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Union Mill's Coleman Retiring; Going Fishing

After 35 years in education — mostly in Virginia — Union Mill Elementary Principal Carolyn Coleman is retiring. If you want to find her, she'll be fishing with her grandsons.

"It's been a hard decision because I love children and I love what I do," she said. "I came to Fairfax County after my husband died at age 50 and started life over in Northern Virginia. But now I want to spend more time with my grandsons in Salem, Va."

Coleman is building a house on the water at Smith Mountain Lake, close to Salem, where her daughter, son-in-law and grandsons live. Her son and his family are in Appomattox. Since her daughter and son-in-law both lost their fathers at early ages, she plans to be both grandma and grandpa.

"I know nothing about fishing, but a good friend will teach me," she said. "Then I'll teach my grandsons, Cole, 5, and Riley, 3 1/2."

She taught elementary school for 20 years in Appomattox and Roanoke, was an assistant principal there and here, worked in the Area II office and, for the past five years, has been Union Mill principal. The biggest changes she's seen there have been the advent of the SOLs and e-mail.

"A lot of the staff that originally opened the school with [former principal] Brenda Spratt is still here," said Coleman. "They know the community and the children."

Pleased with parent support, she said, "On any given day, I can find 25 volunteers in the building." Coleman said the PTA gets teachers whatever they need and, after Sept. 11, when parents wanted a table for greeting visitors in the lobby because it made them feel more secure, the PTA saw to it. It also raised money to install doors on some of the classrooms.

Coleman's also in touch with the students. "I spend a big portion of my day in the classrooms, visiting and helping children with their work," she said. "I listen to children read and help them with writing. That way, I feel like I know what that teacher is like."

Her achievements there include moving the teachers forward in technology via in-service training, and starting the school's in-house TV program. As for the SOLs, "There weren't a lot of materials at first, and I asked teachers what they needed and how I could support them," said Coleman. But she credits the children's high SOL scores to "parent support, experienced teachers and wonderful students."

She was also pleased with the school's overseas partnership, a few years ago, with a school in Villnius, Lithuania. Its administrator visited Union Mill, and a teacher and Union Mill's assistant principal traveled there. Students at both schools e-mailed and shared their projects with each other.

Coleman also has a special knack of matching a teacher's personality with a student's. "By May 1, I ask parents to write what they're looking for in a teacher, but they can't ask for a particular one," she said. "Some want a structured [classroom], some want a more nurturing teacher and some parents want more communication with teachers than others do." Using this information, she then assigns students to teachers.

Calling all her teachers "fabulous" and dedicated, she said they're all so good at what they do that they make her job easier: "I'm fully confident about each of them." Regarding the students, she said they come to school full of enthusiasm and truly want to be there. In turn, said Coleman, "I don't think I've missed a single band, chorus performance or play here."

She'll miss the children most, as well as "the wonderful people I've worked with — because they've become not just colleagues, but friends. And she called Assistant Principal Molly Kingma "the most competent, enthusiastic AP I've ever had."

Coleman's greatest joy has been helping teachers and children, and it shows. "She's always worked on staff development and, as new things happen around the country, she shares new and innovative things with the staff," said Kingma. "And she protects instructional time — which is really important."

Secretary Kathy Brewster called Coleman "caring, compassionate and professional. She truly has the school's interests at heart; we're really going to miss her." Added secretary Susan Acker: "She's been a terrific person to work with."

Sixth-grade teacher Mike Denman described her as "a teacher's principal and a kid's principal, all in one. She lets us as professionals make decisions, and she brings out the best in people by saying, 'I trust you.' I wish her the very best."