If you want the full experience of being a new-school principal, don’t live near John Duellman.
Doug Anderson, the principal of newly opened Riverside High School, lives two doors down from Duellman, who opened Rock Ridge High School last year.
“I asked a lot of questions about opening up a new school…I cheated by having a neighbor that did it. I had a lot of insider information.”
And no, Anderson didn’t mind avoiding a few of the plot twists that go with opening a new school. “It was really nice; a lot of things weren’t surprises to me… What happens in October? It was a nice piece of information to have…
“I could forecast what was happening, so there wasn’t a lot of surprise information.”
For the past year, Anderson has been planning for Riverside’s opening. During this time he suffered some separation anxiety. “It was rough. After being in school every day for 20 years it was rough not being around kids, the teachers….
“The energy of coming to school every day; school’s different every single day you come in…I’d never worked in a cubicle before. I was working in a cubicle – next to two very nice people – but it didn’t have the energy of being with eighteen-hundred or so kids.”
That cubicle, located on the fifth floor of the Loudoun County Public School (LCPS) Administrative Offices in Ashburn, was inhabited by Anderson, Athletic Director Matt Oblas and Finance Manager Charlene Mosesso. The close quarters led to some cultural compromises.
Anderson, who plays a mean bass, has musical tastes running toward heavy metal. Mosesso and Oblas had him listening to country music after they were given a choice of radio stations to play in the background.
Anderson grew to like country, just as he hopes his students will come to love Riverside. (Students are coming to the new school from a dozen different LCPS schools; primarily Tuscarora and Stone Bridge high schools with a smattering of Broad Run students.) Starting Monday, Anderson wants his students to build Riverside’s culture.
“Right now it doesn’t have anybody’s stamp on it. It’s got the new building feel. It doesn’t have any character yet. But once you get a thousand kids in here and more kids coming through every year, it will start taking on the character of the kids. There’s no real spirit here yet. There’s no flags, the spirit rocks aren’t colored; there are no messages. That will make it feel homey.”
Riverside will open with 830-plus students. More than 170 of the Rams will be juniors who opted to attend Riverside. “I’m glad they decided to go on this journey with us.”
Anderson has hired 57 teachers and eight teacher aides. Only two of these teachers come to Riverside with no experience.
Anderson knew exactly what he was looking for in his staff.
“People that are relationship builders…how do they get to know kids? How do they make them feel at home? How do they get them to feel like they have ownership in the school and the classrooms? Philosophically, are we going to be on the same page with lesson planning and grading, things of that nature?”
Many of the staff members come from Riverside’s three feeder high schools. “That was by design. I wanted the kids – when they came in here feeling antsy about the new building – they would see a familiar face.”
Like his staff, Anderson chose to be part of the adventure of opening a new school. He decided to do this – after four years as Broad Run’s principal – because he’s been part of opening a new school before. In 2000, he helped open Westfield High School in Fairfax as its History and Social Science Department chair. “That was so much fun, to be a part of that. In the back of my mind, I always thought about the possibility of opening a new school.”
Anderson spent a decade at Broad Run, including six years as an assistant principal, and said it was hard to make a change. “The kids were fantastic. The community was fantastic. But for me, professionally, it was probably time for a change. I thought going to a new school was the change I was looking for…I like reinventing myself. I thought it was time to reinvent myself.”
Part of the nature of Anderson’s job during the past year has been rumor control. One rumor is that Riverside has a parking garage. (That structure belongs to the adjacent National Conference Center.) Another was that Riverside would not have the full curriculum offered by Loudoun’s other 14 high schools.
“A lot of kids were worried about coming over here and getting the classes that they need…We offer everything that everybody else offers.”
While Duellman took a lot of the surprises out of opening a new school for Anderson, opening Riverside was not without surprises. “The most surprising thing was watching this building go from concrete slabs and micro-pillars and dirt to what it is. Looking at the amount of cables and everything else they run through the building; I don’t know how anybody keeps track (of that). The construction guys are marvelous.”
As opening day approached, Anderson found himself sweating the details.
“Are the bathrooms open? Do the bathrooms have toilet paper? You have to make sure all of that is ready to go…Running water, toilet paper; it’s the basics sometimes.”
With the basics behind him, Anderson is waiting for students to fill the building.
“That first day when they walk in the classroom; the opportunity to make an impact and start building our Ram culture is huge…We’ll start building our community, which is a big thing. We’ve been doing it in bits and pieces, but it really hasn’t started yet.”
Anderson said it is the students who will determine what Riverside is like.
“I work here; it’s their school.”
And once the Ram culture is built, Anderson is looking forward to saying something.
“I want to be able to say ‘It’s time for you guys to go home. It’s late.’ ”