On an early release Wednesday at George Mason High School, the school’s main gym was raucous with the school’s seniors and juniors competing in a volleyball game during the school’s Spirit Week ahead of its homecoming game and dance.
As Mustangs, some of whom play on the school’s dominant varsity volleyball team, volleyed the ball back and forth of the net, students on the sidelines and in the rafters shouted encouragement to their teammates and shouted playful jabs at each other relentlessly.
In one corner of the pandemonium was Mason principal Matt Hills, who is entering his fourth year at the school, but entering his first as the school’s principal. He was appointed to the position after Tyrone Byrd, who was the school’s principal from 2012-2016, stepped down in May to take a position in Arlington Public Schools.
As the game churned on, Hills calmly spoke to school staff members and checked in with the students on the sideline, trading jokes and commenting on the match. Although the game is part of a tradition at the school – a week of themed days and events leading up to the homecoming game and dance – it was one example of Hills’ focuses as the school’s new principal: mindfulness and balance.
“We have a great mission statement and it revolves around the idea of excelling in mind, body and character and that’s something that Mr. Byrd brought here with a group of teachers who contributed to the statement and I think I want to continue that message…highlighting some of the attributes our mission statement,” Hill said.
“So this year we’re focusing on the character piece. It’s one thing to talk about it and saying excelling in mind, body and character, but it’s another thing to do it, what does it look like in action….We’re trying to create an environment where our students are well-balanced.”
For example, the school recently held Senior Day on Wednesday, Oct. 19, where the school’s seniors did a round robin information session to learn more about college and prepare for homecoming while younger students took the PSAT. Then, the students and staff went out onto the football field for a BBQ.
“It’s about that balance. I think that’s something that we’ve neglected to focus on the last few year. When we have so many of our students taking rigorous, high-level courses and they’re stressed. They are overwhelmed,” Hills said. “So my goal this year has been to reduce the stress levels. To remind students that high school is supposed to be a very serious place, but we also want to make it a fun place, too.”
Speaking of place, Hills commented on the recent decoupling of the plan to build a new campus for Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School from the plans for the 10-acres of commercial development coming to the space next to the school. He said that it’s unfortunate that the plans got decoupled at a time when the school’s enrollment numbers continue to rise.
“I think working here in my fourth year now, that it’s critical that we look into a longterm plan. I think that space is clearly an issue….We’re up to over 810 kids. We obviously lost the trailers in the front of the property, so we had to move all of our classrooms in,” Hills said. “Every single classroom in this building is being used. If we get another 50 kids, I don’t know where we’re going to put them. I also understand the other side, which is we don’t want taxes to go up. We want to respect the fact that we have a community that backs and supports us, but how do you do it in a way that makes sense financially.
“It’s a difficult task. I don’t envy those who have to make those difficult decisions, but I think it’s something that needs to be priority moving forward, especially in the near future. We need to find a way that we can fix or have a new building.”
In an effort to educate the community about the needs of the school, it recently held two tours of the property, on Monday, Oct. 24 and Wednesday, Oct. 26. The purpose was to show taxpayers – whether or not they have students at the school – the need for improvements to the school’s property.
Dealing with capacity at the school is likely to be one of Hills’ ongoing challenges as he steps into his new role at the school. He told the News-Press that the school’s enrollment is nearly at the point where they would have to move up in competitive divisions in Virginia High School League sports, which are determined based on school population sizes, as soon as next year.
Hills doesn’t seem to be surprised by the challenges faced by the school. He said that he knew it would be a challenge stepping into this new role.
“I think I knew it was going to be a difficult transition going from being assistant principal to principal, but it’s nice having the experience and knowledge of being here going on my fourth year,” Hills said. “I think that’s really, really prepared me and helped me a lot with some of the unusual expectations. I’m very pleased with how we’ve started the year so far.”
Hills’ priority goals are emphasizing the community component of the school, building cohesiveness and unity among the school’s staff and to continue creating a healthy mindset in the students who matriculate through the school.
“I want my students to understand that yes, there is a goal. You have a goal in high school that you want earn a certain number of credits [and] you want to prepare yourself for college. We pride ourselves in being one of the best high schools in Virginia and even in the nation and we want to continue that,” Hills said.
“But I also want my students to take a deep breath at times, to join different clubs [and] different extracurricular activities. We want to create a sense of balance and that’s critical for our Mustangs.”
This is the final story in a series profiling the three new Falls Church City Public Schools principals.