By Lyna Bentahar
ROCKVILLE – When Joey Jones was first hired as principal of Robert E. Frost Middle School in Rockville, he expected to stay for just a few years before moving on to other things.
Seventeen years later, Jones remains as the principal, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) has just named him as one of three finalists for their annual National Principal of the Year Award for his contributions to Robert Frost.
Jones was selected from among 50 awardees of the NASSP’s State Principal of the Year Award, along with Lindsa McIntyre of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and Kerensa Wing of Suwanee, Georgia. The winner of the award will be announced in October – National Principals Month.
Before joining the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) system, Jones was a teacher in Greensboro, North Carolina. During the summers, he worked in construction with his mentor and instructor, Cliff McMullin, who encouraged him to get his PhD. Jones was later accepted into the University of Maryland, College Park, on an academic merit fellowship, and in 1994 received his PhD in public school administration.
Jones first joined MCPS as a substitute teacher, before becoming a full-time tech education teacher at Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring. From there, he became an assistant principal at Thomas Edison High School of Technology and Rockville High School, and, in 2002, he became principal of Robert Frost.
Jones’s first goal entering as principal was to understand the culture of the school and its community, believing it was key for him to help his students do well.
“You have to connect,” said Jones. “Education is about connecting. When you connect with students, they want to learn. And they want to learn for you.”
His impact did not go unnoticed with students. Jones makes a point of being at the front door every morning to greet students entering the school, and attending their lunch periods.
“(Jones) really makes an effort to talk to you and make a conversation,” said Arti Rajesh, a former Frost student going into high school in the fall.
“It’s been wonderful watching (Jones) grow over the years, in the sense of finding his own voice, finding his own team,” said Sunila Varghese, the sixth-grade team leader and a sixth-grade science teacher at Frost.
“Middle school can be a very tough age,” said Varghese. “You have to have a specific kind of personality to work with middle school kids.”
Jones said he believes that his personality is a great fit for middle school.
“I’m approachable,” said Jones. “I can resonate with some of (the students’) experiences. I take the time to listen to them. It’s a different era. There are so many things that students can be exposed to, and they may not have the background knowledge about these different exposures.”
Jones went to middle school in Reidsville, North Carolina, where he was raised. He was six-foot-one during those years, and went to high school still growing, making for an awkward time.
“I was a skinny kid, loved to play basketball, very shy,” said Jones. “I felt a little awkward being so tall.”
For today’s middle school students, Jones has put his focus on driving out conventional ways of addressing problems students might have that he feels might send negative messages. He no longer uses phrases like “at-risk students” to describe students who have a high probability of dropping out, instead using “students at promise.” Jones also believes that preparing students for the future means teaching them how to care for one another.
“(These students) will be working with people from various backgrounds, various religions, various ethnicities, and they got to understand how to care for people, and how to consider other people’s perspectives,” said Jones.
Varghese sees this caring attitude in Jones’s own work and life.
“He completely trusts me to do things, like if I’m leading my team in a certain direction. He’s always there to support, and is somebody that I can go and talk with,” said Varghese. “He gave us a lot of freedom to move in the direction that we wanted to move. Always having his vision, whatever his vision was, always at the forefront.”
Jones believes he is being considered for the national principal’s award because of his relationships, making an effort to create positive bonds with everyone he works with and the community at large.
“When people know who you are and they know your heart, they’re more than willing to help and support you,” said Jones. “They want to be a part of something that’s beneficial to others.”
“I still want to be in a capacity to help students,” said Jones regarding his future. “I’m content being a principal, but I’m also forward-thinking. I still want to help students, help young people, and help people who are involved with helping young people.”