In just five weeks, 1,100 students from seven different schools will walk into a brand new building to embark on a brand new school year. Everything, from the classroom desks to the landscaping, will be new.
But Renée Dawson is determined to make sure that each of those students has at least one familiar face amid all the unknowns.
Dawson is the principal of the new Brambleton Middle School, which is still under construction near the corner of Creighton Road and Northstar Boulevard. She and her administrative team have spent the past several months visiting schools, handing out coffee and milkshakes at Meet the Principal events, and knocking on doors with the goal of meeting every one of their future students.
“Connections drive what I do,” Dawson said. “I believe and know there is value in personal relationships, and I want our students to know that from the start.”
The principal spent the spring months making frequent stops at Creighton’s Corner, Sycolin Creek, Legacy, and Madison’s Trust elementary schools to meet Brambleton’s future sixth-grade students. She asked them to write her a letter with any questions or concerns. She replied to each of the students and used some of their concerns as guidance as she made decisions, from hiring staff to planning the school day.
“That was such a good way to get to know the sixth graders, so then we started talking about how we are going to get to know the seventh and eighth graders,” she said. “That’s when we thought of the T-shirt idea.”
Thanks to a donation from Northern Virginia Orthodontics, the school bought close to 1,000 T-shirts that bear the Brambleton Middle School logo. Dawson, joined by other administrators, teachers, cafeteria and janitorial staff, walked door to door throughout Brambleton last month to hand-deliver T-shirts to as many students as possible.
“It was really hot, which was actually great because people invited us in,” Dawson said, “and it was a good way to get to know families.”
Even before any of the students visit the school, they’ve already had a lot of say in its make-up, including choosing the mascot. Rising sixth-graders were asked to nominate mascot ideas. They threw out ideas like blue jays, bobcats, bears, and blobfish. “I didn’t even know what that was,” Dawson said with a laugh.
The rising seventh- and eighth-grade students voted on the three most nominated names and the bears won out.
The parent teacher student organization has also formed and is already chipping in to plan events to help connect families to their new school. Beth Harrington, who serves as co-president of the school’s PTSO with her husband, Chad, said they jumped at the chance to be a part of the middle school’s first year.
“We were drawn to volunteer in this role so we can help shape and set the foundation for future PTSO board members by working for the kids and the school,” she said. “We look forward to this first year and starting off on the right foot.”
Dawson was hired to lead the new school after working as assistant principal at Woodgrove High School since 2011. She loved her time at Woodgrove, but she was eager to get back to working with middle school students. She had previously taught at Harper Park and Smart’s Mill middle schools. She calls those years between elementary and high school “the educational sweet spot.”
“I was ready to be back in a middle school,” she said. “I wanted to take the opportunity to help guide this vision of what a great middle school could be.”
She first stepped onto the school’s property a year ago, when it was a practically empty field. “There was hardly anything here. But I could see it already,” she said.
The school’s design is a first for Loudoun County Public Schools. Middle schools in the county have followed a similar prototype design for several years, but the Construction Services Department mixed it up this time around. The building includes a glass-enclosed crosswalk that connects half of the building to the other. The connector crosswalk includes benches where students can sit and journal or read.
New to the building design is a collaboration workroom where teachers from different subject areas can work together to plan lessons and student projects. Brambleton teachers voted to call this space the Bears’ Den.
“You can tell the building was designed with learning in mind,” Dawson said. “They thought about how students would use every single space.”
The building still incorporates the house system, where students at each grade level—sixth, seventh, and eighth—attend class in the same section of the building and each grade-level house has an assigned dean, counselor and secretary. The model is meant to give students the feeling of a school within a school, especially as they’re transitioning from the smaller schools in elementary to the larger high schools.
Dawson said the model reinforces what she loves about working in education. “My goal from the moment I got the job was to make this a team,” she said. “This is not my school. This is everybody’s school—everybody plays an important role.”