For Scott Brabrand, starting as Fairfax County's schools chief felt akin to awakening from a slumber.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to return to the school system that, in a professional sense, I was born in," he said. "I feel a little bit like, I guess, Rip Van Winkle."
After advancing through the ranks in Fairfax, Brabrand departed the school district five years ago to lead Lynchburg City Schools. In July, he returned to run Virginia's largest school district, and officials said they're optimistic he can navigate the intricacies of the district and state without needing to scale the steep learning curve commonly associated with the role.
Brabrand, who will earn $290,000 a year, inherits a school system in one of the most affluent areas in the country and one well regarded for its consistently strong academic performance. It's also a school system that in the last year had to force students and teachers into larger classes while implementing new student fees as it remained hamstrung by a weak local economy.
The 49-year-old Newport News native acknowledges there's work to be done in the district, including diversifying the workforce and scaling back demands on teachers.
A study conducted by George Mason University researchers published in the spring concluded that black applicants to the public school system were discriminated against during the district's hiring process.
It's important, Brabrand said, that the district remains cognizant of what he described as a secondary, informal hiring network in which employees connect family members and friends with job openings.
"We need to be committed to having a diverse workforce that matches the diversity of our students," he said. "One of the things we have to do is try to recognize diversity comes in all shapes and sizes. It's not just race, it's background, it's perspective. It's the way you think. It's your personality."
In surveys the last two years, Fairfax teachers have expressed feeling overwhelmed, Brabrand said, highlighting the need to lessen their workloads.
"I want this to become the Disney World for teachers," he said. "I want teachers to feel like they can come here and have their hopes and dreams that they first imagined when they wanted to become a teacher realized."
Brabrand replaced Karen Garza, who departed Fairfax to lead an Ohio nonprofit organization. He graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in foreign service and earned a master's degree in education from George Washington University and a doctorate in education from Virginia Tech.
He began as a social-studies teacher at Herndon High School in 1994. In 2005, he became principal at Fairfax High School, where his leadership was credited with helping to eliminate achievement gaps for Hispanic students in English and math.
He oversaw more than 22,000 students as an assistant superintendent before beginning in Lynchburg in 2012.
In his second go-round in Fairfax, Brabrand, who said he plans on finishing his career in the county, said he hopes to further close education gaps.
Seven Fairfax schools were not fully accredited by the state for the 2017-2018 academic year. At least half of the students in five of those schools received free and reduced lunch last school year.
"What we probably still have as a challenge in Fairfax County is scaling excellence in every classroom and in every school and having our communities truly believe that that's happening in their school," Brabrand said. "That's what I want to take a deeper look at."
Beth Tudan, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, belonged to the committee that interviewed Brabrand and is hopeful his familiarity with Fairfax and Virginia schools will eliminate some of the difficulties of adjusting to a new role.
"He's very enthusiastic. He's engaging, he listens, he's positive," Tudan said. "He's there for the kids."
Among the most pressing issues Brabrand will confront, she said: growing class sizes and the perennial issue of money.
Also of concern is teacher pay — since the recession, the district lost its "competitive edge," said Jane Strauss, chairwoman of the School Board.
But Strauss described Brabrand as "eager to move the school division forward" and said she was particularly struck by his commitment to transparency and being visible in classrooms.
"That's very important," she said. "You don't improve schools by staying in offices."