Nearly a Decade of Leveling the Playing Field

Nearly a Decade of Leveling the Playing Field

Mary Louise Wall, director of student services, will retire in August.

Since 1997, Mary Louise Wall has overseen one of the Alexandria City Public School’s most complicated and diverse departments — student services. As director, Wall has been in charge of the city’s special education programs as well as school psychologists, social workers, nurses and guidance counselors. From her Beauregard Street office, she has overseen everything from testing students for learning disabilities to counseling graduates on career options.

On Aug. 11, she will retire from her position with the school division to take a position as an academic reviewer for the Virginia Department of Education. She will also be executive secretary for the Virginia Council of Administrators of Special Education.

“She’s been an extremely competent and dedicated special education administrator,” said Superintendent Rebecca Perry. “She always put the needs of children first.”

With Wall’s time in Alexandria drawing to a close, educators and administrators from across the spectrum are praising her tenure during a period of drastic change in special education.

“She takes the special out of special education,” said Nancy Mercer, executive director of Arc of Northern Virginia, which presented Wall with a lifetime achievement award earlier this month. “She has worked to level the playing field, so that all children have opportunities.”

Her tenure in Alexandria has seen the creation of many new programs under Wall’s leadership: working with local universities to help teachers get graduate degrees, creating staff-development courses led by master teachers and expanding the division’s special education program.

“She’s done a conscientious and professional job,” said Mollie Danforth, chairwoman of the Alexandria School Board. “It’s emotionally charged for the parents, and it can be a very difficult field. But she’s done a great job because she’s a good manager.”

A NATIVE OF Parkersburg, Va., Wall graduated from high school in Winter Park, Fla., and studied nursing at Florida State University. She was a teacher in Prince George County, Md., for more than a decade before joining Alexandria City Public Schools as director of student services in 1997. Her career in education has included a wide variety of positions, and she has worked in seven school divisions.

“Not all students are alike,” Wall said. “Addressing that was a big part of the job.”

She says that the most dramatic change to education during her tenure as director of student services was the implementation of No Child Left Behind in 2001. The controversial program sets an increasing scale for standards for schools that ends in 2014, when all students will be expected to score 100 percent in every subject. Schools that don’t meet the standard of perfection will be hit with a series of punishments.

“It’s like saying that everybody has to have a 120 IQ by 2014,” Wall said. “I would support creating a growth standard that would allow schools to celebrate their successes when they are on an upward trend.”

Wall attributes her success to working with parents and teachers to guide policy decisions based on changing legal obligations and community expectations.

“It’s important to know the needs of the community,” she said. “We have to have buy-in from our teaching staff, and we have to work with our colleagues in general education.”