Friday, October 31, 2008

The Principal Factor: Nardos King

When it comes to how you feel about your kids' teachers, many parents have a "hope for the best" attitude. We all assume the teacher will be top-notch, highly educated and personable — and really want the best for our children. But what most educators know is that it is the principal who makes or breaks a school. They are the ones who hire the teachers, set the tone and attitude for the year, and ultimately determine the experience that the children — and the parents — will have when they walk into that building.

"Principals are the key to a school's success," says former City of Fairfax Schools Superintendent George Stepp, a man who spent more than 30 years as a teacher, principal and administrator. "If you have a bad principal, you don't have to look too far before you realize everything about the school isn't flowing right. But a good principal, well, that's the best case scenario. And you can spot a winner by simply looking at the faces of the kids. Are they happy, engaged, and succeeding in the core subjects? Are the teachers energetic, excited about their jobs and in their classrooms early each day? If so, you've got a hit on your hands."

One woman who gets kudos from Stepp is Nardos King, the principal of Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria VA. Earlier this year, she took home one of the most prestigious FCPS honors: the 2008 Outstanding First-Year Principal Award. It's one of many awards that adorn her bookshelf, and upon examination it's easy to see why.

Praised for her ability to motivate students, she set several goals when she became principal. The first was to have Mount Vernon become a positive focal point in the community. She also wanted to reach out to Hispanic parents who were underrepresented at the school. And King was determined to improve instruction — and find a way to forge relationships among students and staff members. So she met with community members and parents and challenged them to become ambassadors for the school. Then she reached out to Hispanic parents, with the help of a neighborhood church, and ultimately established Hispanic Parent Council.

She also adjusted the bell schedule to facilitate student enrichment, mediation, and mentoring — and carved out a special 30-minute class period during which all students and teachers read silently. Students can also use part of the period to consult teachers for extra help, make up tests, or complete assignments.

Where no educator has gone before?

Then last year she did what few other educators might be willing to do: She promised to cut her hair into a Mohawk if students raised their SOL scores to 80% or higher in each of the four core areas. Not only did they accomplish that, but 28 students in the class of 2007 earned the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma—the highest number in the school’s history. Last November 20, King headed to the hairdresser to make good on her promise.

“I have a passion for finding ways to address and close the achievement gap between white and minority students,” says King, who grew up in Mount Holly, NJ. “My mom is from Ethiopia and my father is American, so I had a taste of what it meant to merge two cultures when I was a child.”

She deepened that understanding after graduating from Virginia University where she got a degree in Business Information Systems in 1986. Her husband — as a second lieutenant in the US Army — whisked her off to Germany soon after the wedding. King wanted to get her teaching degree, but worked as a substitute teacher and a bank teller instead.

In 1990, the couple moved again to Lawton, Oklahoma. “My dream to teach was still there but I had a baby and no time to go back to school,” she explains. “I was hired by the school system to be an instructional assistant, but the position ended after a year and I was transferred to a library assistant position in another school. I enjoyed that position, too, but soon after was transferred to a local high schools to become the finance secretary.”

When there’s a will there’s a way

In 1995, when her husband was transferred back to the Washington, DC area, King wasn't going to let anything keep her from finding work in the classroom. First, she found a job as the secretary to an elementary school principal. Six months later she was hired at Mount Vernon to be the school's finance officer.

“As luck would have it, the principal told me about a program at George Washington University which allowed me to get my Master's in Special Education,” she shares. “I entered the program and left my finance position to take an Instructional Assistant in the Special Education Department at Mount Vernon. After a year of school, I was eligible to teach on a provisional license and was hired to teach at Mount Vernon, where I taught math to the special education students for the next four years.”

King worked her way up the system, eventually becoming a sub-school Principal at Mount Vernon. In the summer of 2006, she landed her dream job. The awards that have come since — and there are several of them — are wonderful, King says, but what is most important to her is helping at-risk kids.

“Four adult volunteers, and myself are currently working with a group of students in a program we call the 30/30 club,” she explains. “Prior to entering the program, these students were all low performing and unmotivated, but we have been successful in getting the majority of them to turn around their grades, behavior and attendance ion school. I strongly believe that building relationships with at risk students in key to the success of the program.”

King is determined to continue to be a positive role model in the years to come. She is currently studying for her PhD in Education Leadership and Policy at Virginia Tech, and hopes to one day become Assistant Superintendent — and then Superintendent — of a large school district.

“I know that if I am truly running the show, I can make a difference on hundreds of thousands of children’s lives,” she says.

We’ll let you know when King lands that job.

To learn more about the work Nardos King is doing at her high school, visit

Saturday, October 18, 2008

HR expert Alice Waagen offers tips for Gen Y

I don’t know of a parent today who isn’t worried about how their children are going to fare in the future. Our young adults who have already entered the workforce are reportedly struggling to find their place — and evidence suggests that employers are struggling right alongside them.

Fortunately, Alice Waagen, PhD, president of the executive Workforce Learning, has some advice.

The founder of the leadership development company that since 1997 has provided managers and C-level executives with the skills and knowledge they need to build a more productive work environment, recently offered some tips to Washington Examiner reporter Heather Huhman on how to help Gen Y transition from the classroom to the workplace.

“A JobFox poll found Gen Y workers are perceived by recruiters as being the weakest performers among the four generations that now make up the U.S. workforce," Huhman wrote. “ What can you do to make the transition seamless and foster success?”

Waagen suggests:

Dress to impress. “Pay no attention to published corporate dress codes. Dress to the level that you aspire. Don’t wear jeans just because your fellow entry-level workers wear jeans. What does your boss wear? Match your attire to one level up the ladder.”

Listen, listen and listen. “Keep a mental monitor on all interactions and make sure that you are speaking no more than 50 percent of the time. Use electronics only when you can’t talk face to face.”

Avoid office politics.“Find a mentor, someone who is considered successful in the organization that can guide you in navigating the political waters.”

Don’t loose your outward focus. “Build and maintain a professional network outside of your organization. This network will help you know when and how to move on. Have a plan – where do you want to be in three, five and 10 years? Work your personal and professional development toward those goals.”

Build and keep a budget. “Don’t get trapped in a job you hate because you can’t afford to quit and move on.”
Get enough sleep. “You need to be alert and functioning every day for at least eight hours. You can’t do that consistently on three hours of sleep. Tardiness and absenteeism are sure career killers.”

Ultimately, Waagen is concerned about how young workers will fare in the future.

“Research shows that the single reason most organizations fail to thrive is a lack of strong people skills among those at the top,” Waagen says. “We work to ensure organizations are healthy from the top down, and ultimately if an organization has happy, energized, effective employees they find it reflected in the bottom line.”

But if Gen Y doesn’t “get with the program,” what will our workforce look like a decade from now? Waagen plans to offer more thoughts on that in her November-December newsletter, Workforce Learning, due out in a few weeks.

Log onto for details.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Importance of Learning Chinese

First graders in Grace Yuan’s Chinese class at Providence Elementary in Fairfax County, VA aren’t shy about showing off what they’ve learned since the start of the year. The 6-year-olds are all eager to come to the front of the class to recite their names in Chinese, the days of the week, numbers from 1-31, months of the year, the four seasons, and some basic greetings.

“I couldn’t be more impressed,” beams Providence’s Principal Joy Hanbury. “To say these students are picking up Chinese with great ease and enthusiasm is an understatement. I can’t wait to see what they’ll know by the end of the year.”

She credits the 1st graders’ success to the high-energy and creativity of Yuan, who has also helped Fairfax County Public Schools develop the curriculum for the Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES) Chinese program that is being integrated into the 1st grade curriculum at Providence this year.

These students will continue with the program next year when they become 2nd graders—and the new 1st grader class will begin learning Chinese. Within six years, all 1st through 6th grade students at Providence will be studying the language.

“This is very exciting,” shares Hanbury, who was eager to integrate the Chinese FLES program into the curriculum this year. “We have had the Latin program at Providence for several years and the students have benefitted tremendously from learning a second language.”

Plus, she says, by learning Chinese her students will have an increased global awareness of their school community, country, and world. “By exposing children to this challenging level 4 language early on, the students will more easily recognize difficult tonal sounds,” Hanbury explains. “Plus, this experience will enable them to understand the basic conventions of other languages.”

Why learn Chinese?

China is the world’s fourth largest economy, and continues to grow by about 9.5% a year. It is a top recipient of foreign investment—one that has become a top trading partner with the U.S. Add to that the fact that Mandarin Chinese, the language being taught at Providence and also Fairfax High (see sidebar on page 3) is the most widely spoken language in the world.
Approximately 867 million people speak Mandarin, and a total of 1.1 billion people speak other dialects of Chinese, according to Language Today. An article entitled “The 10 Most Influential Languages,” indicates English is spoken by 330 million people worldwide—followed by Spanish (300 million), Hindi/Urdu (250 million), and Arabic (200 million).

Already, most major U.S. universities are offering Chinese classes, and increasingly students from kindergarten to 12th grade are also being given the opportunity to learn Mandarin.
The reason, according to many business leaders, is that the philosophy has changed regarding how to conduct business abroad.

“When you do business with or go to other countries, be prepared to work on their terms,” says Robert Davis, who taught in China before returning to Chicago where he started a comprehensive language program. Today, about 3,500 students K-12 in southwest Chicago Public School system are learning Mandarin.

And consider this: Last year, the British Council (the United Kingdom’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities) conducted a research study—entitled “English Next”—that concluded the lack of students fluent in a foreign language in both Britain and the U.S. will eventually weaken the competitiveness of both countries.

The report offered dozens of reasons why students in both countries should be learning Chinese—reasons echoed by Michael Levine, executive director of education at the Asia Society in New York.

“In an age where security, competitiveness and democratic leadership depend on constructive engagement, our nation must take urgent action so that our international knowledge and language expertise is second to none,” Levine insists. “The question is when, not whether, schools are going to adjust.”

Levine recently told The Christian Science Monitor: “One doesn’t need to be proficient in Chinese languages to do business in China. But the exposure and motivation to show that one understands and respects the Chinese culture is really half the battle won.”

Rising to the challenge

Exposing students to this important culture is the reason Providence’s Hanbury began considering the opportunity to integrate Chinese into her school’s curriculum about two years ago. Fairfax High’s Principal Scott Brabrand also saw the benefits of incorporating a program into the Fairfax Academy offerings.

Both principals had full support from the City School Board. “This is a very forward-looking program,” says School Board Chairman Janice Miller. “We are thrilled that Joy and Scott took the lead and are now able to offer it to our students.”

City of Fairfax Schools Superintendent Ann Monday agrees. “Chinese provides an opportunity for our students to learn a language that is quickly becoming dominant in the world economy,” Monday says. “It also provides students a chance to learn about a culture very different from their own.”

Of course, none of this could be possible without the support of the Fairfax County Public Schools.
“We are moving away from a model that provides instruction late in a student's educational career to one that incorporates language early,” says Peter Noonan, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction for FCPS. “This will, in the end, provide a level of communicative competence that even our current, highest level students, often do not meet. This model incorporates all we know is best about language acquisition.”

Leading the charge, Noonan says, is FCPS Foreign Language Coordinator Paula Patrick. “To help us expand our foreign languages offerings, FCPS was awarded a grant of $621,000 dollars from a federal Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grant to be spent over a three year period to address critical needs languages of Chinese and Arabic to ensure the students are even better prepared to understand the people who will help define the 21st century,” she explains.

The grant ends on Sept. 15, 2009, but Patrick says she is confident FCPS will continue to offer Chinese in the City Schools. “I am especially pleased that the Chinese program at FHS—which is open to all FCPS students at the Academy level—also includes partnerships with schools in China and with Georgetown University. It is great to see the entire pyramid working together to provide a quality foreign language program for the students of Fairfax City.”

Moving forward

Patrick says one of her goals is to extend language opportunities to students and parents through the use of technology.
“Ms. Yuan makes lessons available to her elementary students and parents through her Blackboard site, and Alaric Radosh extends his classroom instruction of Chinese through the use of MP3 players and other types of technology.”

Patrick is also in the process of developing a Chinese program in the Fairfax pyramid to provide students with a comprehensive language program of study they can continue into college. “We are planning to partner with Georgetown and George Mason University for student mentoring, seminars, guest speakers, and summer language camps and workshops,” says Patrick. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to have all students learn at least one foreign language—if not two or three—by the time they graduate from high school.

Mastering Chinese may lead students to these jobs:
Intelligence operations
International business / international relations
IT and computer technology
National and international security
Travel industry expert

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Safe Young Drivers

Driving on highways and winding back roads is scary enough when an experienced driver is behind the wheel — but when teens start driving, there's an increased cause for concern. Reports of teens dying behind the wheel seem to dominate the news. That’s why Phil Berardelli’s book, "Safe Young Drivers: A Guide for Parents and Teens," is an essential read for every parent.

The Fairfax County, VA dad, former teacher and journalist originally penned the 176-page paperback in 1996. In its fourth edition, it has sold thousands of copies — and still, he says, each year far too many teens die or are harmed due to unsafe driving. In fact, he was inspired to write the book 10 years ago after an area crash killed three teens and disabled another.

"Those kids reminded me of my own two girls, who I had taught how to drive a few years before. The tragedy launched me on this course of urging parents to protect their teen drivers," says the journalist, who immediately crafted an article on the topic for The Washington Post. The piece generated so much fan mail that an editor at the Post encouraged Berardelli to turn it into a guidebook. He did, making sure his message was effective.

He designed the book with a spiral binding to sit in the lap of a parent sitting in the passenger seat. Half of the text is directed at parents; the other half talks to student drivers. Teens, however, may have a little trouble with his basic premise.

"I insist parents keep their kids from driving alone until they are 17," he says.

Why? Statistics. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 16-year-olds are up to 12 times more likely to die in a fatal crash than any other age group. They also are less likely to wear seat belts and more likely to speed and take unnecessary risks.

“Sixteen is by far the most dangerous age on the road,” he says. “In fact, a 16-year-old is 12 times more likely than older drivers to die in a crash as a single occupant. Put two young teens in a vehicle, and the odds of death and injury nearly double. Three or four unsupervised teens riding together constitute a recipe for disaster.”
Despite these sobering facts, he insists that the procedure for obtaining a drivers license in most states remains minimal.
“Some states don’t even require a learner’s permit,” he shares. “Some allow the permit to be obtained before age 16. Although some states have installed graduated licensing, with sensible restrictions for the youngest drivers, many still impose only the most minimal requirements.”

Plus, Berardelli notes that only a small number of high schools operate relatively comprehensive programs that require parental involvement.

“Most have cut back driver ed. classes to the point where they can accommodate only a small portion of students,” he says. “Even the lucky ones receive only a few hours of behind-the-wheel instruction. Commercial driving schools, even the most competent and conscientious among them, cannot possibly provide complete instruction.”

Safe Young Drivers is intended for parents and teens to use together. Each new lesson addresses parental issues such as "How do I choose a car for my teen?" and provides teens with simple instruction and important tips to remember.

Berardelli admits that parents who keep their teens from venturing out on the road alone may not be the most popular person that kid’s life: "But that's not what's most important. You've spent years raising your kid, driving to countless sports practices and music lessons. Why suddenly grow impatient at the most important and potentially dangerous time of their young lives?"

The book is available at