Brick and Mortar, Life and Spirit

It’s a bit of a paradox.

We yearn for the past and relish retro things, but we love our new things. A lot. New clothes, new technology, new houses. We fall in love quickly with our new things, especially so when it has that “new” smell. We inhale deeply and our pleased by our new carpet or our new car. Our love affair with new things, though, is superficial for the most part. For example, as exciting as a new phone is or a new jacket, there is no emotional weight to them. But a new school? Well, that is different.

New schools check all the boxes for us: they offer something different, they are shiny and sleek, they are clean, and they even have that new smell that we so crave. But new schools elicit a deeper emotional response than phones, cars, or carpets from us. As much as we might love the latter, the former occupies a more significant place because we ascribe so much more to it. While we might enjoy a new distraction or something different or fresh, a new school is so much more: it represents hope, a new beginning to some, an opportunity to create a legacy for others. It embodies all the best that we wish for our students—and for ourselves. And what other new things lack in depth, a new school is rich with it. But when all is said and done, a new school is ultimately just bricks and mortar, just like a phone is just chips and processors; what makes a new school different from those things then is the life and spirit that we breathe into it. And that is the allure of a new school: the spirit surrounding it and the spirit that will be infused with it.

And so when I have been asked why I left John Champe High School to open Independence, that is what I talk about: the spirit and bubbling enthusiasm surrounding a new school. The excitement of a new school is infectious and right now, the Brambleton community has caught it! It is excited because it has a neighborhood school in its backyard again. It is an anchor and touchstone for the entire community. And when coupled with the successful opening of Brambleton Middle School, with which it shares the site, why wouldn’t there be excitement for Independence?

And excitement is high not just in the community overall, but also among students. I hear from and talk with students daily, and they regularly share how they can’t wait to get to Independence! They understand that they are about to be part of something special, something that is bigger than them. They will be the authors of Independence’s history, setting it on the path towards being the high-bar standard for the county. Even those students who have attended three or four schools over just as many years understand that Independence is home: it is their final stop in Loudoun County. As a result, they have the privilege of being able to help shape its traditions and climate as it blazes a path forward.

And it’s not just the students: our staff is excited as well! We have assembled an incredible charter staff that is just as enthusiastic about helping students start traditions and lead the way forward. I have already been struck by their talent, their credentials, and their willingness to help from now to make Independence an amazing school—while simultaneously working in their current schools. And so I am extremely appreciative of all that they have already done to help make Independence a place where students will want to be and not just have to go.

 

Come Home to Brambleton

From as early as when I was announced as the principal of Independence High School, all I heard from people was how excited the community was for Independence! As much as my ego tried to persuade me that it was because of me, I know better: it’s about Independence. And rightfully and understandably so. Let me tell you why.

I quickly learned that the community was excited to have a high school back in Brambleton. If you are unaware of the history, Briar Woods had previously been known as the “Brambleton high school,” so when Brambleton students were rezoned for Rock Ridge five years ago, Briar Woods then mainly pulled its students from Broadlands. There was a feeling of loss in “downtown Brambleton,” as it was called for many years by the football announcers at Briar Woods games. And so with the arrival of Independence, the excitement was palpable to have a high school that Brambleton could call its own.

And so with that excitement already bubbling in the community, we have been working hard to cultivate relationships and to further build upon this enthusiasm in many different ways. But we cannot do it alone. Opening a new school is a heavy lift in so many ways and areas. As such, we are very fortunate to have such an invested partner in Independence, specifically in the Soave Real Estate Group.

In opening a new school, we are very fortunate in that LCPS has a standard to ensure that we have a level playing field with other schools in regards to equipment, materials, and things like that. But to open a school successfully, to establish a positive culture and climate from before the school opens, to create a feeling of community, that takes more than what the county provides to new schools.

The Soave Real Estate Group understands this because that is part of vision they developed 18 years ago: to build more than a home, to build a community. And so with Independence helping to anchor this great community, Mr. Anthony Soave’s willingness to assist us was immediate—and greatly appreciated. A dedicated philanthropist, Mr. Soave, along with Mr. Fox, the chief operating officer, understands and values the importance of schools and community. He has ensured that community groups and schools with greater needs in places like Detroit receive the support they need; however, he is also keenly aware that even in an affluent community like Brambleton, it’s possible for a school to have needs too—just different ones. And so I am thankful for his generosity which has helped Independence High School establish itself in Brambleton. It is an exciting time to be a part of this community, and if you are not, then it is time to come home to Brambleton.

Come Home to Brambleton

From as early as when I was announced as the principal of Independence High School, all I heard from people was how excited the community was for Independence! As much as my ego tried to persuade me that it was because of me, I know better: it’s about Independence. And rightfully and understandably so. Let me tell you why.

I quickly learned that the community was excited to have a high school back in Brambleton. If you are unaware of the history, Briar Woods had previously been known as the “Brambleton high school,” so when Brambleton students were rezoned for Rock Ridge five years ago, Briar Woods then mainly pulled its students from Broadlands. There was a feeling of loss in “downtown Brambleton,” as it was called for many years by the football announcers at Briar Woods games. And so with the arrival of Independence, the excitement was palpable to have a high school that Brambleton could call its own.

And so with that excitement already bubbling in the community, we have been working hard to cultivate relationships and to further build upon this enthusiasm in many different ways. But we cannot do it alone. Opening a new school is a heavy lift in so many ways and areas. As such, we are very fortunate to have such an invested partner in Independence, specifically in the Soave Real Estate Group.

In opening a new school, we are very fortunate in that LCPS has a standard to ensure that we have a level playing field with other schools in regards to equipment, materials, and things like that. But to open a school successfully, to establish a positive culture and climate from before the school opens, to create a feeling of community, that takes more than what the county provides to new schools.

The Soave Real Estate Group understands this because that is part of vision they developed 18 years ago: to build more than a home, to build a community. And so with Independence helping to anchor this great community, Mr. Anthony Soave’s willingness to assist us was immediate—and greatly appreciated. A dedicated philanthropist, Mr. Soave, along with Mr. Fox, the chief operating officer, understands and values the importance of schools and community. He has ensured that community groups and schools with greater needs in places like Detroit receive the support they need; however, he is also keenly aware that even in an affluent community like Brambleton, it’s possible for a school to have needs too—just different ones. And so I am thankful for his generosity which has helped Independence High School establish itself in Brambleton. It is an exciting time to be a part of this community, and if you are not, then it is time to come home to Brambleton.

More Foundations

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I learned more than I ever thought I would about foundations due to an unexpected crack in ours. Something that I learned that I didn’t mention last week is that your house’s foundation is likely not visible to you.

While you might have a concrete slab, some foundations are of the basement kind or pier and beam. There’s also something called crawl space. Anyway, even if you can’t see the strong foundation that supports you and your house, the point is that it’s there doing its job.

I had drawn the comparison to our strong foundation at Independence with the hiring of our leadership infrastructure, but an equally important foundation is currently being laid: that of our charter student groups. What I mean by that is that we are in the process of bringing coaches and other staff on board, and so our student athletes are beginning the hard work of establishing programs, as well as their legacies.

Different from your house, this foundation work is visible. Our first such example was our football team holding its first workout at Briar Woods High School’s weight room earlier the other week (thank you Briar Woods!). We had 27 students report to work that day, to begin laying a foundation. I could not have been happier with that showing as our team works to build a culture. At our second workout on Wednesday night, we had four additional students attend. That was great! And the hope is for the next one that even more students come out as excitement and the word spreads. I’m proud of the work and commitment these young men are putting in, and they will be remembered for it—that’s another one of those perks of opening a new school.

I am not highlighting football because it is the most important activity in the school; rather, it is because it is the first group that has been cleared to begin this work. I anticipate other teams getting together soon as more coaches come on board—in fact we have a meet and greet on Tuesday for our cheer, cross country, golf, and field hockey coaches, and I’m sure that once students meet them, they’ll be ready to put in work. And the same will hold true for other groups like band, theater, and chorus once those positions are filled. The point is, these charter students who are willing to sacrifice and sweat are also our foundation, and early indicators are that it is a strong one.

Strong Foundations

It has rained every day since March.

I know that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it certainly feels that way! And our feelings were recently confirmed last week when it was announced that we have had the rainiest year on record: over 61 inches of rain has fallen in our area—and we still have some time left here in December to further cement this record.

But again, we knew this. If you just look around, the signs are everywhere. I don’t remember my lawn ever looking this green in the winter. Or seeing so much mildew on the north side of the houses in my neighborhood.  Or the Loudoun text alerts about flash flooding and road closures. And of course, there is the forecast for this weekend. And I am sure that you know someone who has had water damage to their basement (a colleague of mine even had hers flood twice in one calendar year). And if you don’t know anyone personally, then you at least know me.

We were surprised to discover that the strange odor in our basement was actually mold caused by water that had been coming in. We were even further surprised to learn that what we had thought was seepage was actually something much worse than that. When we ripped down drywall to remediate the mold, we found a crack in our foundation wall that was allowing water in.

In having our wall fixed, I learned a lot about foundations and how houses are built. In a nutshell, foundations are like paperclips: They bend back and forth. They are designed to have a modicum of flexibility, and they move during rainy and dry seasons.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

A house will do this naturally and we don’t even realize it. Assuming it is built well, there might be a crack or two that appear in the foundation over its lifetime, but the house will remain strong and standing because it was built upon a solid foundation that can withstand that movement.

And that is what we are doing with Independence right now: building a strong foundation. We recently finished hiring our department chairs (and have begun introducing them on Twitter and Instagram as they are cleared by Human Resources) and that is the beginning of the foundation upon which our house will be built. Strong instructional leaders who will help us staff the building and ensure engaging instruction, the department chairs are part of the leadership structure that is essential to having an effective school. And working with them to develop sound processes and procedures as well as to continue to develop relationships will help us build our strong foundation. With that in place, our school will be able to withstand the movement between dry and wet seasons, or more specifically, when there is turnover or other issues that might threaten the stability of a school.

Back and forth, back and forth.

So I am happy to report that we have the beginnings of a strong foundation at Independence High School and look forward to you seeing that as well!

Empower

Prior to posting on social media the short video that revealed what our mascot would be, I posted the following: “Voting is empowering; it allows for voice. But voting can also be divisive as it creates winners and losers. But keep in mind that we will all be on the same team.” While there was a clear winner in the vote for mascot, it was still close enough that I knew there could be some students unhappy that their choice didn’t win. And so I wanted them to maintain perspective, that soon we will be sharing one building and one mascot.

That said, I also wanted them to know that their voices had been heard. In fact, a parent later posted on Instagram that she knew a lot of parents wanted Cavaliers to win, and the fact that the Tigers won demonstrated that I took their vote and choice seriously. And I did. That was one very public way that students were empowered. They had gained a level of control over an aspect of their future lives.

Empowerment is an important part of the new schools process. Letting students have choice and input on things ranging anywhere from the mascot to the name of the school store and so forth gives them an emotional investment in the school they are about to bring online. It helps them feel less like renters, and more like owners.

But empowerment shouldn’t be limited to just the opening of a school. Empowerment is important throughout the course of the school day and year as well. While empowerment can certainly take the form of student government and leadership, what I am referring to is the second principle of my vision, Engage, Empower, Excel.

Empowering students as learners is essential to nurture the natural curiosity that students are born with but sometimes lose by the time they reach high school. I’ve written before about the importance of having firestarters on staff, and while I stand by that, perhaps the best way to spark that fire is to empower students to pursue their interests and passions. There are obviously standards and set curricula that must be addressed and followed in high schools, but within that, I think there is enough room for students to maneuver and follow what they are interested in: doing so empowers them in their own learning. In other words, when students have more choice in what they are doing (and why), they have more investment in it.

We can help in this by having students start with questions rather than presenting them with answers. With Google always at their fingertips, their time in school must consist of more than a slavish adherence to rote memorization; rather, they need to learn how to develop questions and the skills to explore them. This kind of deep exploration in turn helps them create meaning on their own, and when we can facilitate that and help them make connections, we will have students who are not only engaged but empowered as well.

This is a lofty goal. I understand that. But that is what a vision should be—it should be aspirational, something to strive for. Will we always hit that mark? Probably not. But if we keep that as our focus as a school, as administrators, as teachers, then we will be better positioned to meet it.

Providing You with More than Just Braces

A little over seven years, I received a Facebook message from a community member congratulating me on my appointment to the principalship of John Champe High School and encouraging me to reach out to him if there was anything I needed.

At the time, I couldn’t understand why an orthodontist would be messaging me or what he could possibly do for me, so I kindly thanked Dr. Kravitz for his warm wishes and left it at that. Thankfully, he reached out to me again shortly after and reiterated his initial offer. Even then, I still didn’t comprehend what was occurring, but I explained that I would certainly like to meet with him.

Again, this was 2011, and while there was the ubiquitous advertisement for Kravitz Orthodontics in the Stone Ridge Harris Teeter, he was not as well as known throughout the county at that point. And being new to working in Dulles, I didn’t know about him either. But I soon learned what the rest of Dulles South (and now the county) knew about Dr. Kravitz: he is a generous, humble soul who cares about people and his community.

And so seven years later, I found myself in a similar situation: opening a new school and in need of financial assistance. This time around, I approached him and asked if he could help Independence High School like he did for Champe, and his immediate response was, “Absolutely—anything you need.” And that is why Dr. Kravitz is regarded around the county as the staunchest supporter of our schools: he unhesitatingly offers support to so many and in so many ways. He loves children and is passionate about his work, and his infectious smile instantly conveys that to anyone who interacts with him.

Of course this is why it was no surprise when he received the Loudoun County School-Business Partnership Make a Difference Award in 2015. He is committed to helping our schools thrive; to the best of my knowledge, his support of our schools and education is probably unparalleled. For example, aside from things like sponsorship, Dr. Kravitz subsidizes student agendas, instructional materials, teacher supplies, luncheons, clubs, and numerous after school activities.  He also contributes to athletics, Fun Runs, charity fundraisers at the school, festivals, parent nights, the PTSA, book clubs, holiday events, dances, Teacher Appreciation Week, and academic scholarships. And he does this by following up by asking, “What else can I do to help?”

If it were only the schools he helped, that would be impressive enough, but Dr. Kravitz supports the entire community. He sponsors Dulles Youth Sports, Loudoun South Eagles Baseball, South Riding Little League, South Riding Challenge Soccer, Loudoun South Soccer, Old Dominion Football Clubs, South Riding Stingrays, Froggers Swim Club, Stone Ridge Sharks Swim Club, Pleasant Valley Piranhas, Dulles Storm Lacrosse, CYA, SYA, South Riding Dance, middle school basketball and iBots programs, and Loudoun County Fire and Rescue and the State Troopers. He also goes beyond that by attending school plays, athletic events, fundraisers, awards ceremonies, and even hosting events at his office.

And that is just what I know of. I suspect that if you were to start asking around to different schools across the county, they would echo this as well as give you numerous other examples of his generosity and assistance.

My point is, I am appreciative and grateful when community generosity finds its way to our schools; as I wrote earlier in the month, I intend to highlight some of this generosity in my blog. And so, I am thankful to Dr. Kravitz for supporting Independence High School and am glad that he will be a part of this journey with us.

I guess the other point is that I also learned a valuable lesson: when you receive an email from an orthodontist, take him/her at their initial word!

Engage, Empower, Excel

Around three months old, our daughter energetically started to engage with the rest of her new family. Now that she could see a little more clearly and was a little more self-aware, she would burble and coo any chance she saw us, craning her neck to ensure that we not only heard her but saw her as well. And when she would hear her big brother’s voice from across the room, she would track and lock in on him and start babbling specifically for his benefit.

At five months now, she happily chirps during her waking hours in the family room, and if she doesn’t receive a response, there are sometimes small (and increasingly larger) signs of frustration when she is not acknowledged. She is engaging with us, trying to communicate with us as she observes the rest of the family doing the same thing. Now, as much as I would like to think my daughter is special (spoiler alert: she is), I do recognize that Stella is just like other five-month-old infants: these are developmental milestones that she should be hitting. Regardless of that, we still marvel at her desire to engage with us. We encourage it, and we expect it.

That said, why don’t we encourage and expect a similar kind of engagement when children are not five months but 15 years old? And I don’t mean students with their heads down, zeroed in on a screen (although this certainly could apply); rather, I’m referring to student engagement in high school. We marvel when it does occur because we have become so accustomed to disconnection that when it does happen, we are unmistakably in wonder of it. The point here is that when students enter high school, they are too often not engaged. They lack an emotional involvement or commitment to their learning or the subject at hand; interactions can be limited to their Mead notebook. The only conversations or discussions they have might only be at lunch. This surely conjures a drab portrait of high school academics, and not necessarily and entirely inaccurate one (in fact, it is likely one that you might recall from when you were in school with all of its tidy rows of desks).

But schools don’t need to be this way. And thankfully schools are beginning to change how they do business.

When I hosted my first meet and greet event with the community to share my vision for Independence, I began by asking parents the following question: what business was Walt Disney in? Everyone had the expected responses. Animation. Movies. Theme parks. While all of that might be true, when he was asked that question, Mr. Disney’s response was simple and unexpected: the happiness business. His vision was that he wanted visitors to his parks to be happy—from the moment they got there, through lunch, and even when they left. And if they weren’t happy, that signaled there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

So that night I shared in a similar way that my business is not simply “school.” Rather, I am in the engagement business. What that means to me is that I want students to be engaged with significant content and authentic problems. I want students to be engaged with each other—both in small groups, collaborative groups, and with the larger student body. I want to staff the building with teachers who will engage and inspire students as well as facilitate their engagement with a larger environment, to help them make meaningful contributions to the world. I also want students to be engaged in the new schools process—and part of that will begin next week as Mr. Rogers and I will be visiting students during advisories, resource periods, and lunch blocks to talk with them about their ideas and their hopes for Independence, forming Ambassador Teams, and building relationships with our future students. And once we are in our school a year from now, I want students to also be engaged in what is unique about the American high school experience: a wide variety of clubs, activities, and extra-curricular and co-curricular activities that appeal to a wide range of interests and talents.

In the coming months, I will be looking to continue engaging with the Independence community, both through this blog as well as different meet and greet events. In the coming blog posts, I will elaborate more on this notion of “engagement” as well as touch on the other two aspects to the vision for Independence High School. And along the way, among other topics, I will also highlight business partnerships that have already started to help us with a variety of needs that new schools typically have.

Lastly, to engage with us, please follow us on social media and email if you have questions. Also, please come out to see us at our meet and greets, which will be advertised on the school’s website and through social media!

Welcome!

And a happy first day of school to you!

If you’ve followed Principal Reflections in the past, you know that I dedicate the first post of the school year to the power and importance of the first day of school. Even though we are surrounded by that sense of electricity, wonder, and hope in our schools this morning, I am going to forgo that usual entry and instead welcome the Independence community to my blog.

Over the course of this year, I will post regular entries about a variety of topics related to Independence High School or even life in general. What you won’t find on this blog is informational items; meaning, if you need to know about meetings or specific details about events, especially once we are in the building, this is not the place for that. Those aspects would still be pushed out through regular means such as the school’s website, ConnectED, or social media (if you haven’t so already, please start following @IndyNationLCPS on Twitter and Instagram and Independence High School on Facebook).

Rather, my intention for this blog is to allow people to learn more about Independence High School, the staff, the community, adolescences, school-related matters, as well as me. It’s not heavy reading but I hope you will find it engaging reading, something that could easily be digested while you enjoy your morning coffee and maybe even tickle your brain a little.

You can certainly check back here from time to time to see if there is a new post, but I would also encourage you to sign up for alerts. That way you will know when something has been posted—and you can tell a friend as well! So in the meantime, please feel free to look over past entries and archived posts when I was the principal of John Champe High School until my next entry.

Anyway, I hope your student had a great first day and comes home with his/her sense of wonder and excitement primed and ready to go for the rest of the year!

“All I Know Since Yesterday is Everything Has Changed”

There is a saying—I think originating with American author and humorist Mark Twain—that the only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. As my wife and I are up to our eyeballs in diaper-changing with our newborn, I can say that my daughter embraces change wholeheartedly. But for most people, that is certainly not the case. Myself included. We tend to fear change. And if it is not fear, it can be avoidance or reluctance: it is uncertainty of the unknown that causes feelings of anxiety.

Because uncertainty can be a risk. Uncertainty can be a threat. Uncertainty can be dangerous

As a result, many of us feel safer in what we are more comfortable with: it is what we know. We take a level of comfort in the routine, and from that we also gain structure and safety. That is likely why we don’t make changes even when we know we have to, even when we will be better off for it. Moreover, certainty and stability gives us knowledge which can give us a sense of control over our environment or over our circumstances. Change can also cause us to engage in introspection and reflection, which we might not be open to. This also makes change seem less attractive.

But as the school year comes in for a landing, every single one of us is faced with change for the upcoming year. The seniors are moving onwards and upwards. John Champe will only have grades 10 through 12 next year. Rising freshmen will be at Willard but will still have a foot in Champe. Returning students will face new challenges, new classes, and new teachers. I will be leaving to open a new school, and Champe will have its next principal named in a few weeks. And these are the changes that we know about: change is constant. We will of course be confronted with a myriad of other changes that will challenge and test us—they are just unseen and knowable, hiding in the shadow of the future.

All of this can be unnerving, but as we look to next year—or even tomorrow—it’s important to keep in mind and approach these changes as amazing opportunities. While that might not mitigate our unease, how we perceive our changes can determine how effectively we adapt to them. And so one of the last things I want to convey before we all go our separate ways is to emphasize how important our mindset, our beliefs, and our behaviors are each and every day, especially in the face of change. These are life-lessons that are important at 16 as well as at 60. We might struggle with them, but ultimately these lesson help us to continue to grow and help to shape us. So whether you are moving to Blacksburg, signing up for your first AP class, or preparing your resume, I wish you the best of luck as you embrace these changes and navigate your course.