Springstead High principal built 'culture of learning' at Hernando school

I challenge you to name a job, in a community this size, as important and potentially rewarding as high school principal.

Your realm is small enough that leadership is direct and personal. You get to know kids. If your teachers take a stand to maintain discipline or academic standards, you can stand right beside them.

Yet schools are big enough that a principal can change thousands of lives over the course of a career. Send out crop after crop of students who are actually prepared to take a place in the workforce or a college classroom and you've performed a massive public service.

Speaking of which, veteran Springstead High School principal Susan Duval retired this week. Her last day at school was Wednesday, her final graduation last night.

Springstead, based on most of the statistics I've seen and on the experience of my older son, who graduated from there last year, is hands-down the best high school in the county. And the void Duval leaves after her most recent, 11-year stint running Springstead is all the bigger because of the retirement last school year of two other top-flight principals: Sue Stoops of Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics and Joe Clifford of Central High School.

Fortunately, Duval has also left behind some lessons, including that principals need to show that they give a darn.

When I used to see Duval directing traffic on Landover Boulevard every morning when I dropped my son off at school, my first thought was that there had to be a better use of a principal's time.

(No, Duval told me last week, not when there's no money for a crossing guard, which was the case until the start of this school year.)

My second thought: It must be great for students to arrive at school at such a crazy-early hour and see the principal already there, already wearing her orange safety vest and standing out in the middle of a busy street on their behalf.

Plus, she sure got to see and greet a lot of kids, including my own very shy son. And that had to send the message that the head of this school was not a distant, disinterested figure, not an antagonistic one, but one who was on their side.

It definitely did, said Clifford. So did Duval's attendance at a wide variety of sporting events — not just big football and basketball games but cross country meets and tennis matches.

"The students always knew that Susan would be there," Clifford said.

This message of unity no doubt helped reduce discipline problems, but it was hardly her only method of maintaining order.

Justin Campbell, a Springstead biology teacher, said that administrators at another school where he worked, viewed suspensions as black marks against their name. Reporting trouble in his classroom, he said, got him in trouble.

Duval, on the other hand, supports teachers who enforce rules, Campbell said. He is leaving teaching because of his disillusionment with the profession and the county district. But "Springstead is an oasis compared to the rest of the system because of the way Susan leads," he said.

Academic success, of course, is about more than controlling behavior.

You have to push for it, over time and through obstacles.

Duval, who was hired as a Hernando school teacher in 1969, served several years as a Springstead assistant principal and principal in the 1980s and '90s before being ousted after a disagreement with an interim superintendent.

More recently, she survived miniscandals over borrowing parts of one of her own graduation speeches and heavily editing the speech of a Harvard-bound valedictorian.

In the 1990s, she started working for an academy offering a wide array of college-level Advanced Placement classes, which became a reality when she was away from the school, in 2000.

She was there for most of the long struggle to create the county's only International Baccalaureate program in 2009.

It wasn't just her, of course, said a veteran chemistry teacher at Springstead, Becky Vonada.

"It's the faculty as a whole that drives instruction and requires excellence," Vonada said. "But we've been able to do that because we always know we have the administration's support."

"The thing that is sacrosanct is a culture of learning," Clifford said.

"That's what Susan created."

And tell me. Can you think of a better legacy?

Springstead High principal built 'culture of learning' at Hernando school 06/05/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2014 10:23am]

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