With Republican politicians stressing phonics instruction and Democrats championing diversity and social programs, Crestwood Elementary principal Pat Zissios said she felt like a pawn being used by both the politicians and the school system. Tired of being batted back and forth, Zissios decided it was time to step down.
"I don't feel an effort was made to encourage the programs here at the school for other schools," Zissios said. "I don't feel as much support as what was garnered."
With the 2003-04 school year coming to a close, Zissios announced her retirement from Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). She heads off to a new job as principal of the Lyles Crouch Traditional Academy in Alexandria, where Zissios' energy should fit right in.
At Crestwood, Zissios linked school programs to things that were needed in the community, such as computer training for adults, English for a predominantly non-English-speaking community, and job-skill training. The learning environment at home was directly linked to the learning environment with the students, she believed.
"If I strengthen my families, I strengthen my children," Zissios said. That was one of her principles all along, and much of that was financed by donations and grants but not the school system. However, when FCPS wanted to show off a model school to the media, it called on Crestwood.
"We were being pulled, whatever fit the agenda. We were good for public relations; we were what you wanted to showcase," Zissios said.
"The bloated bureaucracy is what undermines education," she added.
DURING THE last week of school, tears were shed at a party marking Zissios' departure.
"The community will miss her. We're all very sad that she's decided to retire. Many programs we have now are only because or her persistence and dedication," said Carolyn Hennigh, a Crestwood teacher.
"The kids loved her and enjoyed having her around. She really came through with everything she did," said Angela Walk, a parent.
Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) liked Zissios' programs for the community and backed her whenever possible.
"She realized how important it is to have a community. It was a very wonderful thing to see that happen. She really brought the community together," Kauffman said.
The neighborhood discontent was apparent at a meeting on April 27. Zissios announced her retirement the week before, and the cluster director, Betsy Fenske, called a principal-selection meeting with the parents, but not Zissios. Such meetings typically take place without the outgoing principal, Zissios said. The parents showed up with signs and anger, and when they didn't see Zissios, the level of anger rose, and rumors were spread that Fairfax County was barring Zissios from the parents.
"They wanted closure," Zissios said.
More rumors spread, saying that the school system had fired Zissios and that the free lunch program and the bus stop in the community were being discontinued.
On the day following the meeting, Zissios' phone rang constantly. "I had to do months of meetings after that to clean it up," she said.
Cluster 5 director Betsy Fenske confirmed that a level of discontent was demonstrated at the meeting.
"I think the fear is that those [extra programs] are going to go away, but I'll do everything I can to make sure they remain," Fenske said.
"It's a natural concern. People are fearful of change. [Parents] have a fond attachment to the principal, and they're sad to see her go," Fenske said.
The programs at Crestwood will continue for now, though. It's not clear how long they will go on.
"The programs the community and staff embrace are the ones that will continue. The reassurances have been given [by politicians]," Fenske said. "Supervisor Kauffman has assured that the family center will stay."
Zissios' last day at Crestwood will be June 30, and her first day at Lyles Crouch will be July 1. But she'll only work a couple of days before taking a two-week break. The Alexandria superintendent and school system are giving Zissios two weeks off to clear her head from all the Crestwood upheaval before taking the reins of her new position on July 19.
"I'm going in with the superintendent's blessing," Zissios said, which is something she felt she didn't have from former Fairfax superintendent Daniel A. Domenech's office.
"I don't know where he stood," Zissios said. "I felt like an island in the stream."
Lyles Crouch is a magnet school with 250 children in the Alexandria City Public Schools system. Zissios said that "they use the programs I used" at Crestwood.
The new principal at Crestwood is Judith Lewis.