Interim ACPS superintendent aims to bridge the gap

Interim ACPS superintendent aims to bridge the gap
Alexandria School Board Chair Ramee Gentry, right, with incoming interim superintendent Lois Berlin.

By Alexa Epitropoulos | 

When Lois Berlin arrives in a new school district, she has two questions in mind: First, what is going well? Next, what can be improved on?

That was how she approached her time as superintendent of Falls Church City Public Schools, a position she held between 2004 and 2011.

While at Falls Church, Berlin said she prioritized getting to know teachers, principals and staff. She describes coming back to Alexandria City Public Schools, the district where she spent 24 years, as “coming home.”

But Berlin said, as she takes the reins as ACPS interim superintendent, she will again emphasize getting to know school staff.

“It’s been 13 years. There are a lot of new players,” Berlin said in a joint press conference with School Board Chair Ramee Gentry on Monday morning. “We have six new principals this year. I’ll be looking at how to support them.”

She inherits a school district in the midst of a growth spurt. The student population stood at about 15,056 when the 2016-2017 school year began, a 5.9 percent increase from the 2014-2015 school year, when the student population was 14,157. According to an ACPS report from 2014, enrollment is expected to grow by an additional 2,200 students by fiscal year 2021.

While the student population continues to climb, the school district concurrently faces a number of constraints, including aging facilities and limited land that ACPS can use to build new schools.

“Facilities is a major piece,” Berlin said. “I’m going to focus on the [ACPS] 2020 plan.
There are a lot of good processes, planning in place… My role and goal is to keep things going, to keep the trains running on time.”

Berlin said she considers it her role to continue the work begun by outgoing superintendent Alvin Crawley.

In order to make the transition as seamless as possible, she will start her role next Monday, July 24, to give her time to shadow Crawley before he assumes a faculty position at George Mason University.

Time, she said, she will use to pick his brain.

After that, Berlin said her job will start in earnest: talking with school faculty, setting goals and getting up to speed as quickly as possible.

“I haven’t hit the ground yet, but when I do, I’ll be running,” she said at the press conference.

Berlin said she won’t seek to make significant changes during her time at ACPS and will focus on making sure things run smoothly until the school board names a permanent superintendent. The school board is required to make that decision by the end of January.

Berlin, however, said she’s flexible when it comes to her end date, should an incoming superintendent need more time before starting.

Most recently, Berlin served as executive director for the Washington Area School Study Council, composed of current and retired superintendents from the D.C. Metro area who meet and discuss topics relevant to their positions. She has also worked as an executive coach and trainer for area principals.

When the longtime educator looks back at the differences between the challenges she faced as superintendent in Falls Church and what trials she will face as interim superintendent at ACPS, the sheer difference in size is something that comes to mind.
While ACPS has more than 15,000 students, FCCPS had 2,685 at the start of the 20162017 school year – which is roughly equal to the enrollment at T.C. Williams High School alone, as Berlin pointed out in the press conference.

“I think the same challenges are still being faced – growth and facilities. That is just universal. Where do you build if there’s not room to do that? What are the things you do to accommodate a growing population?” Berlin said. “How do you keep achievement on par and continue to improve?”

As Berlin assumes her leadership post, she said she will always ask herself “is it good for the children?” and “can we do it better?”

Berlin said, when it comes to particular schools that are facing academic problems, whether it’s lack of accreditation or dipping test scores, she always looks at how to help the individual students.

“I always look at each student individually and what their progress is at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year,” Berlin said. “I look at ‘how are we focusing on individual growth?’”

Gentry said the search for an interim superintendent after Crawley submitted his resignation to the school board on May 10 brought them many qualified candidates, but that Berlin’s breadth of experience and familiarity with ACPS made her stand out.

“We do really feel very fortunate to have her joining us as we go through this period of searching for a permanent superintendent,” Gentry said. “We had a really strong group of candidates applying for the interim and we were really excited that we had such a great group, but Dr. Berlin was clearly our best choice.”

At the same time, Berlin, despite being retired from the day-to-day of school administration, felt compelled to return to Alexandria to guide the school district through its transition phase.

“When this opportunity arose, it was something I wanted to do because I had such great years in Alexandria and I have such a commitment,” Berlin said. “It’s good to be back.”