Ashburn, Va. (July 28, 2014) – “Welcome to my world!”
That’s one of the catch phrases Jim Person – also known as Jim “Personable” – was known for during his long tenure with Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS).
Beneath the homespun persona that charmed generations of Loudoun students is a very philosophical educational mind. Jim Person’s world was one in which the many factors that affected students and the way they were taught were contemplated on a deep level.
Person, who retired as the principal of Stone Bridge High School on June 30th, has a definite idea of what a public education should provide a student.
“I want kids to walk out of here able to be discriminating citizens. I’ve often said my job is not to tell people what to think, not to tell people how to think; my job is to tell people to think. To be able to back up what they think with some concrete facts; to be able to discriminate between what’s fact and what’s supposition or hearsay…
“I would like to see a standard that, when kids walk out you know they’re going to be enlightened citizens that can carry on the culture; all the things that are great about living in a democracy.”
And despite what you may have heard, Person said the education America provides its young is world-class. “Everybody thinks we don’t measure up with some of the international standards.”
Person formed his opinion through extensive travel and international educational partnerships, especially with schools in China. He said foreign educators visiting Stone Bridge saw an institution they wanted to emulate. “The fascinating piece to me is…the more they see American schools they would like to be able to take what they see as our ability to get kids to think openly, to get kids to think creatively, because their schools are so built around rote memory. They’re fascinated by American schools’ ability to be democratic and promote an entrepreneurial way of thinking…They’re seeing a future where they worry about burning out a lot of their kids…
“I’m not a pessimist. I still think the future is very, very bright. The challenge is that Americans have to come to grips with the fact that education definitely costs more and we have to figure out how to do it. I don’t make any apologies when I tell people that it really does need to be our priority. Right now, America is allowing the recession to get in the way of our ability to see beyond where we are at the moment.”
Person’s retirement caps a career that started in 1974, teaching in an inner-city middle school in his native Richmond. In Loudoun County, he was an assistant principal at Loudoun Valley High School (1978-86); an assistant principal (1986-89) and principal at Park View (1991-99); an assistant principal at Loudoun County (1989-91); and, finally, the principal of Stone Bridge since 1999.
Four decades of working with teenagers hasn’t dulled Person’s enthusiasm for young people, or people in general. He credits his parents with providing him a basic view of human nature. “They instilled in me early on that people are good and decent; until you walk in somebody’s shoes don’t pre-judge them. For a lot of people that’s really a challenge; for me it never has been…
“I really believe most everybody is basically good. Most everybody wants to be successful and do the right thing. Sometimes different circumstances make us detour…I don’t think anybody starts off thinking ‘I really want to be a bully’ or ‘I really want to be malicious or sinister or evil.’ I don’t know if we’re sensitized or desensitized, but we are so much more cognizant of things that should not occur. Sometimes when you’re dealing with kids, they’re in a vacuum.”
When disciplining students, Person tried to keep things in perspective. “As a principal, it’s a great balancing act. ‘Did you really mean to do what you did?’ or ‘Did you just have a temporary lapse of kindness or decency?’ ”
Being a veteran principal helped him develop this philosophy. “The longer you’re in it, suddenly your continuum becomes a circular continuum…The longer you’re in it, you see variations on similar things versus dramatic surprises. Certainly things have different twists – you can’t anticipate everything – but you can at least anticipate things.”
One thing that has dramatically affected schools during Person’s tenure is the standards movement. “We’ve gotten so fixated on standards.”
When talking with those who push for standards, Person said he’s found they often don’t know what they want to measure. Often their knowledge of school rests solely on their own school experiences or media reports.
“We’ve gotten bombarded by everybody’s sense of what the standards ought to be and nobody wants to dig and probe and say ‘What do you really have?’ They just want to be able to rank ’em and sort ’em… There’s no digging to understand what you are really measuring…
“You really can’t rush to a lot of assumptions and judgments until you spend time in a school so you can realize that schools are still doing the right thing by kids. The educators have committed their heart and soul, but everybody else is pounding on them…
“You can’t judge public high schools in Loudoun County based on what you see on TV.”
Preparing for the opening of Stone Bridge in 2000 gave Person a chance to create a unique learning community. “It really forces you to think ‘What should a school look like?’ You’re always thinking – based on your own experiences, based on the schools you have been at and places you’ve been – what the ideal school ought to be. But never in my wildest dreams would I have been able to anticipate so much that has happened; very positive overall, in the 14 years we’ve been here. It’s been a wonderful experience; watching people come together and build something from the ground up. The pride, the passion, the commitment; it’s really amazing when you stop and look backwards and realize just what has occurred….
“The memories you tend to take away are the good memories. But it’s like with anything; you deal with the human factors. You deal with everything people beyond school deal with. You watch people come and go. You watch families deal with illnesses. You watch the ups and downs that are part of everybody’s day-in, day-out existence… Schools are much more than educational institutions… We’re communities that come together and become gigantic extended families. We feel for each other. That’s part of the inherent challenge, but it’s also what keeps schools dynamic and vibrant… People have to come together, they learn to co-exist and they learn to be supportive of each other.”
The principal is the focal point of that community, which makes that position especially demanding. “The high school, with all the activities; you’re not going into it as a job. It really is a lifestyle. It is a tremendous balancing act. I half-jokingly, but very seriously, say that I’ve seen everybody else’s kids grow up in some ways more than I have my own.”
Person’s wife, Nancy, retired from teaching this year and the couple hopes to travel and spend more time with their children, Stephen and Hannah. (They might even indulge in heretofore impossible activities like going to a weeknight Nationals game.) “I can’t figuratively wait until I can take my Blackberry and throw it in the ocean; not have to worry about how many e-mails I need to respond to on the weekend.”
Tempering the newfound feeling of Freedom is the fact Person really loved his job.
“I know so many friends of mine who have had jobs that are jobs. I’ve had a job that, looking backwards, I can’t think of anything else that I would have been more suited for. I love to learn, people say I love to talk; but I see that as just that I like people. If you like people and you like teenagers and you like to learn; I’ve had the greatest gig going.”