When Lynne Pope taught fifth-grade at Kings Glen Elementary, fellow teacher Sarah Reade told her to get to know her students as people first, then build off their strengths and interests.
It's been a guiding principle of Pope's — one she applied well during her past eight years as Deer Park Elementary's only principal. But come fall, she'll be applying it elsewhere. She's leaving Fairfax County to move closer to her daughter in Southern Virginia.
"I hate to leave these kids — they really are like family," she said. "It's an incredibly close connection when you start something together. My sixth-graders this year were kindergartners when we opened the building, and now they're ready to move on to middle school. It's very heartening to see that kind of growth and the wonderful people they're becoming."
Pope taught elementary school 10 years, was Cub Run's assistant principal one year and Jermantown Elementary's principal for seven years. She's worked 25 years in Fairfax County and 27 total in Virginia, but has three more years until retirement. So she'll be principal of Fort Lewis Elementary — 200 students total in grades K-5 — in Roanoke County.
Daughter Christie is a biology major at Virginia Tech and daughter Laura is finishing sixth grade at Union Mill, "so it's a good transition time," said Pope. "I wanted to keep my family together geographically."
She said opening Deer Park was a "dream come true — it brings out the highest level of creativity." She began with about 465 students and now has 865, but still maintained the feel, warmth and personal touch of a small school. "That means knowing children's names," she said. "I give them each a birthday pencil and a hug — you can see in their smiles how much it means to them."
Deer Park also focuses on staff development. As a total-technology school, teachers receive intensive, ongoing training and adapt the technology for educational use. For example, Internet links are incorporated into classroom instruction and the upper grades learn Web page design. Children choose study topics and learn to research them.
Pope also emphasizes problem-solving and thinking of approaches and strategies. "I have second-graders thinking about their thinking," she said. "They can articulate logically." She's also set a positive learning tone and welcoming environment: "That's what I'm proud of. Parents know this is their school."
She's also pleased about the teacher-helping partnership with Forest Glen's senior citizens and an atmosphere encouraging risk-taking. "Life's too short — you need to enjoy each day and the special blessings it brings," said Pope. "You need to say thank you to the people who work with and support you every day. And you can't love too much."
In return, the Board of Supervisors recently honored her for her "outstanding work as Deer Park's founding principal," and her staff this year nominated her for principal of the year. Said Pope: "It really touched me."
Others also see her worth. "She's an innovator, a consummate professional and a great person," said Westfield High Principal Dale Rumberger. "A school isn't losing a principal — a community is losing a leader."
Pope's assistant principal, Doug Brooks, who'll succeed her at the helm, called her "a real visionary with great ideas." He said she communicates wonderfully with parents and is a great mother, herself. "She's respected within the principal community and has held offices in the Fairfax Association of Elementary School Principals," he said. "It's been a joy to work with her."
Brooks has been at Deer Park since the building opened, and she said their strengths complement each other. "Philosophically, we're in the same place — kids first and kids in the middle of the decisions," said Pope. "He'll be an outstanding principal — which is why I'm comfortable doing what's the next right thing for me to do. The school is in good hands."
She said her Deer Park staff is the most creative one she's ever known. "They're a bright group of people — with a wicked sense of humor, hard working and dedicated to the kids," she said. "They give me a different perspective, and we make good decisions for kids because we [bring in] the opinions of the teachers who know the kids."
Pope called the community involvement "exceptional," with school volunteers logging nearly 20,000 hours a year. And she said her students are "phenomenal" and she'll miss them all.
She'll also miss her front-office staff. Said Pope: "[They're] my ambassadors because they make people feel they're not bothering them — they're here to help them." In turn, Millie Lederer said Pope shows them her appreciation and "we'd do anything for her. She doesn't micro-manage; she trusts us and lets us come up with our own ideas."
Music teacher Loretta Schmitt praised Pope's support of the music program and said Pope wants all children to do their best: "She's encouraging to the entire staff and is always upbeat and positive. She's dynamite — they're lucky to have her in Roanoke."