By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Dr. Lois Berlin didn’t let an interim title and one-year tenure get in the way of moving Alexandria City Public Schools forward.
The outgoing superintendent finished that term on June 29 after stepping into the role a little less than a year ago on July 24, 2017.
During her 11 months and five days spearheading the city’s school system, Berlin has tackled a host of challenges and navigated ACPS through the Fiscal Year 2019 budget cycle – a cycle where, unlike FY2018, the schools and the city saw eye-to-eye. City Manager Mark Jinks recommended fully funding the schools’ operating budget and capital improvement program, which council approved when it endorsed the budget in May.
Berlin has focused on strengthening the relationships between ACPS and the city, which had become strained. Since Berlin started, the joint city-schools facilities taskforce has made recommendations about streamlining budget cycles and processes for both institutions, recommendations which are slowly being implemented. She has also hired a number of key ACPS personnel.
Colleagues said Berlin’s more than two decades of experience in the school system helped her effectively transition into the interim role and make progress at ACPS in a short period of time.
Berlin left retirement last summer to assume the role of interim superintendent while the school board searched for a permanent replacement for Dr. Alvin Crawley, who left ACPS for a position at George Mason University. She had spent the majority of her 40year career in various principal and leadership roles at ACPS. Starting in 2004, she spent seven years as superintendent of Falls Church City Public Schools.
Chief Academic Officer Terri Mozingo said Berlin’s experience made her uniquely qualified for the interim position.
“It’s been a wonderful experience, mainly because of the fact that she worked previously in Alexandria,” Mozingo said. “Because of that, she was able to bring back tremendous expertise as well as history and knowledge of the system and the community.”
Berlin said one of her proudest accomplishments was strengthening the community by building relationships, especially between ACPS and the City of Alexandria.
“I would say that we’ve managed to build more trust this year,” Berlin said. “The relationships between city and school staff, with principals and with folks in the school, I feel that relationships are improved and more productive in that way. When you start to get the right people in the right seats, then things begin to improve and processes improve.”
That improved relationship was a big part of Jinks’ proposal to fully fund her proposed operating budget and capital improvement program – a far cry from the chaos that erupted during the FY18 process. Berlin and Jinks met periodically to share information and strategies and the two appointed members of the joint city-schools task force.
“She realized that it was important to have strong connections between the city and school staff at all levels, not just at the city manager/superintendent level, the council/board level, but all the way through the organizations,” Jinks said.
People were key to Berlin’s strategy during her year at the helm of ACPS. Berlin said she made several hires to “get the bus moving in the right direction with the right people on it.” Major appointees include Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony, Director of Transportation Charles Stone and principals at Jefferson-Houston, Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School and Matthew Maury, among others.
She also oversaw the construction of two new schools, Ferdinand Day and Patrick Henry Elementary School.
“She didn’t treat this as an interim job that she was just a placeholder for,” Chief Financial Officer Michael Herbstman said. “She came in right away and wanted to keep moving forward and I think left the division overall in a much better place for Dr. Hutchings coming into it.”
In addition to helping pave the way for Hutchings, Berlin has also steered ACPS through several challenges both at the local and national level.
“She was problem-oriented – that’s a strength of hers,” Mozingo said. “She embraced the challenges. In many cases, she saw challenges as opportunities.”
On the local scale, Berlin had to face facilities and maintenance issues, including a water main break that shut down George Washington Middle School for three days and another incident at the school where a student resource officer discharged his weapon on school property.
“G.W. was probably one of the biggest challenges,” Berlin joked – in addition to hiring a principal for Ferdinand Day who, it was later revealed, was accused of misconduct in past school districts.
Berlin also found herself facing national issues, including the shortage of teachers and principals and school security in the midst of shootings across the country.
“On the last day of school, after it was out, I was like, ‘Thank God. Just thank you that we finished this year safe,’” Berlin said. “We have plans in place with our violent intruder training … and by December we’ll have all schools trained, just knowing how to respond. It’s the challenge of having to think differently about school security. Hardening our schools in a way that we never thought we’d have to do ten years ago.”
Throughout the highs and the lows, Berlin’s colleagues applaud her leadership.
“Lois is definitely no nonsense,” T.C. Williams Principal Peter Balas said. “What you see is what you get. She’s honest, she’s transparent … and she’s thoughtful about what she does. She’s also present at a lot [of events] and I think that means a lot to the staff, the parents and the students.”
Mozingo agreed that Berlin had effective and strong relationships with individual principals and schools.
“She was highly visible in schools, in classrooms,” she said. “Everywhere you go, you would see her. Everywhere. She was at parent meetings, she was at advisory meetings, obviously she participated in board meetings. She was just highly visible. I didn’t really look to her as an interim. She was the superintendent.”
Berlin said her favorite memories over the past year were the ones involving students, whether it was reading to elementary school students, attending graduations, joining students in participating in National Walkout Day on March 14 or meeting with the Superintendent’s Student Leadership Counsel.
“For me, and for all of us, she’s truly inspirational and caring, but strategic and very focused,” Mozingo said, “and I would say a very, very wise leader, but one that really loves and will continue to love Alexandria, the community as well as the school system. And she led with a high degree of passion. It’s good to see people who love what they’re doing.”
Berlin has now passed on the reigns to Hutchings, who began as the new superintendent on Monday.
“You become very possessive about the school system, and I didn’t want to turn it over to just anybody,” Berlin said, “With that in mind, I’m really happy to be turning it over to him. He’s terrific.”
Now that she’s retiring – again – Berlin said she plans to spend time with family and pick up work related to education on a parttime basis.
“I think what will make me happiest is not having that alarm clock go off every morning at 6 or 6:30,” she said.
“I just think it’s been terrific being back this year,” she said. “My heart was very much in Alexandria, even for the 13 years that I was gone. I’m very much at home here, and I’m glad to have been able to come back home.”