College of Education and Human Development - George Mason University

CEHD Alumnus Is Virginia’s 2018 National Distinguished Principal

May 10, 2018

On April 4, Andy Jacks was sitting in a meeting with the associate superintendent of Prince William County Public Schools when his secretary called and said there was an emergency in the cafeteria.

Jacks had been discussing the power of good leadership with the associate superintendent. Later, Jacks realized that his colleague was engaging in a bit of creative deception.

There was no emergency in the cafeteria. Instead, there were 800 students, Jacks’s wife and children, the district superintendent, and reporters from the local news channels. Jacks, a 2006 College of Education and Human Development graduate and principal of Ashland Elementary School, had just been named the 2018 National Distinguished Principal for Virginia.

“Our National Distinguished Principals program provides us with an opportunity to recognize the outstanding leadership of these principals and their commitment to creating successful learning communities,” says the former executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, Gail Connelly. “Because of them, students thrive academically, teachers grow professionally, and communities are strengthened.”

When Jacks became principal of Ashland Elementary, the school was ranked 420th among elementary schools in Virginia. Now it is ranked 49th.

He’s led the school in its climb up the rankings by focusing on a two-pronged mission: being genuine as a leader and believing in students and teachers.

Being genuine, according to Jacks, means not trying to be too tough, or trying to be something you’re not. As a leader, you won’t be able to form meaningful relationships and connect with students and teachers if you’re faking it.

“Just be yourself,” Jacks says. “It’ll be enough.”

Believing in teachers and students involves leading with your heart—supporting students’ and colleagues’ success by trusting their thoughts and ideas. That leads to a culture of innovation, of teachers having creative freedom to try new things.

“When you’re in a mindset of innovating, and trying, and learning, you’re going to be motivated and engaged to really maximize that for your kids and for each other,” Jacks says. He tries to find out what his teachers are passionate about and provide them with the resources they need to pursue those passions in ways that enrich student learning.

Jacks is currently in his eighth year as principal of the school. This follows time spent as the assistant principal at Buckland Mills Elementary School in Gainesville. Prior to those roles, Jacks received a master’s degree in education leadership at George Mason.

“Not only was it [an] amazing experience for me as a student,” he says, “but I was able to form relationships with people that I still have very strong relationships with as we’ve all grown in our careers.”

He also remembers his professors—most notably, his advisor, Associate Professor Jim Upperman.

Upperman remembers Jacks, too. He says that he’s “pleased, but not surprised, that Andy has been recognized with this award.”

“I remember Andy well as a responsible, conscientious young man who often assumed leadership roles during group work,” Upperman says. “He was always well prepared and was a frequent contributor to class discussions, possessing the unique ability to respectfully challenge others while encouraging a wide variety of opinions and perspectives.”

Nearing a decade as principal at Ashland, Jacks plans to continue promoting a culture of innovation and trying new things. Every day when he gets to school, he passes the stoplight he put in his office. The light is always green.