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Goodbye, Farewell … and Thanks.

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Author’s Note:  When Cameron Elementary School Principal George Towery retired in 2010, I wrote the following column about his accomplishments and his leadership.  In a world in which many seem to define themselves by their politics, it’s hard to imagine a principal combining the instructional ideas of the Heritage Foundation with the bleeding-heart compassion of Barack Obama.  
But that was George.  The things he did to improve student academics and make children’s lives better didn’t require massive new programs or funding – they simply demanded leadership, innovation and the willingness to respond to the specific needs of the students he served.

Returning from a grandson’s baptism in Alaska recently, I opened the paper to find that George Towery had passed away last month.  And in re-reading that seven-year-old column, it seemed to define his epitaph as well now as it did then … although his legacy will remain in the thousands of children for whom he made a difference.

To George Towery,
Goodbye, Farewell … and Thanks.
By Chris Braunlich
At a school gathering last week honoring George Towery, the retiring principal of Cameron Elementary School in Fairfax County, a poster invited students to answer the question: “What Will Mr. Towery Do With All His Free Time?” One girl wrote, “He should sit on the beach, where the sand meets the water, and build beautiful sand castles.”

Good advice for someone who has worked hard, but its difficult to think that George Towery could build a more beautiful castle than he did at Cameron.

For some, Cameron would be a candidate for a “challenged school.” Today, the school is 50 percent Hispanic, 20 percent black, 15 percent white and the remaining 15 percent a mix of other heritages. Nearly 63 percent of its children are on free and reduced meals; more than 70 percent speak a language other than English at home.

Yet, the school’s reading and math pass rates regularly equal or exceed the county and state passing rates.

Ninety percent of the schools’ Hispanic students passed the third grade state reading exam – five points higher than Hispanic students in the county; seven points higher than those in the rest of Virginia. Nor does it stop there: In 2009, every Hispanic student passed their state reading exams – and the gap between what Cameron accomplishes and what similar cohorts in the state and county accomplish carries through to nearly every subject.

That kind of accomplishment doesn’t come from going “by the book.” Towery and his leadership team at Cameron are anything but –

  • Cameron has its own “barnyard” – a suburban courtyard with chickens and goats.  Caring for the animals is a privilege and a reward, and has become a way to reinforce good behavior, and teach responsibility and cooperation.
  • When the growing number of immigrant parents asked if they could have school uniforms like they had in their home country, Towery realized the county at the time had no policy.  Rather than say “No” because there was no policy, Towery just started doing it. Today, 90% of the students come in the school “uniform”:  white shirt and tie (or polo) and khakis for boys, white blouse (or polo) and dark skirt for girls – a system that reduced competition for expensive clothes and recaptured focus on learning.
  • One year he bought each teacher a copy of a “No Excuses” book about successful schools in challenging urban environments as a “summer reading assignment,” telling them:  “If these schools can do it, we can.  Come back in September and let’s make it happen here.”
  • He introduced the school to “Direct Instruction” — a rigorous and scripted method of teaching that’s often unpopular with teachers who prefer “doing their own thing.”  But Towery recognized that the students now populating his school needed greater and consistent academic guidance.  “After a few months,” he would recall later, “all the teachers realized that suddenly these children were learning.  What they were doing was working.”  The school supplements that now with a program from William & Mary for gifted and talented students:  At Cameron, no student is left behind – or unable to move ahead.
  • At Thanksgiving, Towery and his Assistant Principal, Steve Hillyard (who succeeds Towery) deliver turkeys and food baskets to families that can’t afford them. He’s gone with a student to the coroner’s to identify a dead parent, and helped students whose parents had ended up in jail or have been evicted or are drug dealers  “because there was no one else to do it.”   He started camping trips so students would learn about nature, and trips to Colonial Williamsburg so they could learn the nation’s past.  And, recognizing that genuinely bad and dangerous behavior was easier to correct at age eight than at age 13, Towery created an “alternative school” for elementary children with behavior problems, and invited other nearby FCPS schools to send him those children.

Towery notes “It’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission,” and much of what he started he started without asking permission. One suspects he frequently begged forgiveness.

It’s tempting to say “this isn’t your grandfather’s principal” … but in a way it is – a throwback to a time when leaders did whatever it took and focused on education, but knew their community, and who was having problems, and went out of their way to lend a hand for the children they loved.

We’ve lost an awful lot of that over the years, haven’t we?

Rumor has it that Towery is planning a book about the last 30 years.  One can only hope so.  The world needs a better blueprint for beautiful castles.

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