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Meet Denbigh Principal Tony Vladu

Denbigh High Principal Tony Vladu
Denbigh High Principal Tony Vladu
(04/03/2014) -For Denbigh Principal Tony Vladu, relationships are the key to student success. And, pupil-teacher dynamics are just part of the picture. Vladu also focuses on the ties among his school's faculty and staff. There are relationships between students and content they're expected to master. And, the community has to be taken into account, too.

Vladu has made a career (maybe a couple) out of building bridges and community. He started doing it at a young age, after his family emigrated to the United States from Romania, where they were ostracized and persecuted because they were Christians in an atheist country, Vladu says. His parents' Romanian citizenship was revoked and they lost their jobs after applying to leave the country in 1979, during the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Vladu and his siblings were thrown out of school.

Vladu started school in the United States after a four-year gap in his education. Like many other ESL (English as a Second Language) students, he was a go-between for his parents and the foreign culture in which they found themselves. He graduated from high school in 1990 as a participant in the military's delayed-entry program. In the Army, he worked as a helicopter structural repairman. Six months out of high school, Vladu was deployed to the first Gulf War with the 82nd Airborne Division. He specialized in field-level repairs and stayed in the military for seven years, after changing his field to Special-Forces engineer sergeant. Fort Eustis was one of his stops in the Army.

The Denbigh principal says he found the transition to civilian life difficult. But, he realized he'd always taught (starting with helping teach his parents about English and U.S. culture.) So, he enrolled at The State University of New York-Binghamton, where he received a bachelor's degree in history and a master's in education.

Tim Sweeney, then the principal at Heritage, recruited Vladu in 2000 to teach geography at HHS. At Heritage, Vladu says he gradually took on more responsibility and became department head. He took classes at William and Mary to get a second master's degree, in K-12 education, which he received in 2008. Vladu, an early user of SMART Boards, Wikispace collaborative websites, podcasts, blogs and interactive response systems, was named High-School Technology Educator of the Year for 2008 by WHRO.

Vladu spent four years as an assistant principal in York County. But, he says he missed the energy and innovation of NNPS. He applied for the head job at Denbigh because of its ESL students (more than 120), who come from 40 countries. With his military experience, he also feels a strong kinship with students at the Aviation Academy.

There are contrasts, too. Vladu believes his European background might give him a unique perspective about career versus college. He believes upward mobility, especially as a result of education, is easier in his adopted country. "We Americans educate everybody. It's something I love about this country," he explains.

In his second year as Denbigh principal, Vladu is intent on boosting student achievement across the board instead of seeing "pockets of excellence." Even after learning that Denbigh students improved in nine of 12 benchmarks, he notes, "We can't rest on our laurels." A recent Monday saw him collecting materials - including a bicycle pump, traffic cone and other objects - to make geometry hands-on and memorable for students.

Vladu sees teacher collaboration, via professional learning communities, as the key to school excellence. "We need to be creative and innovative in our work because the old methods weren't working. Our motto is, 'What are we going to do differently?'" he notes. There's a focus at Denbigh on instructional leadership. Vladu and the school's assistant principals have collectively averaged about one classroom visit per student at the school (there are 1,310) each semester.

The leadership team is looking for student-centered strategies. The educators don't want to see students taking turns answering questions or teachers using a lot of worksheets. Relationships are more important, so building rapport with students is a focus. "Whoever does the most talking in the classroom learns the most," says Vladu. "We are beginning to shift the intellectual workload from teachers to students, so teachers activate learning."

Students in the Principal's Advisory Group on Education (PAGE) have told Vladu they see a difference in teaching practices. "Kids are seeing a shift in the classroom. That's ultimately what it's all about" he says. Vladu also is making an effort to improve communications with Denbigh churches and organizations. Vladu attends back-to-school rallies and baccalaureate events and speaks to fraternal organizations. His goal is to be visible and spread the good news about his school. "The great thing about Denbigh (the school and the neighborhood) is that is looks like the real world. It's a microcosm," he says.

Away from school, Vladu likes to kayak in the Poquoson River or Bennett's Creek. He has built a traditional wooden sailboat, a 20-foot Caledonia Yawl. And, he likes to read about history.