Western Albemarle High School’s new principal, John Werner, comes to Crozet with experience mainly in northern Virginia high schools. He was raised in Wisconsin but moved to Virginia in his senior year of high school, a tough transition, and graduated from Chantilly High School in Fairfax County.
He earned his undergraduate degree at George Mason University and went back there for two master’s degrees, one in curriculum and instruction and the other in educational leadership. He later earned a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University, based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, through a program the university was offering in northern Virginia.
Meanwhile he spent seven years as a social studies teacher at Herndon High School, which had a student population of 2,300, teaching mainly European history, psychology and government. He also coached football, as an assistant, and was the head coach of the boys’ track team. Then he moved into Herndon’s administration for three years as an assistant principal. There was one assistant for each grade level. “I did lots of discipline and teacher evaluations,” he said.
He’s a little skeptical of the Charlottesville school system’s recent decision that teaching experience is not a prerequisite for being a principal.
“That would be a little tough,” he said, “The teacher in the classroom is the most important part of the educational process.”
Werner said he was attracted to administration because he admired people who could lead people to come together.
“The more years I taught, the more I got involved in other things, like graduation and coaching and community groups. So, to have a greater scope of impact was very invigorating. So I went into administration.
“There’s good and bad in teaching and in administration, like everything. I loved teaching, but I like coming to work every day as a principal. I had great mentors who encouraged me. I worked for a lot of great principals.
“First off, you have to care about kids and you have to build relationships with kids and teachers. You have to facilitate dialogue between teachers and students. It’s a lot about building relationship.”
After Herndon, Werner spent two years as an assistant principal at Fairfax High School and another two years in the same role at Westfield High School near Centerville.
“I thought it was important to see other areas,” he explained.
He got his start as a principal at Clarke County High School in Berryville, where he stayed for three years.
His dissertation was on a remediation program, a twice-a-week block of time that allowed students who needed help to meet with their classroom teachers, that he was overseeing as the principal of CCHS.
“It had some impact,” he said. “I would have liked to do it longer. Statistically there was some growth. What we did was assign kids where they had to go and they had to stay there until they started to do well. It was a hybrid of ideas. It gave kids freedom, but you have to build in time in the school day for kids who have a different pace for learning. The kids saw their regular teachers but with more structure.”
He was still living in the Fairfax area, and after three years of a killer commute to Clarke, he took the principal’s job at Osborne High School in Manassas City. “Osborne was just closer,” he said.
He saw the opening at Western Albemarle advertised. “Albemarle has such a wonderful reputation. Western Albemarle was too good to pass up. It has a great reputation.”
Werner started the job July 1 and so far has been getting to know the school and community.
“I’m thoroughly impressed with the kids and their parents. The academic strength of the students is impressive. Everybody is so proud of being here. You can’t buy that.
“They’re proud of their school and they’re proud of their teachers. They’re proud to be Warriors. It’s an energy, and it’s very palpable here. People feel like they are getting a great education here.”
Werner has been interviewing teachers too. “The same message comes out of the groups again and again. It’s an environment striving for success.”
Werner said he has not been given any particular assignment for Western.
“I honestly believe in the school division’s mission statement,” he said. “We have to get kids prepared for the world they are going into. They have to take ownership of their learning. Prospective employers want people who can communicate in different forms. They want creative thinkers—somebody who can know facts and look at them and develop new situations from it. They want problem-solvers. That means not doing things over again.
“They want collaborators. Employers are saying you need to bring in people from different areas. You have to be willing to collaborate, to be willing to listen and come to consensus. This is not me saying this. This is what CEOs are saying.
“They want critical thinkers, which is sort of a blend with creative thinking. We want to develop analytical powers and higher-order thinking skills. You have to able to question things in a penetrating way, get into the why of things.
“If we start kids that way and work their minds in those avenues—like the mind thought of as a muscle—we can produce people who can exercise their minds in the way they’ll need to in the 21st century.”
Werner said he is not up to speed on what is meant by the “high school of the future” being talked about in the planning for a possible new high school in northern Albemarle. (The alternative to that plan would be additions to WAHS and Monticello High School.)
He discussed the new environmental sciences academy that will start at Western in the 2014-15 school year will be planned this year. “This year we are developing the plan of what the courses will be and get it off the ground. The focus will be on understanding global and national issues like clean energy clean water, and air, oceanography, biology and agriculture. It will be about science and policy. You still take the required core courses you need for the diploma, but the electives in junior and senior years will include these environmental courses. Then you might develop other courses, like English, around environmental science. In an academy, the focus gets more intense.”
The academy at Western will be the county’s third. Albemarle High School now hosts a math, engineering and science academy and Monticello High School has set one up for health sciences.