eleanor, a retired English teacher, live in the Rockville area.

Many at the school point out that students who were struggling, or needed a break, took refuge from time to time in Goodwin’s office, some doing their work at a small table away from the whirlwind of classes.

“It’s like he has a fatherly role with the whole community,” said Ray Crist, 17, a senior class officer who recently graduated.

Under Goodwin, Whitman continued to rank among the top high schools in high-performing Montgomery County, posting some of the best SAT and Advanced Placement scores. On graduation day, Goodwin noted that nearly 300 students — 60 percent of the class — had unweighted grade point averages of at least 3.5 on a 4-point scale.

Whitman is not nearly as diverse as many Montgomery schools, with fewer than 5 percent of students from low-income families and an enrollment that is 67 percent white, 15 percent Asian, 9 percent Hispanic and 4 percent black. It counts more than 100 parent volunteers and became nationally known for its intense, college-focused culture through a 2006 book by Alexandra Robbins, “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.”

Starting in 2004, his first year as principal, Goodwin said he tried to turn down the academic pressure. He created a Stressbusters Committee of parent volunteers. The school embraced efforts to teach meditation in 2007 and mindfulness in 2013.

Whitman does not host a major awards night, and it has no National Honor Society chapter.

Goodwin is “the perfect balance for that position because he has a naturally easygoing way about him — so he doesn’t intensify a negative situation — and at the same time he’s not afraid to confront important issues head-on,” said Susan Brown Faghani, a mother of three who has had one child graduate and expects the others to follow.

Goodwin began his career at Whitman as an assistant principal five years after an alcohol-
related crash in 1994
left two of the school’s students dead and two others injured. He has preached student safety since, asking students to make good choices and pushing the point with their parents.

In 2015, he attracted wide attention when he voiced frustration about two weekend drinking parties held while parents were allegedly home. He sent an email imploring families to consider the consequences.

“Parents, as we get close to another weekend, please do not host an underage drinking party as apparently some of you did last weekend,” he wrote. “This must stop.”

‘This must stop’: Principal implores parents not to host teen drinking parties

Many parents thanked him for the message, but a few told him he was going beyond his bounds as a principal. “I was trying to exercise some moral authority, to keep kids safe,” he said. The email came several months after neighboring Wootton High lost two of its just-graduated seniors in a crash that followed a drinking party.

Over the years, he and his community faced deaths by suicide, illness and accident.

In 2016, a car crash claimed one student’s life, left his sister injured and killed their parents. The family was on the way to a play at the school, trying to make a left turn onto a street leading to Whitman. Another car, which had been going 115 mph and coming from the opposite direction, struck them.

He was going 115 mph. They were driving to a school play. Then, a deadly crash.

Since then, Goodwin has advocated for safety improvements.

In the principal’s final school year, Whitman reeled from losses that arrived in excruciatingly close succession.

In late November, Jordana “Jojo” Greenberg, 16, a cheerleader and volleyball player with a wide circle of friends, took her life. Goodwin organized a candlelight vigil that drew hundreds of people. He worked with counselors and other experts as the school faced an outpouring of grief.

A cascade of hearts, a sense of loss: Suicide and social media in the suburbs

A little more than two weeks later, Whitman lost another of its own: Navid Sepehri, a 17-year-old who was walking home after being out drinking, fell in a ravine and died of alcohol poisoning complicated by hypothermia and drowning.

“He led us through some very difficult times,” said Dylan “Pablo” Rothschild, 18, who was student body president at the time and just graduated. “He was definitely a source of strength for students.”

The school also grieved over the school year for three staff members who lost their spouses.

Like many principals, Goodwin’s hours were long; he arrived before 7 a.m. and sometimes didn’t leave until 9 p.m. He is a regular presence at student athletic events, plays, festivals, art shows and concerts.

“The joke is, he seems to clone himself because he is everywhere, all the time,” said Elissa Ginsky, president of the school’s All-Sports Boosters Club.

The longtime principal’s influence is clear, said Robin Rosenblum, a former parent association and Stressbusters leader, who said parents often approached her unbidden to recount how Goodwin had helped with a ­mental-health crisis or family problem. “They were so appreciative, and they would share very personal stories in a heartfelt way,” she said.

Few talk about Goodwin’s shortcomings, but the veteran principal acknowledges he fielded a handful of pointed inquiries when Whitman slipped off a national list of top high schools.

He said it happened at a time when there was a public outcry about too much standardized testing and Maryland rolled out state tests that students were told did not count. He said some students barely tried or wrote critical opinions on their test pages.

“It’s embarrassing, it’s dismaying, but it’s explainable at least, and we are recovering in fine fashion,” he said, noting success on recent state tests in English and algebra that he believes will restore the school’s ranking.

At the graduation on June 8, Goodwin started his 18-minute speech by remembering those who were gone, including Sepehri, who was part of the Class of 2018, and Greenberg. He recognized Helena Buarque de Macedo, the surviving member of the family involved in the 2016 car crash, who was in a cap and gown, graduating with more than 480 of her classmates. He remembered her brother, Tommy.

As he delivered his final paragraph, his voice faltered.

“Students, thank you for brightening my life each and every day, with your compassion, honesty and hard work, your sense of humor,” he began.

The crowd, it seemed, returned the praise.