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25 Years Bring World of Change for Veteran Va. Educator

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Nancy B. Earl smiles when she thinks back on the day, in the late summer of 1971, when she walked into a classroom for her first look at the 33 3rd graders she'd be spending the school year with.

Ms. Earl, now a principal, has changed a lot since then. So has this Northern Virginia community and the children who attend its schools. And so has the world of education.

"When I taught in 1971, I never thought of talking about drugs or AIDS or anything like that," she recalled. "Now, we have to address so many social issues."

Enrollment in the Prince William County district was surging then, as the full force of the baby boom hit America's classrooms, setting a national record for school enrollment. "We could not build fast enough," Ms. Earl said.

This year, as the children of the baby boom generation arrive at schools across the country in record numbers, the district again faces an enrollment crunch.

In a recent interview in the office of her 550-student elementary school, the 57-year-old educator reflected on some of the changes she has seen since that first day.

She remembers being shown her classroom and left pretty much to cope on her own. "I don't ever remember being shown a curriculum guide," she laughed. "I don't think we had one."

Nor had she been taught any classroom-management techniques. "You flew from the seat of your pants, and you learned from fellow teachers in the school."

Because of the climbing enrollment, the district in 1971 launched its first experiment with year-round schools.

Dumfries Elementary School, where Ms. Earl began teaching, was one of the first to go on a year-round schedule.

Like many education innovations, that one faded--at least in Prince William County--as construction gradually caught up with enrollment. By 1979, when Ms. Earl moved to Featherstone Elementary School, most schools were back on a nine-month calendar.

More Control

She recalls a supportive, middle-class community. The kind of place where mothers stayed home with their children and volunteered in the classroom. But parents still assumed that teachers knew best.

"Parents pretty much accepted what went on," Ms. Earl said. "They did not have a voice or a say in the school like they do now."

Ms. Earl moved in 1985 to John Pattie Elementary School, where she soon became an assistant principal. That's also where she got her first taste of "school-based management," in which the school community hammers out its own budget.

"I remember doing the very first budget as a pilot school" in 1987, with an advisory council of teachers, parents, and noncertified staff, she said. "It seemed to take forever. Sometimes, I hear the word 'pilot,' and I still shudder."

But Ms. Earl says she would never go back to the old system, which she describes as wasteful.

"Years ago, the central office gave you so much money, and that was it," she said. " Now, the principal has more control, especially over finances. And the school staff and the community are able to direct the finances toward what is needed for that school."

At West Gate Elementary School in Manassas, where Ms. Earl has been the principal since April 1990, the advisory council has used that money to hire teaching assistants for every classroom, an additional part-time reading teacher, and another part-time guidance counselor.

But Ms. Earl admits that school-based management also has made the principal's role more complicated. Today, she must be community liaison, instructional leader, and chief financial officer all at once.

"We're much more into collaborative leadership," she said. "I mean, I couldn't run this school without my staff."

Student Diversity

West Gate Elementary and its student population also underscore just how much this once-rural community, best known as the site of two Civil War battles, has changed.

When Ms. Earl taught at Dumfries, the school system did not even have an English-as-a-second-language program.

Today, West Gate Elementary is an ESOL center for the 49,000-student district. Last year, 16 percent of its students were of Hispanic origin.

"We were doing our kindergarten list and almost every other student has an Hispanic surname," Ms. Earl noted.

The school, which opened in 1964, serves children from two apartment and townhouse complexes and a collection of modest, single-family homes. For newly arrived immigrants, the area offers reasonable rent and easy access to shops and transportation.

About 30 percent of the school's students are black. And about 45 percent of its students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.

In this new, multicultural environment, reaching out to parents has become paramount. The school tries to recruit teaching assistants who speak Spanish. And school newsletters go home in both English and Spanish.

'Full Service'

The structure of families has changed, too. To handle the larger number of single-parent families, and two-parent families where both parents work, the school offers after-school tutoring and homework sessions twice a week.

Staff members host parenting workshops, and the educators work closely with local social service agencies. "Sometimes, I think we're a full-service agency," the principal said.

But, she added, that doesn't mean losing sight of the main purpose. "We have to stop every so often and say, 'What are we here for?' We're here for instruction."

Pedagogy, like everything else, has changed since the 1970s. Then, students didn't learn to read until the 1st grade, Ms. Earl said. Today's kindergartners write in journals.

And even young children, she added, are learning how to apply science and math concepts to everyday problems. "I think the expectations are much higher."

When she began teaching, test scores were filed in a drawer and forgotten. "Now, we disaggregate them and see where our strengths and weaknesses are. And then we write goals based on that."

But overall, Ms. Earl said as she strolled through the spanking-clean halls, preparing for the first day of school, the biggest change has been in the students themselves. "These children are so much more versed in everything," she said.

"They're not going to sit down, necessarily, because you ask them to. They question a lot. They're used to excitement."

Those changes, the veteran educator said, contain important lessons for educators. "Things are not going to go back to the way they were 25 years ago. They're not. And we need to deal with what we have now."

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