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LOCAL LEADERS/John Porter - 38 years of improving the city’s schools

Posted on Nov 12,2008
Filed Under Local Leaders , Community,

“They get a bad rap at times, but the kids
are what have made my career,”
said John Porter.

Managing Editor

John Porter’s early passion for knowledge growing up in Del Ray in the 1950’s and 60’s blossomed into a lifelong pursuit of improving the Alexandria City Public Schools System.

As a tireless and passionate educator in the first degree, whose 22 years as principal of TC Williams High School elevated standards there across the board, last week Johhn Porter Jr. received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau.

The Alexandria City Public Schools assistant superintendent for administrative services, Porter received the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau’s Marian Van Landingham Lifetime Achievement Award for his service to the Alexandria community on Oct. 29.

Porter, who served 22 years as principal of T.C. Williams High School, received the award from Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, chair of AVB’s Evening in the Heart of Alexandria at Gadsby’s Tavern, who said, “John Porter typifies the spirit of the Marian Van Landingham Award: He has dedicated not only his professional life to the well-being of Alexandrians but has lived and breathed commitment to this community through volunteer service.”

Porter’s community-oriented endeavors include serving as a board member and Chairman of the Alexandria Regional Council of the United Way in 2007, a charter member of the Alexandria Crime Solvers and a founding member of the Alexandria Community Trust (ACT). He has served on regional and state organizations focusing in education and athletics and is the recipient of numerous awards, from Distinguished Educational Leader by the Washington Post in 1987 to the Whole Village Award by the Virginia Education Association/Education Association of Alexandria in 2005.

The Marian Van Landingham Award is named in honor of the prominent Alexandrian, who served in the Virginia House of Delegates and is an active supporter of the arts.

With 38 years of work behind him, Porter recently joked that he’s chosen not to accept the just-opened vacancy of Washington Redskins coach. At 60 years old, there’s still too much work left to be done in the city’s public school system.

Since joining the school system in 1969 as a history teacher, Porter has seen a lot of changes over nearly four decades working in its trenches: Curriculum battles, overcrowding and asbestos worries are only a few of some of the intractable the issues which have arrived on his desk.

The $100 million “new TC” is something Porter has been watching closely from his perch as assistant superintendent of Administrative Services and Public Relations for ACPS. “Watching that old building come down is heart-wrenching,” he said. “When we began to tear it down we found more asbestos than we thought.”  Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “I was in that building for 27 years, and I told parents that if you see me go down, only then should you worry.”

A smaller issue which Porter found quick resolution to was getting Dominion Power to turn the juice on at the new high school, the state’s second largest by enrollment. “Our opening was delayed because someone told Dominion that the new school was on the 3000 block of Duke Street, not the 3300 block,” he recalled. “Once the electricity got turned on we were able to move into a magnificent new building.”

It’s all is in a day’s work for Porter, who helped oversee nearly $90 million in construction at TC and the installation of another $10 million in furniture, fixtures and equipment, including a complex wiring of every classroom for laptop and A/V hookups.   

He said the new TC is a few hundred thousand square feet larger than Washington & Lee High School in Arlington, which last year completed a $95 million renovation, something he said “saved Alexandria taxpayers a bunch of money.”

Porter made sure that the builder, Hensel Phelps, was responsible for any design flaws, an effort to minimalize cost overruns. Ninety percent of the new building has natural light, saving on electricity costs. To save taxpayers an additional $40,000 per year, cisterns on the roof gather 300,000 gallons of water per year, funneling the water through a complex system of heating and cooling pipes and towers. “As a result, we’re using less energy than we did ten years ago,” Porter said.

With 2,000 students and overcrowding a perennial issue, the new building is 100,000 square feet larger than the old building, and the new gymnasium holds twice the crowds, at 2800 people. “The new building offers more direct services and more direct contact to students than ever before, but we still have things to do,” he said.

The old building will be demolished in March, over spring break to avoid dust and disruption during classes. On Porter’s future punch list is a new orchestra room, a massive parking garage to accomodate all students, faculty and visitors, as well as a bus loop and synthetic turf track. Porter has set October 14 as the deadline.

Porter said 2008 is shaping up to become a “very difficult budget year.” Staff and personnel costs continue to go up each year, and a challenging housing market is putting a crimp on the city’s budget. The city’s $500 million yearly operating budget feeds ACPS about $200 million per year to fund a school system of 11,000 students.

Born Dec. 28, 1947, Porter grew up on Rosemont Avenue in the city, the son of an auto body painter and a phone operator for Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone. An only child, his parents moved to Del Ray when he was 11, and he attended a succession of city schools, including Maury Elementary, Lee Elementary, the Jefferson School, and finally George Washington High School, class of 1965. “I had a great time, but I was an average student,” he admits.

His father, John Porter Sr., never attended college, and his mother, Sarah “Bea” Porter dropped out of the 8th grade. But their son, John Porter Jr., was determined to pursue a higher education. At North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, N.C., Porter served as class president over his four years and majored in History, graduating with Honors.

Porter landed his first job with the school system in 1969, becoming a history teacher at Parker-Gray Middle School while he worked on a graduate degree at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia campus by night. In 1973, clutching his master’s degree in education administration, Porter was named assistant principal at Hammond School. He quickly moved up the ranks, becoming principal at William Ramsey Elementary School in 1975 and then principal at John Adams Middle School in 1978. In 1979, he was named associate principal at TC Williams, then principal in 1984.

Thus a 22-year legacy at TC for John Porter was born, a period in which the school made great strides in its curriculum, technology and test scores.

“Back then we had six secondary buildings, but to cut costs we reduced it to three buildings,” Porter recalled. “We were keeping a master schedule for 2500 kids in a building not built for them.”

Married since 1968 to Bonnie Porter, a kindegarten teacher at Blessed Sacrament School on Braddock Road, the couple has two grown boys and one grandchild. Bryan Porter, 36, serves as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Alexandria and Scott Porter, 31, is a assistant district attorney in the Bronx.

As the second highest administrator in the school system, and the principal deputy of Superintendent Rebecca Perry, Porter said he often misses the day-to-day interaction with students.

“The kids are what have made my career,” Porter said. “They get a bad rap at times, but for the most part they’re flexible, engaging and fun to work with.”

Porter’s abiding belief is that students “need to know you care about them and have their best interest at heart.

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