Principal of Loudoun’s newest school talks about building a community

Posted August 23, 2017

 of The Washington Post (August 21st)

Renée Dawson, principal of Brambleton Middle School, in her office. (Jim Barnes/For The Washington Post)
Renée Dawson, principal of Brambleton Middle School, in her office. (Jim Barnes/For The Washington Post)

Renée Dawson, a 16-year veteran of Loudoun County public schools, will be at the helm when the newest one, Brambleton Middle School in Ashburn, opens Thursday with 1,124 students.

A native of Charles Town, W.Va., the first-time principal taught French and Spanish before moving into an administrative role. She was on the staff for the opening of Harper Park and Smart’s Mill middle schools, and most recently was an assistant principal at Woodgrove High School. Dawson, who has degrees from Eastern Kentucky and Shenandoah universities, is working on a doctorate in educational leadership.

We recently met with Dawson to discuss the opening of the school. What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation.

What kinds of outreach have you been doing?

I went to every school and met with the students, because I wanted the kids to see my face. I invited all of our sixth-graders to write me a letter. They couldn’t email; they had to write. Roughly 400 kids wrote, and I hand-wrote them back, because I wanted them to know that I was as invested in this process as they were.

My experience in opening other schools is that you really want to form this bond, because you’ve got all these different schools [feeding in]. I wanted to give all of the kids T-shirts, so when they’re walking around this summer, they can say, “Oh, you’re a Brambleton Bear.”

What sorts of things did they ask?

The most important was lockers — would they get time to practice with their lockers? So we set up several different opportunities for them to come in.

They were also concerned about [physical education] — the dressing, the changing out. So I just went to the P.E. teachers and read questions out of the kids’ letters and said, “These are the questions that the kids had, so how would you answer these questions?”

And they were concerned about bullying. They wanted to make sure they were going to be safe, and they were concerned about older kids. So that’s when I formed the BAM Ambassadors. The ambassador group is 30 kids that were selected, [with input] from counselors and teachers, that would be school leaders.

What is BAM?

Every school has a school code, and that was the one that we were given. So we’ve kind of taken ownership of it.

This doesn’t look like your typical middle school in Loudoun County. What’s different about it?

The [natural] light. The design of the building is completely different than any other building we have in the county. There’s not a single space in this building where you can’t see education happening, whether it’s in a hallway, whether it’s in a stairwell.

How would learning take place in the hallway?

The crossway connector upstairs is our back hallway. There is . . . bench seating, so you can bring kids out there and journal. We can do lessons in that hallway. In our back stairwells — it’s all open [with windows], so you could take art classes out there.