Pam Latt wants to kick up her heels and have some fun. Not that she hasn't enjoyed every minute of her 11 years as principal of Centreville High. It's just that she needs a break and, at long last, she's going to take some time for herself.
"I've worked full-time since I was 12, said Latt, 52. "I had to support my family while I was growing up. And I've only had one summer off in 40 years."
That's why, after 30 years in education — 29 of them with Fairfax County Public Schools — she announced her retirement Monday, effective July 1. "It's a great feeling," she said Wednesday. "I'm going out when I feel good about the school and about myself. It's time for a change, and I'm looking forward to seeing someone new at the school — fresh leadership."
A FULBRIGHT SCHOLAR, Latt began her career here in 1976 as a teacher at Graham Road Elementary in Falls Church, later teaching ESL and reading at Pine Spring, Mosby Woods and Ravensworth elementaries. She taught the same subjects at Kilmer Intermediate School in Vienna.
In 1980, she worked at the county administrative office, developing the school system's central-registration program. She also worked in staff development at what's now the Department of Instructional Technology, learning how to use computers and the big mainframe.
Latt returned to central registration in the late 1980s and became the school system's Director of Student Services. But she wanted to be in a school again and, in 1991, she was named assistant principal at Lake Braddock Secondary School, where she served for 1 1/2 years.
She became Centreville's principal in December 1993 and, since then, has left an indelible mark on the school, introducing a slew of new programs and time-management ideas and always looking for the best ways of providing students with quality educations.
In her "spare" time, Latt paints, runs, does tai chi and instructs teacher-leadership classes at GMU. And last May, Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield) named her the Springfield District's Lady Fairfax for 2003.
She and her husband Jim, principal of Centreville Elementary, have been married 30 years and live in Clifton. He has at least two more years left with the school system so, for now, they're staying put. Their son, Jeremy, almost 22, will graduate from UVA in May with a Ph.D. in philosophy. And that's another factor fueling Latt's decision to retire now.
"I was waiting for Jeremy to graduate," she said. "It's a milestone we're sharing. I'm in the Class of 2004 now." But most of all, she added, "I wanted to finish out when the school was in really good shape. I feel good about passing it on to someone else when things are so fabulous."
ALTHOUGH LATT'S achievements at Centreville are numerous, she says her greatest accomplishment is "graduating wonderful children. The wonderful thing about this faculty is that they've allowed me to be creative and to really reach. I love the idea of leadership, and both the teachers and community have been extremely supportive."
She said they've done things at Centreville that no other school had done before. "We're kind of the go-to school for ideas," she said. "Other schools come here, all the time, to see how we do things, and it's very exciting."
Latt's particularly proud of the school's Professional Learning Community concept. "We've instituted our learning seminar where kids can work, study, get peer tutoring and take tests during the day," she explained. "And our faculty has the largest amount of planning and collaboration time, pretty much, in the [whole] state."
The Wildcats have also won multitudes of state athletic and band championships during her tenure, and she beams as she passes by the cases filled with trophies and sees the walls covered with plaques.
Still, said Latt, "When you look at a person's lifetime and job, [there's something even more important]. What it really boils down to are all the accolades and hugs I got from the students. That's what really meant the most to me."
Especially touching her heart were all the students who graduated and came back later to visit. "They want to talk to me about old times," she said. "It's amazing, the feeling you get working with people. It's the most wonderful thing in the world watching kids grow and change — and being involved in their lives."
FOR EXAMPLE, just recently, Latt received a letter from a boy who gave her problems when she was at Lake Braddock in 1992. "He wrote to tell me that he's about to get his law degree, with honors, from UNC, Chapel Hill," she said. "Just getting his letter was a thrill. He wanted me to know he was doing well, because I always told him he would."
And that's what being an educator is all about, she said. "It's having faith in one kid at a time — and I'm going to miss that. These are the kinds of things that make life valuable and worthwhile."
Looking back on her own life, Latt is proudest of her son and her marriage, and she also feels respected by the community. "I don't think I could ask for more than that in life," she said. "It's been a fun run. I love the bustle of the first day of school — the rejuvenation and new start — and that's the way I'll feel, July 1."
So what's she going to do? For awhile, she'll probably keep waking before dawn until her new-found freedom sets in, and then she'll enthusiastically plunge into all sorts of activities for which she's always wanted to have more time.
"I want to write, paint, sculpt and train for a 10K [race]," she said. "And I want to spend time with my family and with my sisters in New Hampshire and Florida. I haven't had any time for myself in 32 years."
Latt paints in watercolors and acrylics — mostly people — and sculpts in various mediums, including clay. But she wants to learn welding so she can do metal sculpture, too. And she wants to visit places she's never seen — the top of the Washington Monument, Virginia's Natural Bridge, the Appalachian Trail.
"I have an idea for a business, which I'll [eventually] investigate," she said. "But I think, for the first year, I'm going to play. And I want to explore the person that's me. I've always been 'Pam Latt, a public figure and a principal,' but I want to find the me inside me. I've spent so many years taking care of others; now I want to do something for me."
SHE PLANS to take some classes and may volunteer at a homeless shelter. She said her retirement hasn't quite sunk in, but it won't be long. "I haven't wrapped my brain around the freedom that it'll mean," said Latt. "But I'm young, healthy and vibrant, and there are so many things I want to do."
With three months left until the big day, she knows she'll miss everyone at the school and says it's "a lot like leaving home." But for the past year, she's done tai chi to relieve stress, so she's looking forward to leaving her strictly structured life behind and doing whatever strikes her fancy.
"I'll feel energized and not tired when I wake up in the morning," said Latt. "It feels like the whole candy store has been opened, for free, and now I'll have the time to enjoy it."