Graham Park Middle principal named top in Va.

Graham Park Middle School principal Rae Darlington set out to create a bully-free, harassment-free environment for her students.

And along the way, her efforts to improve student life at the Triangle school have been so successful that she has been selected Virginia’s Outstanding Middle School Principal for 2003.

Darlington, 47, has been principal at the middle school for six years and has been with Prince William County schools for 13 years.

Office secretary Nancy Sedwick met Darlington when her own children attended the school and before she came to work in the office there.

Sedwick is pleased with the efforts she has seen Darlington make to connect with both students and their parents.

“As a parent, I saw her trying to connect more with the kids and to get to know the parents,” she said. “She took a more personal interest.”

Darlington implemented a variety of in-school discipline programs, arranged for speakers to talk to parents and students about avoiding teasing and physical violence.

All students and parents are asked to sign a pledge supporting the tyranny-free environment.

Discipline referrals have dropped 50 percent and out-of-school suspensions have down by 30 percent since the new programs began.

“We’ve been able to get physical conflicts down to an extreme minimal level,” Darlington said.

In the past three years, no Graham Park student has been sent to one of the county’s alternative schools for students with behavior problems.

Darlington says this is due to the on-site alternative program. Instead of suspending students, Darlington extended school days until 6:15 p.m. for those who misbehave and started evening school as well.

Graham Park’s in-school alternative education program allows disruptive students to continue their education at their own school, while still separating them from other students.

“We had to be as creative as possible to find a way for these students to get their education not at the expense of other students,” Darlington said.

In the traditional district alternative school continually disruptive students are removed from their base schools and sent to a special school for students with constant behavior problems.

The program is the only one of its kind in Prince William County.

Her efforts to create a bully-free zone at her school, Darlington invited two authors of books about students coping with teasing and bullying at schools.

Dave Pelzer, author of “A Child Called It,” and Sharon Flake, author of “The Skin I’m In” visited the school to speak to students about the emotional damage bullying causes its victims.

Before Flake visited the school, all students read and discussed her book in their language arts classes. This led several to share their experiences with the author and fellow students, Darlington said.

Darlington also has worked to implement several programs to expand community and family involvement with the school.

One such program is Parents and Kids United, a monthly parent education seminar operated through the school’s guidance department.

Topics include communication with middle schoolers, preparing for high school and homework help, among others.

The programs are held in the evenings with dinner and babysitting provided so a greater number of parents can attend.

Response to these programs has been good so far, but could be better, she said.

“I’d like to have a larger number of parents attending these events. Some parents work two jobs and we’re still working on ways to reach those parents,” she said.

Good communication with both parents and students is something Darlington has always worked for, colleagues said.

Joanne Stickney was also a parent of a Graham Park student as well as a volunteer at the school before she began working in the school’s office and clinic.

“She just really keeps an open door policy. She likes to know what’s going on,” she said, “Whether a student’s having a problem in the classroom or the cafeteria they know they can talk to her.”

As much as Darlington has accomplished in her time at Graham Park, there is still work left to be done, she said.

“It’s been a journey here,” she said, “Ultimately it remains a daily challenge to keep students focused on learning and to give them confidence in the fact that this is a safe and secure environment for them.”

“We’re going to be continuing to increase the instructional day remediation process,” Darlington said, “We’re also going to be working more on school-wide reading strategies.”

“She takes a lot of interest in the kids, not only in academics but also outside of that,” office secretary Martha Sheppard said. “She really goes all out for them.”

Darlington hopes to continue working to achieve a “bully-free environment” as well.

She is currently working to arrange for Jodee Blanco, author of “Please Stop Laughing at Me,” to speak at the school.

As the state’s Outstanding Middle School Principal, Darlington will be considered for the National Middle School principal of the year award. The winner will be announced in October.

The Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals presented Darlington with her state award at a conference in Williamsburg in late June.