By James Cullum
It was bittersweet when principal Peter Balas announced that he was leaving the Mount Vernon Community School at the end of the year to become the principal at T.C. Williams High School. Five years ago, he was hired as Mount Vernon’s third principal in five years, and many were skeptical that the 33-year-old assistant principal at T.C. knew what he was doing. After all, he had no previous elementary school experience.
“Peter Balas has just been an incredible asset, not just to the school but to the community at large,” said Nancy Drane, who has two children at MVCS and is next year’s president of the school’s parent teacher association. “The school is now an incredibly stable place, well run, well managed. He’s laid a terrific foundation.”
Balas will be the third principal at T.C. in five years, replacing Dr. Jesse Dingle, who took the high school’s helm at the beginning of the 2015 school year. Dingle announced in November that he was moving with his family to Asheville, N.C., at the end of the school year.
“I think that [at T.C.] I have the best job in Alexandria,” Balas said. “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be challenging — but it’s going to be rewarding as we see gains over the years. I’m confident we will.”
Balas proclaimed himself cheerfully ready and willing to be the victim of a dunking tank or be bathed in ice cream at recreational school events, as he was at MVCS recently. He was rushing through a packed schedule when the Alexandria Times recently caught up with him. Like hundreds of his students, he wore a maroon MVCS polo shirt, and that day tasked himself with overseeing two spelling bees, a spring fling event and a three-mile bicycle field trip ride around the surrounding Del Ray neighborhood – in addition to his normal duties.
“I love this school. It’s so sad to leave,” he said. “For me relationships come first. You really can’t teach kids much of anything unless you form a relationship with them.”
Balas, now 38, is here to stay. The Long Island, N.Y., native has spent the last 15 years working for the Alexandria City Public School system and just closed on a house in the West End. He’s one of four children raised by a single mother, Patricia Balas, who worked as secretary to a school principal. He moved to Alexandria after receiving his undergraduate degree in history from Hofstra University and received dual master’s degrees in curriculum instruction and educational leadership from George Mason University. His first teaching job was as a 9th grade history teacher at T.C.’s Minnie Howard campus, followed by three years as an academy principal at T.C. and a two-year stint as the executive associate principal for curriculum and instruction.
ACPS Superintendent Dr Alvin Crawley announced Balas’ hiring last week.
“We are delighted to see such a proven inspirational and motivational leader like Peter lead T.C. Williams,” Crawley said in a statement. “He brings many years of experience as a classroom teacher and administrator at the secondary level to the role as well as a genuine understanding of the community. We are confident that he will be an asset to T.C. Williams for many years to come.”
Balas’ accomplishments at MVCS include developing the school’s Spanish dual language arts curriculum, instituting a uniform policy and transitioning the school from a year-round format back to the traditional ACPS school calendar. The school, which is just over capacity at 890 students, has increased by approximately 200 students over the past five years. Last year, the school met its state accreditation in all subject categories except science, and over the last five years, has seen 15-point jumps in English Standards of Learning academic indicators and 23 points in mathematics.
Summer Jones, the current MVCS PTA president, was effusive when talking about Balas. “Pete has just a charisma about him,” Jones said. “He is both a visionary leader in that he understands the complexity of educational curriculum and human resources. He’s also incredibly approachable, funny and he genuinely cares about people. I was in the auditorium when he made the announcement to the school that he was taking the job at T.C. You could see how deeply everyone in the school cares for him. It was a very bittersweet moment.”
Nearing capacity at 3,760 students and 423 staffers, T.C. Williams is four times the size of MVCS. Balas said that he is no stranger to the complexities of the largest public high school in the commonwealth.
“I do need to connect with 3,800 kids, and I have to find a way to do that in their classrooms, through events in the day and night,” he said. “There’s a feeling, an energy around that school. You feel proud when you tell people that you’re a Titan, and I couldn’t be prouder.”