Interview Robert C. Russell


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russell audio (Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)

I was born in Elkins, West Virginia, right at the beginning of the depression, in 1929; the son of a school teacher and my mother taught, and from a family of school teachers. I grew up in Elkins, and went to elementary school, and was a product of a junior high school and high school, during a period of time in education when we were just starting to departmentalize elementary schools. I was departmentalized in the fourth grade. There was this "school within a school" concept. I had the same English teacher for grades 4, 5, and 6. I became interested in music early in elementary school. Became a member of the band, and showed an interest in music through high school, both instrumental and vocal. When I graduated from high school, I started at Davis & Elkins college as a pre-engineering student. The veterans were just coming back from the second world war, and I found by 1949 that most of them were also going to be engineers, and that would not be a very good career for me. So I changed my studies to music, and went to West Virginia University, where I graduated in 1951 with a degree in music education. In that period of time the Korean War was just beginning, so I joined the Air Force, and came to Washington to join the Air Force band. I was stationed at Bolling field for four years, and during that period of time had an opportunity to look around the country to see where I might want to teach. I decided to settle in Fairfax County. Living in the Washington area, I knew the area was a growing area, and made my decision to teach in Fairfax. I signed my first contract as a math teacher, but did not teach math. By the time I came out to take my first job, there was a music vacancy, so I took the music job. So I taught then for the next five years at Fairfax High School I taught eighth grade. The student population of the county at that time was 35,000, and we believed that we would double our population in the next ten years, and we doubled the population in the next five. From 1955 to 1960, Fairfax county was growing at a rate of one to two classrooms a day. Each year we were opening several elementary schools and several high schools. The growth was so rapid that the traditional organization of 7-5 (seven years of elementary, five years of high school) was just impossible. In 1956, the Gleason committee (Mr. Gleason was a member of the school board) recommended an organizational pattern of 6-3-3 (six years of elementary, three years of junior high, and three years of high school). Superintendent Woodson rejected this plan, and the final decision was for a 6-2-4 plan. So the intermediate program that was developed in Fairfax County, and was to become the middle school program throughout the country, was a result of an old gentleman that understood schools, and worried a lot about junior high schools. It was Mr. Woodson's feeling that seventh and eighth graders needed an environment more of their own. So Fairfax County introduced a program of intermediate education in 1960. I, like many other teachers who were teaching eighth grade, were destaffed from the high school to teach in the new intermediate schools. So I then went to Lanier, and applied as an assistant principal, and became assistant principal. I got married in 1950, and had a son in 1954, so when I arrived in Fairfax County to teach the first years were very lean. This is the reason for going into administration; not a great desire to administrate a school, but to make more money. In my first year of teaching, my original contract was signed for $3,400; before school started, the contract was raised to $3,800. I was playing three dance jobs a week, directed two church choirs, and tuned pianos. I was doing anywhere from three to four jobs. My daughter was born in 1956, so when the possibility of moving to administration came about, I asked for it. So in 1960, when I was appointed assistant principal at Lanier, I was working on a masters in administration from American University. So I continued working on the masters degree, and began working at Lanier, as assistant principal. In 1962, the principal job at Lanier became available, and I was appointed principal, and remained principal until 1972. In 1972, the principal at Fairfax High was asked to move into the central office for a year to help with a study of the possibility of year-round education in the country. I was asked to go to Fairfax for one year, to return to Lanier at the end of that year. I felt it would be a tremendous opportunity for me, and recommend it to any program that is training principals for a broader administrative responsibility. I felt it would be good for me to go to the high school to see what happens to the eighth graders who go to the high school, and then go back. I feel that going back becomes a very important part of that process. I would recommend a program like this for any school system, to train principals for broader responsibilities than what they are in. While I was at Fairfax, the superintendent, Jack Davis, came to me and told me he would like for me to go to Robinson to become principal. I explained to him that I was not really interested, and wanted to go back to Lanier. Superintendents have a way to be very persuasive, so I did, in April of 1973 become the principal of Robinson, and was there for the next eleven years. So the career was one of a starting as a music teacher for five years, an assistant principal for two years, principal of one intermediate for ten, and then principal of a high school for twelve years. I ended my career with Fairfax County Schools with 29 years, and age 55 which is our optimum at retirement.

Q: Could you comment on Fairfax County's leadership role in the development of the middle school program?

A: This came about as a result of a fellow named Dr. Hutton, Professor at the University of Virginia, who was brought to Fairfax County to implement a program that was to be called a middle school program, or rather an intermediate program. The terminology was somewhat confusing, and needs to be mentioned here. Junior high schools were an exact imitation of a high school, it was just a younger age, with interscholastic sports, bands, and cheerleaders. It was the concept of younger children in competition with other schools. Mr. Woodson and his assistants decided they did not want to do that. What was happening in the District of Columbia, was that ninth graders were selling protection to seventh graders. The school was organized for ninth graders because all the competition was at that level. There was this feeling that the junior high school program had some traits that were just not educationally sound. As a result of that, when Fairfax County decided to go with the intermediate program, they went to Charlottesville and recruited Dr. Hutton to design and implement this intermediate program. So Dr. Hutton sort of became the father of the intermediate school in Fairfax County. The basis of the design of the school was to be a school between the high school and the elementary. They called it intermediate. The unfortunate thing was that the state vocabulary for intermediate was upper-elementary. So the first eight buildings that were built had fountains down on the floor, the shower heads low, the door handles low, because they were designed for upper elementary. After 1962, our intermediate schools were designed differently. So, intermediate education, in vocabulary, had to be understood differently. There was a book that came out, in the early 60's, called Intermediate Education in the United States. Strangely enough, Fairfax County was not mentioned in it. The book could have been written here. By the mid-sixties, when lots of problems were beginning to develop in the high schools and the junior high schools, the solution to those problems was reorganization. And that is when much of the history of the middle school was developed. What you find now is the difference between a middle school and an intermediate school, is accepting some of the lower grades, like five, six, seven, and eight.

Q: Why has Fairfax County retained the 7-8 organization for their intermediate schools, instead of going down to some of the lower grades?

A: Well, first, because it has been so successful. Part of it is economics. It is more expensive to have a departmentalized school. Just think of the economics of numbers of teachers. It is more expensive to have a seventh grader in intermediate school than in the elementary school. The other part of it is that our geography has been so that we have been able to keep programs large enough. If the enrollment were to decline quite a bit, I suspect that we would bring up the sixth grade. There is also a strong philosophy that needs to be articulated often of competition within the school -- competition that is appropriate for their age and their maturity. It is contrary to the little league concept. Seventh and eighth graders competing within that school -- an intramural program, rather than an "intermural" program. Now, there are places in the state of Virginia that profess a middle school philosophy, that will have a basketball team from that school playing another school. That you will not find here. That has been preserved here in Fairfax County with a lot of effort. If we would have allowed our community to have great input, we would have had intermediate schools with the same identities as high schools a long time ago. We just believe that seventh and eighth graders should not be allowed in contact sports, although these sports are available in the community for intermediate age students.

Q: Could you comment on the year-round school study of 1972 that you mentioned earlier?

A: Prince William County used the year round program for a period of time. There are positive and negative sides to it. The positive side of it is that you utilize your building all the time. You need your building to be air conditioned, and you are moving students in and out all the time. You utilize about 4/5 of your student population all the time. A fifth of your students are out of the building. So, instead of having one long vacation, you have many short vacations. The advantage is utilization. The disadvantage is breaking families up, because you might have one child out for a period of three weeks, while the other children are in school. If you take a high school and rotate 1/5 of your student population out, and you have a student participating in an activity like football, when they are not in school. So there are some real disadvantages in this program. There are no inter-scholastic programs in the summer, you do not fit into any other patterns with systems around you. Other than utilizing the building on a temporary basis, there are lots of reasons why it is not a very good plan. It is a strong educational plan, if the mission of the school was only education. But the mission of the school we have learned is first, custodial. We are taking care of people. We are taking care of children while their parents work. In order to do that, some sort of plans have to be made.

Q: How have you seen the mission of the school change over the years?

A: I have a suspicion the mission of the school never changed. I think my understanding of what the mission really was has changed. I was trained as the schools were educational institutions. And they are, in very broad terms. But, schools are an economic entity in the community. For instance, while I was at Robinson, Robinson was the largest payroll for some 60 square miles. It was the basic economy of that community. Just like a hospital. Sometimes we do not think of a hospital as the basis for the economy in a community, but it is, and so is a university. It is custodial. It takes of children while parents do other things. It is a screening device. It does in fact say to a community who is going to make it and who is not going to make it. It has a social mission, that we fulfilled the late 60's and early 70's. Integration is an example of what the school system did when no other social system could manage it. We did not integrate anywhere in society except in the schools. And the schools have now integrated athletics, and the schools have now integrated athletics and finally communities. The criticism we took from the President and the educational community a few years ago, was that we had dropped academic standards. It was a complete misunderstanding of what the mission of the school was in the 60's and the 70's, and that was to hold a society together that had come totally unglued. I was not trained to that, nor were many teachers trained to be social service people. Many things that twenty years ago were not in the budget became part of the budget. We put a nurse in our buildings to take care of the health needs of our children. Schools began to allocate money for books for special needs. We bought them track shoes or gave them uniforms so they could participate. Teachers spent lots of time outside of school as a social agent. The mission of the school became so all inclusive. We did a fantastic job.

Q: Could you comment on the leadership education played in integration?

A: Integration wasn't something that was asked for. It was legislation in the courts that said you will do this and schools were the social systems that were required to implement it. It didn't go without hurt. Fairfax County was a county that was slow to educate its black students. For years and years if you were a black family and you lived in Fairfax County, your children had to be educated either at a school in Prince William County or somewhere else. Finally, Luther Jackson high school was built and the black children could go to the school in the county that they lived in. The people had unbelievable pride in Luther Jackson as a high school. When we integrated the schools and forced the closure of Luther Jackson, there were black students in this community who were damaged by that as well as those that were helped. In other words, when we had the first black students come to Lanier, I saw young people come very reluctantly by themselves because of the limited number. We didn't have 30% or 40% of the population but only 1 or 2. Today, after 15 or 20 years, we don't recognize it as such. If you were the only white student in an all black classroom as well as having your society an all white society, suddenly being thrown into a totally different society had traumatic consequences. Black parents guided their children well but there are people who will still say that many of our black children were hurt by being forced to leave a school they considered to be a strong school. Taylor Williams, who was the principal of Luther Jackson is still considered one of the most respected people in his community. When he had to close his all black high school in order to become principal of a white school, it was an experience for him. From a state's point of view, all systems throughout this state had dual programs. When it was necessary to close one of the high schools and make the other school the high school, you will notice in checking around the state that the black high school was the one that was closed. The black children were thus sent to the white high school. Then the black principal would become the junior high principal. I was president of the junior high principals of the state at the time this was happening. All of a sudden, there was this enormous influx of black principals into our group who had formerly been principals of high schools and they felt degraded. It took its toll but nobody ever talked about it.

Q: Over the last 30 or so years, have you seen the role of the administrator changed at all?

A: The perception of the principalship -- we were growing so rapidly that many principals of that time didn't have much experience. Central administration felt the necessity to run the school from the central office. Therefore, as a principal, you had very little authority. I had an assistant superintendent call on me and tell me that it was his understanding that my school had an innovation and my reply was "Oh, I hope not" because that was a not a good thing in those days. All schools were alike, everyone had the same schedule, used the same textbooks, etc. By 1962 with the new math and science programs, foreign language, and English programs, you were expected to have innovations. Schools became much less defined. Classrooms became more informal. Lack of structure was considered to have merit. Along with this came many other disruptions. Superintendents were hired to open the instructional program. Open education became a philosophy. We broke out of that in the late 1970's almost with a revolution against the open classroom. The walls were put back up and straight rows instead of round tables were used. This is in fact the pendulum we go through. The difference between that period, and now is that the pendulum is moving faster. We go from one extreme to another because there is merit on both sides and we have to find the middle ground. One thing we did learn in the early 1960's when we tried to implement the military's way of teaching a foreign language in our schools -- by building a cubicle and putting earphones on the student and teaching them French in 6 weeks. It took 3 or 4 years to realize that that is not the way people learn. They learn by sharing, not by isolation. I am convinced that cubicles will be revitalized and probably torn down again.

Q: Could you comment on your preparation program for certification?

A: You had to have your masters degree in education in order to be a principal. An assistant principal could be working on that degree with the understanding that it had to be completed before you became a principal. My program was valuable for me because I had been a teacher that was given administrative assignments and duties by a principal that developed many assistant principals. Sam Coffey was very skilled at taking men (in those days you had to be a man to be a principal) and giving them administrative duties while they were teachers. Many of these men did in fact become principals. There was a time in Fairfax County, in order to become a principal, you had to have been under Sam Coffey. So, when I started going to American University to work on my masters degree, I had good background. The thing I liked about American University was that most of the people teaching the classes were practitioners. For example, Dr. Bennett, who was a principal in the District of Columbia by day, would teach at American University at night. This was valuable because it allowed me to move into the principalship and know exactly what was expected.

Q: What aspects of your personality made you successful as a principal?

A: I would guess that 75% of the principals in this country are former coaches. The reason is probably because coaching is excellent training ground for administration. It was also a political base. Coaches were normally the most popular people in their community. If you were a successful football coach and you wanted to go into administration, you would have a lot of people to support you. I was one of the first principals in Fairfax County to have a music background. Again, you are trained in music to be an administrator because you are taught how to perform and how to deal with large groups of people. I am very people oriented and having had a music background, I am able to perform in front of people wanting to do the best job possible. Performing and being an administrator are alike in that you want to do a good job so the audience will applaud. As a professional, you are a performer. You constantly have an audience. This is probably why the personality blended so well with it.

Q: As a principal, what were some of your biggest concerns?

A: My greatest concern was the fact that parents sent their children to school with a set of their values. The children sat side by side by other children with totally different values and the influence that the value structures had on each other was a definite concern of mine. Even the value structure of the school itself-- we often set values that we determined were the values of the community. We were, by law forcing families to send their children into an arena of germs. It depended on how strong they were to stand up against the other influences. I felt my job in the cafeteria was not to teach children manners, it was to protect those that had them. It's that hidden agony that there are things here that children shouldn't be exposed to.

Q: Could you comment on the basic organizational philosophy in the county and how it has changed over the years, especially with regard to the introduction of the eighth grade into the system?

A: Fairfax County as a community is relatively new. When Mr. Woodson came here to be superintendent in 1929, the system was very small. There were more cows in the county than children. It was a rural community which stayed that way until after World War II. The organization for the state of Virginia was one of one room schools, grades 1 through 7. High schools were pretty much disbursed around. In the early 30's in Fairfax County, there were a few community high schools very much like the elementary program. The state of Virginia had a plan called the 7-4 plan, seven years of elementary school and four years of high school. That was eleven years of education. There are many teachers in the state of Virginia today teaching that only had eleven years of public school. The eighth grade, as an organizational grade, was put into Fairfax County in 1946. If you were to graduate in 1951, you must have had to repeat a grade because due to the addition of the eighth grade, Fairfax County went one year without a graduating class. Fairfax County, during its growth years was a 7-5 program. Eighth grade was part of the high school. You didn't get credit for it but you had to go to the eighth grade. A lot of people called it a review year. Eighth grade was used to get caught up in math, science, English, etc. When our system was growing so rapidly and we were building a classroom a day from 1955 to 1960, one of the studies talked about developing a junior high program. Mr. Woodson said that we didn't want to do that but instead chose to go with an intermediate philosophy. When we opened the first intermediate schools of grades 7 and 8, philosophically it was quite different. Seventh graders had not been departmentalized before and eighth graders had been in high school. The seventh graders got a little bit more and the eighth graders lost something (in perception only). When I was a teacher of eighth grade students, from 1955-1959, we had an eighth grade football team that would have played Mt. Vernon's eighth grade football team. When our intermediate schools opened in 1960, we did away with any kind of interscholastic sports at the eighth grade level. Philosophically speaking, we were now introducing a middle school program and the eighth grade changed from a review year to a preview year. The math, science, and social studies programs today are a preview of high school math. The seventh grade is pretty much a diagnostic year and the eighth grade is a preview year which makes ninth graders much better prepared for high school. That is the organizational plan. It is fostered by people being in the intermediate school that understand the intermediate philosophy. Another part of that philosophy that became very important was the part that the activity program was to be an outgrowth of what was happening in the curriculum. You had art clubs, science clubs, journalism clubs, etc. Basically the intermediate program is self-contained and from that self-containment you had a protective society and that was all by design saying that seventh and eighth graders had an emotional stability that needed to be protected. At the same time, the community needed violates a lot of the ideas that are still intermediate ideas. Everything is intramural instead of intermural. That philosophy is Fairfax County. It will be interesting to see what happens when people who designed the program retire and leave the program in the hands of the second generation. Whether or not the second generation as well as the community will keep the program is yet to be determined. We do know that it has survived 26 years now and is still fairly strong.

Q: Could you give me some background on Mr. Woodson.

A: Prior to Mr. Woodson's time, it was very much a rural country system. Mr. Woodson came as a young man. He first brought consolidation. One of the first things he did which caused much controversy was that he built Fairfax High School which was a consolidated county high school built back in 1936. In order to do that, they closed Clifton High School as well as a couple others and bussed students in to a consolidated school. Consolidation in the 1930's caused much bitterness amongst the people who had been around awhile. Mr. Woodson was very much a humanist. He wanted a music program and so in order to get one, he recruited Phil Fuller who was out of the navy band in the mid 1940's to Fairfax County and start a music program. In the elementary school, he surrounded himself with very bright people, like Harold Ford, who had very strong feelings for youngsters and tried to eliminate much of the competitiveness or the busy kinds of work. He was always looking at new ideas and new things. He's the only superintendent in metropolitan Washington that outlived the growth. As other communities grew and became more sophisticated, boards of education got rid of their superintendent and hired somebody new to come in. Mr. Woodson was here from 1925 to 1961, when he retired at the age of 65. He was as respected in 1961 as he was in the 1930's and 1940's. He really was a southern gentleman and a very unique school person. The thing that is disturbing for me is the number of people who are not aware of the history of the system and some of the quality people who were a part of the nucleus that Fairfax County has built. People like Charles Davis, who is hardly remembered now, was the beginning of the planetarium program. In special education, there is a whole list of people who had excellent credentials in developing our special education program. It is possible for someone to come now and not have any idea of the development and growth that went on in the past. Most of the people who were leaders in the system came from somewhere else in the state of Virginia.

Q: What do you see for the future as we get some people in who were not a part of that growing time.

A: There will be a maturing of our new constituents. I predict very much of a continuation. Washington is the most dramatic, important city in the world. Businesses are attracted to Washington from places like New York and Detroit as well as the whole high-tech community. In the near future, we are going to have people coming from everywhere which is not unlike our growth in the last 25 years. In the past, most of our growth was government and military. The difference now is that in addition to government and military, there will be a tremendous influx of the business community. These people are very demanding which is okay because their willingness along with those demands is a willingness to pay the bill. We don't find people reluctant to pay taxes in order to get certain services. There may be a re-growth of an interest in education from a young person's point of view as a career. We have gone through a generation of our brightest kids going into other areas for careers instead of education. I believe that we will see a return to education as a career which is encouraging. We are in a very conservative mood right now which will be followed by a re-generation of the arts. The quality of the arts programs didn't change over the years, but the numbers of people involved did.

Q: What kind of things as an administrator consumed most of your time.

A: Most of my time was taken in talking with people. In most conversations, I found the time to be most valuable. It was rare for me to be with someone that I felt was a waste of time. I often felt that I needed to be somewhere else but I didn't feel that what I was doing was a waste of time. I felt the things that I should be doing in the school were to be totally aware of what was happening there and respond in any way that was necessary. I never went to a county meeting that I felt was a waste of time. Many times paper work was done at the last minute because it was not a high priority for me. It was not unusual for me to stay late at night, work weekends, or work at home to get those things done which I did not consider high priority.

Q: Could you comment on a few of your most pleasant activities as an administrator as well as some of your more unpleasant activities.

A: I've always enjoyed young people even when they were having problems. When other people were finding enjoyment in what we were doing, I found that enjoyable. I enjoyed the personal relationships such as the teachers who were and continue to be my personal friends. People are so important that it is the interaction with people that I find very enjoyable. I never found the same kinds of feelings with things. When you talk about agony, the agony of John Walsh's death, which was the only time that a child under my care ever died. To have a child die, and to be with the parents, when it is expressed to them that it is all over, there is no description of that agony. You develop this feeling that the students belong' to you. I think in the same way we lost children to other kinds of defeats. There is no enjoyment over someone else's agony. It always bothered me very much when families were torn apart, especially when there was some thought the school had been a party to that.

Q: What kind of qualities do you think it takes to be an effective administrator?

A: I don't see a lot of difference between being a school principal and being a minister in self-sacrifice. Just as you are willing to sacrifice for your family, a whole family sacrifices for a principal. You cannot dedicate yourself to a position as principalship and have everything else in your life be the same. There has to be a willingness to give of yourself, to not take vacations when you think you deserve it, etc. The only way you can make a principalship easier is to sluff off somewhere. You actually become a shepherd to a flock and you have to be willing to do what ever is necessary to guide people in the best way possible. There are no short cuts.

Q: How do preparation programs for administrators fit in? Years ago, you could learn to be a by the seat of your pants.

A: Not anymore. The job has become very sophisticated and you better be well prepared. You have to be an outstanding teacher. You have to know and understand what the learning process is and how other people learn. You have to be able to manage people. You have to be trained to paint clear pictures. I couldn't be a principal next year the way I was a principal ten years ago. Staying in the principalship allows you to grow with it. There has to be some kind of nurturing. Most good principals were nurtured by another good principal. Sam Coffey was a builder of principals. He had good ideas and would throw them out and have other people implement them. If you became a good implementer and carried a few good ideas, you also became a principal. If you were a manager only, chances are that you weren't nurturing anybody along. There are some qualities that you learn by osmosis. We have learned to analyze those qualities by now through assessment programs which evaluate people to tell whether they would be pretty good at something or not. It helps people with their strengths and weaknesses.

Q: What word of advice would you give somebody considering being a principal someday.

A: To have a great deal of patience with other people and yourself. Most of us get very angry with ourselves when we don't do something well. Strong positive self-talk is necessary. Confidence in other people is a necessity. You can't doubt other people. You must have an unshakable faith in 1 them or you will never make it.

Q: Is there any truth to a story that you dressed up in a marching band uniform at a football game and performed at half time?

A: Yes. It was homecoming at Fairfax High School. I hadn't marched with a high school band since I was in high school. The band director was quite a politician and knew the way to get things from a principal. He asked me if I wanted to dress out and do a tuba solo. So I did it. I marched the full half time show and did the tuba solo, and loved every minute of it.

Q: What about you playing bagpipes down the main hall. I did that on several occasions when I wanted to attract attention. I did that both at Fairfax and at Robinson. I have also heard that You led the whole student body in pep songs at pep rallies.

A: I did that also, and loved it. It gave me an opportunity to be with students in something they enjoyed. In the same way I could lead them in a pep rally, I could go before them when I needed to talk to them. It created in them a willingness to listen to me.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to comment on?

A: For anyone that is interested in the development of an educational program, Fairfax County is a prime place to come and look and see how we evolved to where we are. It took place so quickly. I was very lucky to have come here when I did to have a full career with quality people.

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