When Dr. Lois Berlin retires as Superintendent for Falls Church City Public Schools in a couple of weeks she will leave behind an extraordinary legacy. After seven years running the City’s schools, Lois Berlin will be handing over a school system with a national reputation for excellence.
When Dr. Lois Berlin retires as Superintendent for Falls Church City Public Schools in a couple of weeks she will leave behind an extraordinary legacy. After seven years running the City’s schools, Lois Berlin will be handing over a school system with a national reputation for excellence. Falls Church City schools now produce some of the highest SAT scores and graduation rates in the country and continue to improve. The 2010 class of George Mason High School earned a record-setting 1795 points and Falls Church schools have an enviable on-time graduation rate of 97% with 95% of their high school graduates going on to post-secondary education.
Berlin has a passion for travel. In the fall, she will be going on a cruise to Alaska, then off to visit China for the second time, then to Florida early in the new year. Berlin’s vacations are often designed to pursue her love of the ocean and scuba diving, allowing her to swap the sometimes choppy waters of budget battles and school boards for the relative calm of swimming with schools of fish.
As her father was in the military, Lois Berlin was used to moving around, only settling in Northern Virginia when he moved to a longer posting at Fort Belvoir. She attended Mount Vernon High School, then Virginia Tech, where she met her husband, Lawrence Stuebing, who recently retired as director for design and construction for the Smithsonian Institution. They have been together for 32 years.
Berlin left university with a degree in sociology and the strong desire to work with people but also with the sense that her degree did not offer a clear career path. She took a job in behavioral science with a think-tank in McLean but found it less than exciting. It was while visiting her sister, then working in an innovative Rudolf Steiner school in Aberdeen, Scotland, that Berlin was fired up by the possibility of making a difference in the world through teaching. After winding up her job in McLean, she returned to Scotland and taught for five years, earning her teaching certificate and travelling throughout Europe and Scandinavia on a backpacker’s budget.
The passion for travel might well be in her genes. Her mother was not just a travel agent but an intrepid traveller well into her 80’s. In turn, Berlin has visited a huge list of countries, including not just large parts of Europe, but China, the Far East, Kenya and Tanzania, where one of her nieces worked for an NGO and Berlin got to help her nephew-in-law teach in a local school. In recognition of Berlin’s belief in the importance of sharing experiences, ideas and innovation, Falls Church Educational Foundation has created a new scholarship in her name to help local teachers take part in exchange programs around the world.
After teaching in Scotland, Berlin returned to the U.S., completed a masters degree in early childhood special education, and took a teaching post in Alexandria. After 10 years in the classroom, she was hired as assistant principal at Cora Kelly Magnet School under the wing of the much-admired Betty Hobbs.
Berlin then earned her own post as principal at Jefferson Houston Elementary before being headhunted to take over George Mason Elementary, then a troubled school with a poor reputation among the local community. She worked tirelessly to build not just a strong staff but to reach out to local residents, even tapping a friend in the direct mail business to send out a flyer inviting people to “watch our progress.” This combination of finding the right people for the classroom and improving communication with the community turned the school around dramatically. But Berlin says the key is the staff.
“It is not what you do in the front office that counts,” Berlin said. “It is what is happening in the classroom.”
Following this success, Berlin was chosen to be assistant superintendent in Falls Church.
“As a teacher and then as a principal, I had the chance to have an impact on my children,” Berlin said. “Now I wanted to impact more children in more schools. I already knew the schools in Falls Church were good.”
Berlin recalled her husband telling her he would not have gone to college without the excellent education and inspiration he received at George Mason High School when his family moved to Falls Church.
Berlin says that the greatest challenge during her tenure at the top was maintaining long-term vision in difficult economic circumstances.
“It is tough balancing competing interests to support principals and staff, be responsive to the community, and produce the very best environment for students to succeed,” Berlin said. “The key is always to make your decisions in the best interests of those children. All children can learn. Our task is to figure out how to unlock and expand those young minds, to find what will inspire each of them to want to learn. Keeping that focus is my proudest achievement.”
Berlin has little time for those who are trying to shake up the education system without listening to the many good people who work so hard in it every day. “There is always room for improvement, but we need to work with our staff to develop a professional career ladder,” she says, “and secure their support for the changes we make. When I took over, there were no National Board Certified teachers. Now, I am proud to say that there are more than a dozen, with many more awaiting results this year.”
She offers a candid assessment of top-down initiatives.
“Some ideas have been good, but ‘No Child Left Behind’ was limiting,” Berlin said. “We need a variety of measures and recognition of the need for local solutions. I am totally opposed to ‘Race to the Top.’ There is a role for the federal government in setting standards, but it should not be manipulating or making school districts jump through hoops.”
Berlin’s advice for her successor, Dr. Toni Jones from Deer Creek, Oklahoma, is straightforward: “Get to know Falls Church and win the advice and support of our great community and our wonderful staff for the changes coming through the system.” Berlin smiles and then adds: “It would also be nice to secure agreement with the City Council on revenue sharing.”
Berlin is a strong advocate of completing transition to the International Baccalaureate. Preparing children for the accelerating pace of global and national change, Berlin believes, requires a school system that produces children who are more flexible, more resourceful, and thus able to adapt to circumstances and occupations we cannot anticipate.
“We need to break out of structures designed for an earlier age,” Berlin said. “We should not be preparing children just to memorize content, but to be imaginative and adaptable global citizens.”
When speaking to young people, Lois Berlin still champions idealism, sharing her favourite quote from Anne Frank: “Isn’t it wonderful that none of us need wait a moment before starting to change the world?”
Berlin jokes that after she leaves office she plans “to spend a little time just doing nothing, to regroup.” That might be tough. She has been asked to work on numerous consulting and research projects. She says she is happy to make use of her skills, just as long as she is not tied to the school calendar.
“I have a huge list of things to do around the house, places to visit around the world, stacks of books on both nightstands, and a new iPad to master,” Berlin said.