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Paul Swanson Reaches for His Dreams at TJ Elementary

NEW TJ PRINCIPAL PAUL SWANSON is leading a school that is twice the size of the one that he led last year. He acknowledges that challenge but said that he isn’t worried that any of the students at the school will fall through the cracks. (Photo: Drew Costley/News-Press)
NEW TJ PRINCIPAL PAUL SWANSON is leading a school that is twice the size of the one that he led last year. He acknowledges that challenge but said that he isn’t worried that any of the students at the school will fall through the cracks. (Photo: Drew Costley/News-Press)

Paul Swanson, the new principal of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, is the only one out of the three new principals of Falls Church City Public Schools who didn’t work for the school system prior to being selected by the Falls Church School Board for the post. Before coming to Falls Church, Swanson was the principal of West Elementary School in Mount Vernon, Ind. for seven years. He said that since the school year has started that he’s been struck by the caliber of the students and teachers at TJ.

“One of the things that I’ve been floored by on probably a weekly basis is just – no joke – how talented and gifted these kids are and the remarkable lives of their families,” Swanson said in an interview with the News-Press. “We’ve got kids in this building who have been to multiple continents and multiple countries. Kids who are working four, five or six grade levels above theirs, so there’s that.

“And then you pair that with some staff members who just stunningly accomplished. We’ve got staff members who have gone overseas and taught, not because they were assigned there, but just because [they thought], ‘I think I want to have this experience’ and they did it. We have people here who graduated from Harvard Law School and are now teachers, so it’s a pretty impressive pot to be part of.”

Swanson’s move from West Elementary School, which has approximately 400 students, to TJ, which reported an enrollment of 823 students at the beginning of the school year, is a big leap. TJ had two more students enroll since the beginning of the year, so that number raised to 825). The challenge of helming a school with that many more students, parents and teachers isn’t lost on him.

“I’m not going to lie about it – that’s a challenge. And I think it’s a challenge on a couple of fronts, but here’s the main one. I think it’s much harder to develop close, personal relationships with everybody in the community,” Swanson said. “When you’re at West Elementary and you have a ballpark figure of 30 or so staff members, that’s a very manageable number, so I could tell you about each one of those staff members’ families, who their husbands or wives are, how many kids they have and where they’ve been this summer. That just gets exponentially harder when you’re surrounded by ballpark figure 90 staff members.

“And it’s the same thing with the kids. When you are principal of a school with 400 or so kids, then it’s a lot easier to individualize those relationships, whereas when there is 825, it just becomes a lot harder….[But] here at TJ, I never worry about a kid falling through the academic cracks. I don’t because of the systems that we have in place. I do worry about a kid who falls through the cracks of my own knowledge of that kid. And I don’t know that there’s a silver bullet to that.”

PAUL SWANSON reaches out to a student in Lacey Gandy’s fourth grade class at TJ. He tested the students’ knowledge of the presidents while visiting the class. (Photo: Drew Costley/News-Press)
PAUL SWANSON reaches out to a student in Lacey Gandy’s fourth grade class at TJ. He tested the students’ knowledge of the presidents while visiting the class. (Photo: Drew Costley/News-Press)

One of the things that Swanson does in order to get to know the oldest kids at TJ, the fifth graders, better is playing soccer with them as much as he can, he said. “And they wear me out and they make me look bad,” he said jokingly. “But it’s a chance to get to know at least some of the leaders of this school in terms of the student population in a different way.”

He’ll have four years to get to know the youngest crop of kids that entered TJ this year as second graders. Then, when the school reduces size as part of the Mt. Daniel expansion that will take the second grade from TJ to Mt. Daniel, the student population will be reduced. He said that the school isn’t focusing too much on that change at the moment.

“We aren’t doing anything tangible right now. We know obviously that’s coming down the pike and there will definitely be a time and place to think about that,” Swanson said. “Right now I think that we are lasered in on the 825 students that we have, to do right by them as best we can.”

Some of the things that Swanson is doing in order to “do right” by his students is focusing on improving the English proficiency of TJ’s English as a second language students (ESOL), creating a supportive, intimate culture among the staff and improving communication with the school’s parents. He was able to bring in an instructor from Mt. Daniel to help with ESOL and he changed the master schedule of the fourth grade class so that they have language arts at the end of the day, which allows ESOL staff members to increase the time they spend with some of the ESOL students at the school by about 70 percent.

Also, he got thank you card style stationery printed up with the TJ logo on it and gave out ten cards to each staff member and asked them to write a note or letter to a fellow staff member on the cards throughout the year. Finally, he has started a series of “Chalk Chats” with the school’s parent community, which are held on one Thursday a month. There are morning and evening sessions to allow for flexibility. One of the things that he hopes the school does well this year, he said, is reaching out to parents to continue and deepen communication.

“It’s basically a town hall meeting so parents can come in and they can talk about whatever they want to talk about,” Swanson said.

He said that there are lot of good things that were happening at the school that he’s inherited from his predecessor Bob Palermo. “I think the school, in some regards, speaks for itself. I think there have been all kinds of good things that have happened at this school,” Swanson said. “So to some degree, I think my number one job is not to stand in the way of progress.”

At the beginning of Swanson’s career in education he thought about moving to the Washington, D.C. area, but opportunities in his home state of Indiana opened up and he stayed. Now, he’s had the opportunity to move to this area because his wife, Dianne, wanted to live closer to her daughter, who lives in Northwest D.C.

“So there was a desire to be closer to family, but that was not the only reason,” Swanson said. “I’ve always liked the D.C. area. I love the area and I came a hair away from coming when I was right out of college almost 27 years ago to teach and then I had a job that opened up for me back home and I fell in love with it and was having a good time….[But] there kind of came a point in my career where I had to decide I’m either going to reach for my dreams or I’m not. And so, I did, and hopefully it works out.”

This is the second story in a series profiling the three new Falls Church City Public Schools principals.