Top High Schools

Top High Schools

We bring you the chart. We bring you the winners. We tell you how we did it and why we did it that way. Welcome to the first all-Northern Virginia ranking of public high schools.

By Jan Maxwell with Forrest Glenn Spencer


Public High Schools Performance Review
How do Northern Virginia’s public high schools compare to the rest of the state and to the nation as a whole? Look at the numbers. Eighty-one percent of our 2005 graduates headed off to college, handily beating the state average of seventy-three percent.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) results are even better. Northern Virginia’s 2005 average math and verbal scores beat both the state and the national averages by double-digits. Obviously, our schools are doing something right. But how do our area’s high schools compare to one another? Is one district better than the rest? What schools do the best job of preparing their students for the rigors of college? Who has the best graduation rates and Standards of Learning (SOL) scores?

To answer questions like these, Northern Virginia magazine undertook its first comprehensive review of the area’s public high schools. We covered a geographic area that included 13 school districts, from Fairfax County to the city of Fredericksburg, encompassing 59 public high schools and over 115,000 students. Since the majority of Northern Virginia’s graduating seniors go to college, we concentrated on academics. We looked at math and verbal SAT scores, Advanced Placement (AP) participation rates, and the percentage of students receiving advanced diplomas. Learning environments are also important, so we gathered student/teacher ratios and dollars spent per child.

In all, we collected and sorted data on 12 different variables, then ranked the area’s high schools accordingly.

What did we discover?
First, although there are winners and losers in any ranking system, Northern Virginia’s public high schools as a whole are working hard to educate their students. Because a school ranked at the lower end of the spectrum does not mean that it’s failing.

For example, although it placed 54th in our ranking, Arlington’s Wakefield High School was recognized by the College Board this year as one of America’s Most Improved High Schools because it’sets high expectations & and provides the support and inspiration for students to take on and succeed in challenging courses.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the question of including Thomas Jefferson High School in our comparison. Although other ranking systems may exclude TJ because it selects its students, it is a member of the Northern Virginia public school system and is supported by our tax dollars. We are lucky to have such a wonderful school in our area and we included it.

Second, when we looked at the top five high schools in Northern Virginia, we found a pattern. These successful schools all shared similar traits: involved parents, a strong academic environment, and students who had high expectations for themselves. We profiled the top five, and you will see how the principals describe what makes their individual schools so great.

Third, just because a school has problems, it is not destined to fail. Read our piece on Mel Riddile, outgoing principal of J.E.B. Stuart High School. He found a number of problems when he took Stuart’s helm in 1997, but he and his staff worked hard and turned the school around, giving them a very respectable ranking of 26th on our list. Mel Riddile’s accomplishments at Stuart earned him the 2006 Metlife/NASSP High School Principal of the Year award.

Fourth, we found that Northern Virginia is filled with success stories. We’ve interviewed teachers who make a difference, and outstanding students who benefit from all that our area’s high schools offer. Their stories will give you a glimpse into how education really works in Northern Virginia. And you’ll discover, as we did, that our area’s educational success is truly the result of the hard work and wonderful spirit of all of our students.



How We Ranked the Schools

Who Was Included
Northern Virginia magazine compiled information on 12 different variables for 59 public high schools.

The schools we considered came from the following 13 districts:
Alexandria City Public Schools, Arlington County Public Schools, Clarke County Public Schools, Fairfax County Public Schools, Falls Church City Schools, Fauquier County Public Schools, Fredericksburg City Public Schools, Loudoun County Public Schools, Manassas City Public Schools, Manassas Park City Schools, Prince William County Public Schools, Spotsylvania County Public Schools, Stafford County Public Schools.

Due to the lack of available data, we did not include any public high schools that opened in 2003 or later. Those schools are: Battlefield (Prince William County), Briar Woods (Loudoun County), Dominion (Loudoun County), Freedom (Loudoun County), Freedom (Prince William County), Mountain View (Stafford County), South County Secondary (Fairfax County).

We also did not consider any alternative high schools in our calculations.

What Variables were Considered
We looked at nine academic factors and three factors that we labeled “environment.”

The environment variables were Fiscal Year 2006 spending per child (a district-wide figure), FY06 classroom teacher/student ratio (a district-wide figure), and the number of serious incidents that each school reported to the state. The most recent data available for incident reporting was for the 2003-2004 school year.

The academic variables we used were compiled individually for each school. They are: 2005 SAT Verbal (mean); 2005 SAT Math (mean); 2005 percent of Students Taking Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate/Cambridge Tests; 2005 percent of AP/IB/Cambridge Tests Receiving College Credit, 2005 percent of Students Receiving Advanced Diplomas; 2005 percent of Students Passing Advanced Reading SOL; 2005 percent of Students Passing Advanced Math SOL; 2005 percent of Students Passing Advanced History SOL; 2005 percent of Students Passing Advanced Science SOL.

Where We Got Our Data
We gathered information from a wide variety of sources, using the most recent data that was available. Special thanks go out to all the school districts and individual high schools that took the time to provide us with the information we needed, and to the Department of Education in Richmond.

In addition to the individual schools and school districts, our sources included: The Virginia School Report Card, The Washington Area Boards of Education, The College Board, The International Baccalaureate organization, The Cambridge Organization, The Virginia High School League.

In the few cases where a school was missing a piece of data, we used either the district average or the latest information available for that school.

What Analysis We Used
We decided on a simple ranking method. The data for each variable was sorted from lowest to highest. Points were then assigned to each school based on how they performed under each variable. For example, the school with the lowest SAT verbal mean score received a “1″ for that variable, while the school that had the highest SAT verbal score received the most number of points.

The variables for teacher/student ratio and serious incident reporting were sorted from highest to lowest, with the greatest number of points going to the schools that reported no serious incidents and had the lowest teacher/student ratio.

The points for the 12 variables were then tallied and the schools were ranked based on their total number of points. This methodology does not tell you by what degree one school is better than another, but rather that one school simply performed better than another when looking at our specific variables (via graber at Many factors contribute to the success or failure of a school, and this ranking did not take into consideration such variables as teacher qualifications or the number of disadvantaged students that a school serves.



Top 5 High Schools

Never mind the booming enrollment stats. Forget about the astronomical test scores. What makes these schools great are the students, faculty and community that make advanced education a top priority. And nobody knows it better than the principals tasked with steering our kids down the road to a better tomorrow.

Thomas Jefferson High School
Summers at Thomas Jefferson High School are just as busy as any other time of the year. Teenagers fill the classrooms and the state-of-the-art research labs, taking credit and enrichment courses. Rising eighth and ninth graders participate in the Summer Technology Institute, receiving hands-on instruction on topics ranging from biotechnology to global navigation.

While other kids may be hitting the beach, students at TJ are hitting the books, and that is one of the reasons that Thomas Jefferson is one of the most successful secondary schools in the country.

Founded in 1985 as part of Virginia’s Governor’s Schools Program, Thomas Jefferson High School is a magnet school whose students specialize in math, science and technology.

While it primarily draws its students from Fairfax County, it also welcomes students from surrounding areas. Acceptance to TJ is extremely competitive, with only one in five applicants admitted.

According to retiring principal Elizabeth Lodal, successful applicants share a number of traits.

“They’re self-starters who appreciate and thrive on competition. The majority of them are used to being the best and brightest in their class and they have excellent time management and organizational skills.”

Thomas Jefferson is known for its strenuous academics. It is home to numerous National Merit semifinalists, and nearly 100 percent of its AP test-takers are awarded with college credit.

But there is more to TJ than just reading, writing and all things advanced math.

Lodal says that Thomas Jefferson “is a comprehensive American high school where students have a hard time putting boundaries on their interests.”

Students are encouraged to spend time exploring the arts, competing in sports, and finding common interests at the wide variety of clubs that are offered.

TJ expects a lot of its students, says Lodal, but it’s also “energetic, creative, wonderful and fun.” That combination makes TJ the number one public high school in Northern Virginia.

Langley High School
What puts Langley in the top tier of Northern Virginia high schools? According to its principal, Bill Clendaniel, excellence is a tradition at Langley, and he believes that the school’s success is the result of several factors.

It starts with Langley’s incredible parent participation. Clendaniel says the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) and Boosters are among the area’s best. His “Mom Squad” gets involved and stays involved, looking for innovative ways to help both students and teachers.

“It’s essential that parents are committed to making sure their kids succeed,” Clendaniel says, and Langley parents do exactly that.

Hiring and retaining wonderful teachers is the second part of the equation. Langley has a strong mentoring program for its teachers, and the school works hard to help them be successful.

Langley teachers have a reputation for being hard, but fair, and expecting a lot from their students.

The last, and most important piece, is the students themselves. “We have smart, driven, committed kids,” Clendaniel says. “They have strong expectations for themselves that are shared and fostered by everyone here.”

Clendaniel himself is one of the keys to the school’s success, says Vicky Thompson, whose three children have gone through Langley. “Bill takes an interest in everything. He shows up at every event, he listens to what parents have to say, and he takes the time to know each individual. I think that really makes a difference.”

Thompson says her children’s years at Langley prepared them for college work. “The teachers are tough, but my kids learned a lot and got a great education.”

McLean High School
“My job is to get McLean students ready for life,” says principal Paul Wardinski, and that means insuring that academics, sports and extracurricular activities all play a part in their education.

“We want to teach the whole student,” says Wardinski, so McLean provides students with lots of opportunities to learn and grow outside the classroom.

From offering a wide choice of athletic endeavors to special programs such as Senior Ethics Day, McLean students participate in a variety of activities that compliment their academic work.

A strong believer in teamwork, Wardinski attributes McLean’s success to a combination of forces that work together. “A dedicated staff is a huge piece,” he says. “At Friday morning learning communities, teachers come together and ask each other, ‘What can we do to make everyone better?’ They work to bring consistency among classrooms, while retaining each teacher’s unique qualities and individual teaching strengths.”

An educated community is another important factor. “Our parents believe in education, and that trickles down to their kids,” says Wardinski. McLean has a tradition of success, and parental involvement plays a key role in making that happen.

Great kids who work hard is the third piece, and setting high expectations for them is part of his charter. “Where do you set the bar?” Wardinski asks. “For example, passing the SOL’s is not a goal for us, but rather a starting point. Attitude is everything.”

Wardinski believes that “success breeds success,” and that certainly holds true for McLean. It placed third in our Northern Virginia high school ranking, with outstanding SAT scores and AP results.

George Mason High School
“Education is the top issue in Falls Church,” says George Mason High School principal, Robert Snee. “The city became independent in 1948 specifically to establish its own school system, and that belief in education survives to this day.”

“We have an extremely supportive business community and parents who stay involved even after their children graduate,” says Snee.

The Falls Church Education Foundation was established in 2004 to maintain high educational standards and help students meet the challenges of the new century. Through the support of generous donors, it is well on its way to meeting its $12 million goal. “We also have a huge PTSA that does a lot of fund raising for us,” says Snee. “Their support of teachers and students has made a huge difference.”

In addition to the assistance he receives from the outside, he attributes much of George Mason’s success to the faculty and support staff. “We are all part of a dynamic, vital learning community,” says Snee. He spends a lot of time working to find people who have a real joy for teaching and children.

“Our kids are fantastic. We invite them to challenge us, so that we keep getting better,” says Snee. He believes in offering a wide variety of opportunities to every student, and feels it’s important that each child “knows they’re in a place that cares about them.”

George Mason added 8th graders to its school last year, and Snee saw that as an exciting new opportunity. “We can help kids earlier now!” And helping kids is what Robert Snee wants George Mason to be all about.

W. T. Woodson High School
“High achievement is in the water here,” says Woodson principal Robert Elliott. “We emphasize success.”

Woodson students are indeed successful, with SAT scores and AP participation rates that gave them fifth place among public high schools in Northern Virginia. Like other schools in the top tier, Woodson has talented teachers, strong and supportive parents who have high expectations, and hard-working students.

But there’s more going on at Woodson, Elliott says. He believes that the best way to evaluate a school is through a mosaic, looking at all the factors that contribute to make it a success. He tells people that Woodson is not a 3R’s school, but rather a 4A’s school. Those A’s stand for academics, activities, arts and athletics.

“Our visual arts program has tripled in size and our athletes have won a state championship each year,” he proudly explains. One of his students, Sean Douglass, was named Virginia’s high school “Volunteer of the Year.”

Elliott is especially proud of the two special education centers that Woodson’s operates. The first works with students who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, and the other deals with kids who have emotional problems or who require special counseling.

In both cases, these special needs children spend part of their day at the education centers and the remainder of the day taking classes with the entire Woodson population.

“I feel very fortunate to be part of the Woodson community,” Elliott says. “Everyone here believes in opening doors for kids and making sure that our students give something back to the community.”



The Future is Bright in Northern Virginia
Meet Some of Our Best and Brightest Students, Teachers and Principals

Photography by Monika Kost

Todd Bernhard & Barbara Stoddard
What could be better than representing your school as the class valedictorian? Sharing the title with a good friend. At least that’s what Barbara Stoddard and Todd Bernhard, co-valedictorians for Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School, think. Throughout their four years of high school, the two students shared classes and even the occasional lunch period. Then, on graduation day, they shared the spotlight as the top graduates for the Class of 2006, having earned the exact same grade point average.

“I’m very excited and honored [to be the co-valedictorian],” says Stoddard. “It’s definitely a lot of fun sharing it with Todd. We’re actually good friends. We’ve had classes together and known each other since freshman year. He’s a really nice guy, so it was a fun experience to share.”

Bernhard agrees. “I love the fact that I am sharing this honor with Barbara Stoddard. The fact is, GPA’s are such a numbers game that picking just one or two students to honor doesn’t seem fair,” he says.

Barbara Stoddard didn’t set out to become T.C. Williams’ valedictorian. Rather than focus on class rank and grade point average, Stoddard simply tried to do her best, she says, by studying hard and enrolling in the most demanding courses she could.

“My classes have been challenging. It’s not always fun when you are working hard, but looking back I definitely appreciate everything,” she says. “You have to make some sacrifices if you are going to take those really hard classes, but it is definitely worthwhile.”

That doesn’t mean Stoddard spent every moment with her nose buried in her books. Quite the opposite. Stoddard, who has studied the violin for nearly nine years, served as concert master for the T.C. Williams orchestra. She also spent five years performing with the prestigious American Youth Philharmonic, a regional youth orchestra, and providing private music lessons to middle school students.

During the school year, Stoddard served as president of the math honor society and vice president of the French honor society. She also represented T.C. Williams on the weekly television quiz show “It’s Academic,” which pits local high school teams against one another in a battle of the brains.

Meanwhile, during her summers Stoddard twice attended the performing arts camp at Shenandoah University, which is renowned for its music conservatory; and also attended the Governor’s School for Math, Science, and Technology at Lynchburg College. But this summer she plans to enjoy her time off before heading to Princeton University in the fall.

“This is my one summer I’m going to relax a little, or at least try to,” she says.

And why not? She’s earned it.

Some people, including Todd Bernhard himself, might say he was an unlikely choice for T.C. Williams’ valedictorian.

“Many people call me incredibly lazy. I’m one of the laziest kids in school it seems,” says Bernhard. “It’s kind of a surprise I’m here.”

But Bernhard’s self-deprecating manner can’t hide the genuine passion he has for learning. “I got good grades because I could and there really was no reason not to. But grades can only measure a certain type of intelligence. They don’t capture the whole person.” Besides earning top GPA for his graduating class, Bernhard earned the rank of Eagle Scout, a distinction only four percent of all Boy Scouts can claim.

“At first, I didn’t really value [scouting] all that much. It was fun—we got to go hiking, light fires, went fishing—good outdoorsy things. But as I went through it, it became much more about leadership, which is really one of the greatest values Scouting has. It introduces young boys to leadership roles in a way that can take you to other places. It really makes you comfortable with stepping up and being a leader in certain situations.”

In addition to Scouting, Bernhard served as T.C. Williams’ yearbook editor, played lacrosse, and ran indoor and outdoor track and cross country. Overall, Bernhard has no regrets about his high school years and believes he made the most of the activities and opportunities available to him through school and the community. Now he encourages future graduates to do the same.

“There are so many opportunities, even in high school,” says Bernhard, who will attend Dartmouth College this fall. “It sometimes doesn’t feel like it…But don’t be afraid to step outside of what everyone else is doing, because there is so much out there to do and see.” –Kristen Loschert



Magda Cabrero
When Magda Cabrero steps into her Falls Church class to teach Advanced Placement Spanish Literature, she also steps in front of a camera. Her Spanish language class is a virtual class, broadcast to five high schools in Fairfax County. Though she can’t see most of her 40-plus students, she is passionate about each one of them. “I love teaching literature and helping elevate how my students think, moving from concrete ideas to abstract concepts.”

Cabrero is the 2006 recipient of the Victoria D. de Sanchez Northern Virginia Hispanic Teacher of the Year award presented by the Hispanic Youth Foundation and George Mason University’s College of Education.

Her teaching philosophy is based on the idea that you have to find the best in teenagers and give them the best tools. “I want every single child to reach their maximum potential,” she says. “There are a lot of underprivileged children in my school and we need to fill in the achievement gap, whether they are native Spanish speakers or speaking other languages.”

Cabrera has been teaching Spanish for 17 years; 13 in Falls Church. She coordinates her school’s learning community, co-chairs the school improvement department and chairs the school’s celebration committee. She also instructs future foreign language teachers in methods at George Mason University. Although Cabrero loves her work at Mason she says, “You can know all of the methods in the world but you have to care for children for them to work.”

Cabrero grew up in Puerto Rico and has ties to Venezuela. Her grandmother never finished high school and her mother didn’t go to college. But these strong women have always supported her. Today, this busy mother of three boys is pursing a Ph.D. in education at the University of Maryland. Working right beside her boys at night, Cabrero says she wants them to see how much she values education.

She speaks flawless English with a thick, peppery Puerto Rican accent. Her voice fills with emotion as she describes how overwhelmed she was by the outpouring of community support when she won the Teacher of the Year award. She realizes that she is a role model, especially for young hispanic women, but her focus is on the children.

Next year in addition to her AP class, Cabrero will be working on staff development for the school and working to improve its image in the community. She feels it’s important for people to hear good things about the school and the students. “These kids have a lot of dignity and bring so much to the table. I’ve learned that the more positive energy you give, the more positive energy you receive.” –Sharon Ritchey



Debbie Goforth
The first thing Debbie Goforth does is apologize for her Southern twang, but she comes by it honestly. Recently named Teacher of the Year by the Virginia Department of Education, Goforth got her start in 1976, teaching a couple of grades in a community schoolhouse near her Tennessee hometown. After a few years, her sister, also a teacher, encouraged her to get an endorsement in library science. “We were readers,” she says. The position was a natural fit, and she’s been introducing kids to the universe of print ever since.

To become Teacher of the Year, Goforth had to clear a lengthy nomination process, first by school, then by county and region, before she was interviewed for the state level. Goforth presented a short speech about how to obtain and retain teachers. “It was a great experience,” she says. “I’ve even become more aware of my own county.” As the winning candidate, Goforth met with First Lady (and former librarian) Laura Bush. “A proud moment,” she calls it. But she stresses that being Teach of the Year doesn’t make her the best teacher in the state. “This is an ambassador,” she says, having taken on recruiting and advocacy work in her new role.

“You open up the world to kids when you open a book,” says Goforth. She tells her students, “you’re writing the book of your life, so make it worth reading.”

Goforth hopes that reading can keep her kids from “losing touch with the stories around them.”

“Have you read The World Is Flat by Tom Friedman?” She asks. “That book is going to revolutionize education, because it will remind us that we’re not always on top any more.”

Goforth insists that we need to empower teachers in the United States, as well as help students financially as they continue into college.

“We have put other things so far ahead that we have neglected, and taken for granted, education. Education is a lifetime experience.” –Thomas Wilburn



Caitlin Halpern
The class of 2006 at W.T. Woodson in Fairfax chose not to have a valedictorian. Looking for someone who could speak eloquently enough to make a lasting impression at graduation, though, wasn’t that tough. From a pool of 25 honor students—all with a 4.0 or above GPA—the one stood out: Caitlin Halpern. As a grand champion speaker, debater, and Forensics Team member, Halpern won not just her class vote, but state and national titles.

Halpern, a natural-born public speaker, seemed destined to give her graduating class’s commencement address. Ever since she was a young girl, she’s had the aptitude to talk to large groups. “I’ve dreamed of speaking at my high school graduation ever since I was five years old and served as the ‘ringmaster’ in my school’s kindergarten circus,” she says.

Halpern got involved in debate in elementary school, but became serious after participating in the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Event her freshman year. “I just fell in love with debate and the hard work it entails. You’re learning to argue both sides of an issue; researching contemporary problems and issues and seeking solutions; and rebutting and cross-examining.”

Halpern was captain of her debate team at the Lincoln Douglas Debate Event in her tenth, eleventh and twelveth grades; and president of the Forensics Team in her eleventh and twelveth grades. In fact, her leadership abilities and exquisite debating style made her shine at the Victory Briefs Institute summer camp at University of California Los Angeles the summer before her senior year, where she caught the eye of Anjan Choudhury, a renowned debater and lawyer in D.C. with the Kellogg, Huber, Hansen law firm.

Anjan became the debate coach at Woodson during Halpern’s senior year and personally took her under his wing, coaching and mentoring her. “He taught me so much, and we worked together once a week, preparing arguments and getting ready for competitions.” Anjan accompanied her to forensics events around the country, including three national championships, one of which (the Catholic Forensics League Nationals) she won.

In addition to her busy competition schedule, Halpern volunteered as a debate coach at Mantua Elementary School, was feature editor for Woodson’s newspaper, the Cavalcade; and worked at Wegmans Food Market. She was also a National Merit Scholarship winner, won several debate scholarships, and received the prestigious Virginia High School League Academic Award for AAA division schools.

Halpern will continue speaking her mind at Columbia University this fall, where she plans to take advantage of the Liberal Studies program, concentrating in several fields (Psychology, Philosophy, and Government) and studying abroad. She will also continue to be involved in debate—teaching at the Victory Briefs Institute summer camp at UCLA; and coaching debate at Stuyvesant High School in New York City this fall. She wants to use all that talent to become a lawyer.

“Debate and law go hand-in-hand,” says Halpern. “And I can use that talent to help people. I’m particularly interested in working for the American Civil Liberties Union, defending people’s civil rights.” –Matt Kull



Tom Hay
Imagine a place where few humans go. The bottom of the sea? Wrong. Space? Closer. How about this: attending MIT on a scholarship to study Aeronautical and Astronautical engineering to design airplanes and spacecraft. Well, that’s exactly what Tom Hay—selected graduation speaker, lacrosse star, and aspiring astronomer—will do in fall of 2006.

Hay, who attended the ultra-competitive Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology (a.k.a. TJ) in Alexandria, is a dreamer, especially about outer space and astronomy. (And yes, he believes in extraterrestrial life, but not necessarily the pop-culture version.) “I’ve been in love with space since the third grade,” he says, “when my class did a special educational program with NASA. We learned about the solar system, planets, and stars. From then on, I was hooked on astronomy.”

Interest in that topic took a radical turn for him in seventh grade after he attended an open house at TJ. “I saw the cool stuff and the students’ work; I wanted to go there.” He applied in eighth grade and was one out of 430 selected to be in the freshman class.

While at TJ, Hay excelled academically and pursued studying astronomy. He took two astronomy classes in eleventh grade—Astronomy and the Universe and Astronomy and Astrophysics—and worked with a small team of students in a technical lab for his entire senior year. There they analyzed radio wave data and sky surveys investigating a phenomenon in space called “extreme scattering events.”

The subject may be so complex as to be esoteric, but Hay is both enthusiastic and eloquent discussing the subject.

In his technical lab, Hay was mentored by Dr. Joseph Lazio, an astronomer who works at the Naval Research Lab, and Lee Ann Hennig, his astronomy teacher (also an astronomer).

“It was so great to work with real astronomers. They really inspired me to keep researching at TJ and at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology].”

Hay finished at TJ with a 3.86 GPA, eight AP classes, and several scholarships: the Discover Card Tribute Award, United States Senate Youth Program Scholarship, Simon Youth Foundation Community Scholarship, and the Inova Hospital Scholarship.

In addition to his rigorous academics and passion for astronomy, Hay played year-round sports—football, winter track, and lacrosse (which he’ll play at MIT)—all four years, lettering six times. He was also active in the student government; he was President of his class from ninth through 11th grade and student-body Vice President in 12th grade. Politics is Hays’ other passion.

Hay breaks a common stereotype about TJ. “I know that a lot of people think TJ is a “brainiac” school, and everyone studies all the time. There is some truth to that, but students are also encouraged to participate in a wide variety of activities; like sports, band, and drama. And TJ actually has amazing departments in those areas, too.” Hays is laughing. “Everyone in the school defies the stereotypes; everyone is so diverse. In fact, if TJ were a movie, the students would be a cross between the characters in 10 Things I Hate About You and Revenge of the Nerds.” –Matt Kull



Dr. J. David Martin
“Kid’s don’t care what you know. They need to know that you care.” That philosophy has guided Dr. J. David Martin throughout his career and helped him garner the title of Virginia’s 2006 Superintendent of the Year. As the head administrator of Fauquier County Public Schools, Dr. Martin works in a community where over a dozen different languages are spoken and almost 11,000 students are educated. He thrives on the variety, saying “diversity brings strength to every organization.”

Martin works closely with parents to insure that they are involved in their children’s education and he believes that every child should have the opportunity for success. He says that some children need more assistance than others, and that sometimes teachers have to be social workers as well as educators. “The important thing is how we make a difference in the life of that child.”

In keeping with that goal, he has opened English as a Second Language resource centers and hired specialists to work with teachers so that none of their students “fall through the cracks.”

Martin came to Fauquier in 2001 well-prepared to lead. Prior to joining the county, he was the superintendent of three other Virginia school systems. He also worked as the Coordinator of Mentally Handicapped Services in Winchester City Schools and as the Director of Pupil Personnel Services in Clarke County. In addition, Martin has taught at both Lord Fairfax Community College and Shenandoah University during his 30-year public education career.

Among his proudest accomplishments while at Fauquier is the establishment of a new regional Governor’s School which draws gifted students from seven participating school divisions. Opening its doors for the first time this year, the school will offer half-day sessions concentrating on math, science and technology. The program is open to junior and senior high school students the first year, and will add students from the lower grades in the future.

Martin also took a big step toward identifying high-achieving students when he mandated that all sophomores take the PSAT. When one young woman was told that her test results showed that she should attempt higher-level work, she burst into tears. “No one ever told me that I was capable of doing more,” she said. This is the kind of thing that Martin came to Fauquier to do.

And he’s far from done. Among Martin’s goals for the next few years are increasing the number of students who earn advanced SOL scores, helping more minorities and disadvantaged students participate in gifted and AP programs, and designing and implementing a parental involvement program that will help to improve student achievement.

Asked for the highlight of the past year, he replies, “graduation.” Martin looked out at the graduating seniors and saw a culmination of everything he has tried to accomplish. “I told them the tassel was worth the hassle.”

Martin feels lucky to have been a part of these students’ lives, and the Fauquier Public School system is lucky to have a superintendent the caliber of Dr. J. David Martin. –Jan Maxwell



Jessica Ray
If she has her way, Loudoun Valley High School’s valedictorian might one day be caring for your kids. After her experiences mentoring neglected elementary school students, Jessica Ray says, “I’m thinking I want to be a pediatrician. I like dealing with kids.” To achieve that goal, the new graduate is heading off to Williams College in western Massachusetts, a small college of only a couple thousand students, where she’ll study biology. “I wanted to go somewhere new, start something new.”

After graduating from Williams, she’d like to go on to Columbia Medical School—assuming she’s got the grades to make it. But with a high school GPA of 4.37 and eight Advanced Placement courses under her belt, Jessica seems to have a good start. She’s also prepared as a member the Key Club, an officer with the National Honor Society, and a coach for youth soccer. Not only did she coach, but thanks to her own skills, Ray will be playing on the varsity soccer team at Williams next year. How will she look back on her high school experience?

“It was a lot of fun,” Ray says. “I’ll miss my friends, though.” –Thomas Wilburn



Mel Riddile
J.E.B. Stuart principal Mel Riddile thought it was just another meeting. Summoned to the conference room one morning in October of 2005, he opened the door to find school board members, the Superintendent of Schools and a throng of well-wishers. That’s how Riddile found out he had been selected as the 2006 Metlife/NASSP National High School Principal of the Year, one of the highest honors given to anyone in the field of education.

His journey to that conference room began in the early 70’s when he was hired to teach social studies at Lee High School. He left the classroom for a period of time in the 80’s to work with the community on substance abuse issues, and then moved into administration at Chantilly High School in the 90’s.

Riddile joined J.E.B. Stuart as its principal in 1997, where he immediately found a series of challenges. Test scores were low, the majority of students were reading below grade level, and there was a high rate of absenteeism. “Something had to be done,” he says.

Mel Riddile never thought that he had all the answers. He understood that fixing problems and coming up with workable solutions took a team approach. So he pulled his faculty and staff together and asked them: “What do we need to do to improve?”

“We were Edunauts, finding our own way to go to the moon,” says Riddile. They had to experiment, trying things that hadn’t been done before, and finding new ways of doing things that weren’t working.

Realizing that a child has to be in school to learn, they addressed absenteeism and tardiness with wake-up calls. They explained to students that they could learn during the school day or learn after, instituting the only mandatory after-school program in the country. Stuart also began an award-winning reading program, introduced the IB program into the curriculum, and adopted a modified year-round schedule that helped students retain skills over the summer.

The successes followed. Attendance improved, SAT scores dramatically increased, and the school was named an NASSP Breakthrough High School in 2003. J.E.B. Stuart was also awarded the International Baccalaureate of North America Inspiration Award in 2004.

Riddile says that one of the keys to Stuart’s success was “having somebody for everybody.” Kids need someone to believe in them, he says, and then they can believe in themselves. His staff worked to insure that every child had the resources to succeed.

In selecting Riddile for the Outstanding High School Principal award, The NASSP cited Riddile’s problem-solving abilities, the way he involved the local community in the school, and his success in improving Stuart’s overall learning environment.

What do Stuart parents think of the changes? “They are extremely trusting and supportive,” says Riddile, “Our parents feel the school is very responsive.” Students agree. “Teachers won’t let you fail,” said one. “Every kid wants to be on the family refrigerator,” Riddile explains. A lot of Stuart kids got that wish due to Mel Riddile and his terrific team at J.E.B. Stuart. –Jan Maxwell



Stephen Scholla
Students in Stephen Scholla’s class may study the laws of the universe, but Scholla also has his eye on the big picture. His Oakton High School physics students are going to be out in the world making decisions about science and technology, and soon. And he’s pretty sure it’s in our interest to make sure they get it right.

“One of my jobs is to help prepare kids for the future,” he says. “I do it for them, but I also do it for myself and others.”

So far, it seems that everyone has benefited. Named Fairfax County Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year for 2005 and recipient of The Washington Post’s Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award for Fairfax County, Scholla has proved again and again that high school students are capable of far more than anyone expects, particularly the students themselves. Last year, the Oakton rocketry team was one of ten school groups selected by the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center to develop and fly a high-powered rocket with a scientific payload.

If Scholla has been winning accolades from peers and students, it hasn’t been because his classes are easy.

“One of my underlying philosophies is that you have to teach from the top. A classroom can grossly fall into three categories: super-achievers, in-the-stream and reluctant learners. If you set the bar as high as you can, you can generally move the entire class ahead.”

One of the nice things about teaching is that the rewards are like savings bonds: the longer you wait, the bigger the payoff. Scholla’s students have gone on to forge impressive careers in a variety of fields—and many of them feel compelled to stay in touch.

“I hear from many of my students after they have graduated. Kids drop by when they are home from winter break. I’ve been to their weddings. There was one student: he was really, really bright. He was interested in relativity, so I gave him a book by Bertrand Russell.

“He sent me a new copy 15 years later with a note, ‘Sorry I forgot to return this.’” Scholla laughs. “The original copy I gave him was too worn out.”

Scholla’s interest in his students is especially poignant since his own academic pursuits were not so nurtured.

“I wasn’t a very good student. I worked before and after school, so academics weren’t a priority. I didn’t go to college right after high school. When I did enroll, there was a science requirement. Biology was full, so I signed up for Physics, which I had never heard of before. It was a life-changing moment.

Physics made a great deal of sense to me. I liked the order of it. Now I like to say that I’m a tour guide of the universe. It’s a lot of fun.”

Apparently his students think so too. –Nina James



Daniel Thornton
On Friday, June 9, at the George Mason University Patriot Center, as the Forest Park High School 2006 senior class eagerly awaited walking across the stage to receive their diplomas, Valedictorian Daniel Thornton, took the stage.

He began a farewell speech.

“Friends, this is my question for you today: Have you fought well?  Have you raced well?  Can you look back with pride and satisfaction on the things you’ve done? At Forest Park, located in Woodbridge, Thornton finished first in his class with a 4.477 GPA, scored 2,350 on the SAT’s and took eight Advanced Placement classes.

No stranger to hard work, Thornton exemplified the definition of a stellar student. But he has an interesting educational background: his mother home-schooled him from kindergarten to eighth grade.

“It was a weird transition to a school with 2,400 kids and seven classes,” he says.  But Thornton adds, “I loved being home-schooled, and my mom instilled a strong work ethic in me and created an environment where I had the freedom to think.  Those skills helped me when I started at Forest Park as a freshman.”

Thornton’s favorite subjects were computers, math and music, especially playing the piano and singing in the choir.  (Thornton is an accomplished pianist having studied classical and jazz music for the past 12 years.)

In fact, he sang in the Platinum Choir and was the featured pianist with the Forest Park wind ensemble. Thornton also served as president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and was a member of the National Honor Society.

He cites two inspirational teachers who motivated him: Mrs. Katherine Meints, his calculus teacher; and Mrs. Janelle Whalen, his computer science teacher.  “Those teachers were amazing.  They took complex subjects, broke them down, and made them fun.”

Thornton was busy outside of school, too.  He’s always been active in his church, singing and playing piano. He also lifts weights, runs and practices Tae-Kwon-Do—he’s a black belt—to stay in shape.

This fall, Thornton begins his “new race” at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, where he’ll double major in music (piano performance) and computer science.  He received a George Washington Honors Scholarship, which pays his full tuition, as well as a National Merit Finalist Scholarship and a Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship.

Regarding a career, Thornton’s still undecided. “I’d love to be a professional musician and touch people through music, but with computers I can get a good job.”  “I want a job that will make a difference in someone’s life,” he says, “and one I’ll love getting up for every morning.”

Thornton is finishing up his farewell speech, the last delivery of his high school years. “My good word to you is this: stay strong, endure, push forward to the utmost, and persevere.” —Matt Kull


(September 2006)