Ashburn, Va. (July 29, 2014) – If there’s anyone who understands opening new schools from just about any perspective, it’s Ben Lacy.
Lacy, who retired as River Bend Middle School’s principal on June 30, was a part of opening seven Loudoun County schools as a student, teacher or administrator.
The remarkable string of openings started in 1963 when a 10-year-old Lacy moved to Loudoun with his family (his father had retired from the Air Force). Young Ben’s first Loudoun school was the old Sterling Elementary near the intersection of Church Road and Route 28. The building was so crowded that his fifth-grade class met in the auditorium.
During the second semester of that school year, Lacy moved to the new Sterling Elementary, his first new school in Loudoun. That was only one momentous event that occurred for him that year.
When the Beatles arrived in America “I was absolutely caught up in that tsunami. That’s when I started to play the guitar. I tried to teach myself how and then my parents paid for lessons.”
Lacy spent eighth, ninth and tenth grades at Loudoun County High School before moving to the newly opened Broad Run in 1969. From Broad Run, he went to Shepherd College to become a physical education teacher. “In order to be a P.E. teacher you have to be a good athlete, and I wasn’t.”
After his freshman year, Lacy transferred to Shenandoah Conservatory (now Shenandoah University) and majored in classical guitar. After graduating in December 1975, he was hired as a teacher in Westmoreland County. (Westmoreland’s superintendent was Charles Pierce, the father of Briar Wood’s High School coach Charlie Pierce. Lacy taught the younger Pierce in chorus.)
In 1977, Lacy returned to Loudoun as a music teacher at the newly opened Seneca Ridge Middle School. (New school No. 3 for those of you keeping score at home.) He remained there for 11 years.
Lacy said he really wanted to teach guitar at the high school level, but Loudoun didn’t offer that. He thus decided to become a middle school dean, accepting a position at J. Lupton Simpson Middle School in 1988. The same year, Loudoun initiated its high school guitar program, leaving Lacy with a decision to make.
“I did some soul searching and decided ‘I got this job, I’m going to do the best I can with it.’” After serving for three years as a dean, Lacy became Simpson’s assistant principal. He then helped Principal Rocky Fera open Farmwell Station Middle School in 1995. Lacy stayed at Farmwell Station when Ginger Minshew became its principal; a decision he said was one of his best. “I learned a lot in those two years. I thought I knew enough to be a principal, but that was a good pick.”
Lacy reunited with Fera to open Harper Park Middle School in 1999. As a result of that move, he got to take part in the opening of new school No. 6. In 2000, the Harper Park’s 575 eighth-graders were moved to the then-new Stone Bridge High School with Lacy and dean Sam Shipp (now the principal of Woodgrove High School) accompanying them. “What a rock star dean I had.”
Lacy became River Bend’s first principal in 2001 and remained in that capacity until his retirement. While his job title remained the same, Lacy said his role at the school changed dramatically.
“When I became the principal, the principal was a manager. I knew everything about the building, I knew where all the buttons were, I knew how to re-set the power, the bells ran smoothly, discipline. That’s what I learned how to do.”
That changed after 2005 and 2006 when River Bend failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by federal No Child Left Behind legislation. With funding from the Department of Instruction, Lacy brought in nationally recognized educator Dr. Steve Edwards for staff development. Working with the staff, Edwards introduced the concept of a Professional Learning Community. Through this concept, teams of teachers work together, everybody is giving the same tests, everybody has the same learning targets. The idea is to raise teaching standards across the board. “Now everybody is getting the same opportunities, it doesn’t matter what teacher you have,” said Lacy. “That was exciting, but it was not an easy sell.”
River Bend was soon among the highest-ranking middle schools in the county and, in 2010, was named a national School to Watch. “We won the Super Bowl in my opinion,” said Lacy.
Not only did the students and teachers change the way they learned, so did the principal.
“I was transformed. I was able to transform myself from a manager to an instructional leader…I was able re-invent myself.
“It was fun. It was a challenge.”
Lacy said he has found a method that helps overcome the challenge of opening a new school.
“You’ve always got to find a way to tell people ‘yes.’ Don’t tell them ‘no.’ You may say ‘I like your idea. What you’re proposing is probably not going to work, but I think we can get to where you want to get by doing this.’ There’s a way – whether it’s your PTA or your teachers – you’ve got to try to find a way to let people know that you’re listening and that they won. That by coming to you with this issue, they are better off than if they hadn’t.”
Lacy said spending his career in middle school was very satisfying.
“There’s an innocence about most of (the students); you can still save them. They’re sweet… These parents just want the best for their kids. The middle school kid is innocent, they’re excited about coming to school, they want to learn. They speak to you in the halls ‘Hello, Mr. Lacy.’ High school; you’re probably not going to get that.”
Lacy said he never expected praise for the job he did as principal.
“People don’t appreciate you until you’re gone. It’s like the incumbent; they don’t like him while he’s in office. A painter; they don’t like his art until he’s dead…You’ve got people who like you, people who don’t. They like your style, they don’t like your style… If you make a decision, someone’s not going to like it. If you don’t make a decision, there are people who will criticize you for that. You’re not in it to make friends.
“As long as you keep your eye on the fact that student achievement is really what you’re here for…
“A legacy; I don’t know if I went into this with that in mind. I was just trying to do the best job I could.”