Realistic Student Success Is O’Rourke’s Mission

Chris O’Rourke wants his students to be academically challenged.

But only at an appropriate level.

The new principal of Harper Park Middle School doesn’t want students struggling through high school-level courses; setting the stage for possible failure in high school.

“We want to encourage students to take the most rigorous classes possible but, on the other side of it, to make sure students are successful.”

O’Rourke, who last served as principal of Briar Woods High School – a post he’d held since 2016 – said he’s had to temper parental expectations when it comes to students tackling challenging courses.

“A lot of times at high school, I’d have to sit down with parents and say ‘Why are we rushing? What class are we trying to get to?’

“The question is ‘Why?’ What end goal are we trying to achieve?

“The worst thing that you can do is to be in the situation where you’ve taken Algebra I and geometry, you’ve struggled. You get to the point where you’re in the high school realm and you’re missing some foundational skills and you’re already in some advanced classes.”

O’Rourke said he doesn’t want to put up walls between students and high expectations; he simply wants to offer them a realistic roadmap. “Making sure students are in a position to be successful.”

 Besides serving as Briar Woods’ principal, O’Rourke has served as an assistant principal at Briar Woods, Broad Run and Tuscarora high schools. However, he doesn’t want to let that experience unduly affect the job he has before him in middle school. “You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re saying, ‘Everything is preparing you for the next level.’ That’s one of the things I’m going to have to watch.”

Before the 2018-19 school year ended, O’Rourke attended the Storm the Park event. Rising sixth-graders came to Harper Park at the end of the year to get acclimated to their future school. “To see the excitement and energy that they have is much different.” O’Rourke said one doesn’t typically see that kind of enthusiasm in high school.

Working with the various levels of student engagement at the middle school level is something O’Rourke said will be a challenge. “You’ve got the sixth-graders coming up; they’re coming into a situation where middle school is brand new. Then you have eighth-graders; a lot of them are going to be hoping they’re in high school by the middle of the year.”

O’Rourke said he’ll support both these groups with communication being the key.

When he talks about communication, O’Rourke stresses it’s not a top-down exercise from the principal’s office. He wants to foster communication between students, teachers and parents.

O’Rourke was known as a master scheduler in high school. He said there are a couple of things to remember when constructing a successful schedule.

“Two things; one, you want to make sure you have as many options for students (as possible).” The other thing is to arrange schedules so staff has time for common planning periods.

While middle school presents philosophical changes for O’Rourke, it also has thrown a big physical change at him.

For the first time since 2010, his office has a window.

“It’s a big change. It’s one of those things you kind of take for granted; then if you don’t have it for a long time…”

O’Rourke said a nice view isn’t the only thing Harper Park has given him.

After serving as a high school administrator since 2005, he feels invigorated by his new surroundings.

And ready to help students meet (realistically) challenging goals.