Talk about good timing. Although in vastly different fields — Robert Hughes was a forensic toxicologist and wife Dorothy was principal of Clifton Elementary — both retired on the exact same day, June 30.
"I love the school," said Dorothy Hughes. "But we really are best friends and we've both worked all of our married life — 36 years — so it'll be nice to have some time to spend together."
SHE'S HELD the top job at Clifton for nine years and has spent a total of 37 years in education — 24 of them in Fairfax County. Before coming here, she taught in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Department of Defense schools at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany while her husband was stationed there with the Air Force.
Actually, Hughes taught for 21 years prior to spending the past 16 years as an administrator. And along the way, she and Robert raised their son Anthony, 29, now in the Naval Reserves and working at the National Archives in St. Louis, Mo.
Since she came to Clifton, the school received new windows, lights, heating and air conditioning, floors, landscaping and a new health clinic. But the biggest change of all was in technology.
"When I came here, there wasn't even a computer in the principal's office," said Hughes. "There were three computers in sixth grade — that the teachers wrote a grant to get — and four in fifth grade as part of a county SOL initiative."
Now Clifton has a computer lab and, before leaving, Hughes purchased two wireless labs of 16 laptops each for student use. Teachers have high-end computers in their rooms, plus laptops. There are four computers per classroom, 30 in the lab and additional computers for counselors and office personnel.
Also started during her tenure was the school's in-house TV station, CNC, the Clifton News Center. Said Hughes: "It was a dream of mine and began the second year I came here."
Another change was the addition of an assistant principal. "This is the first year we've had an A.P., and I fought tooth and nail to get one," she said. "I was chairperson of the FAESP's — Fairfax Association of Elementary School Principals — assistant-principal initiative for the last three years."
Having an assistant principal in every school had been on the group's priority list for 20 years. "But it was a matter of finances," explained Hughes. "So the FAESP board created my position, and I worked with them to raise awareness of the importance of an A.P. in every school and demonstrate parents' desire to have two trained administrators in every school."
SHE SAID it would have helped during 9/11 to have had another administrator there familiar with emergency procedures. "So we mounted a campaign where community members and staff communicated with the School Board and superintendent about the importance of this," said Hughes. Still, it took several years to accomplish, even with the entire FAESP board participating.
"When it came time for the School Board to hear parents, principals and staff members speak on the A.P. initiative, we packed Luther Jackson [Middle School]," she said. "When they asked, 'Who's here on [this issue]?' everyone in the entire audience stood up. We didn't get it that year, 2002-'03, because of the budget; but in 2003-'04, they passed it for school year 2004-'05."
In June, Clifton had just 416 students and, before the initiative passed, a school had to have 600 students to qualify for an A.P. So, said Hughes, "We never would have gotten one."
Among her highlights at Clifton, she said, was seeing teacher leaders there take lead roles in staff development and in "analyzing student data and common assessments, by grade level, for the Professional Learning Communities program."
She's also pleased with the way the school library has evolved into "a real learning center for students by reconfiguring the physical setting." Changes included adding technology and including team planning with the librarian regarding school curriculum.
And of course, said Hughes, "The kids are just so precious. This place is friendly and inviting, the PTA is supportive and the parent volunteers who come here are just wonderful. We have a comfortable working relationship, and I'll miss being around them. They care so much about their kids."
Still, she said, being a principal is a tough job. "Things are changing very quickly, with No Child Left Behind and the demands of our society today regarding student security and safety," said Hughes. "I found myself thinking about things I never had to think about when I was teaching — such as the sniper, 'sheltering in place,' bio-environmental hazards and gang behavior. And now our children are at risk when they go out into the metropolitan area or use the Internet."
WHAT HUGHES enjoyed most about leading Clifton Elementary was "the way the school has come together as a family, over the nine years I've been here, with common goals and a common language. The faculty and I got to know each other so well that we became in synch."
For example, she said, several years ago, the whole staff developed a FOCUS program to teach students to manage their behavior in a positive way. "We polished and refined it," said Hughes. "It didn't happen overnight. We were all each other's partner in things, and there's such strength of purpose for the children. We've seen positive results over the years, the longer this program has been in place."
It resulted in less student referrals to the office and less grades below satisfactory in student effort, citizenship and study skills. "They're focusing on what they're doing," said Hughes. "My philosophy was, if we're going to assess them on these things on their report card, when do we teach them? We do it through this FOCUS program."
The letters stand for: Follow directions, Occupy your own space, Cooperate, Understand/respect others and Stay on task. One day, for instance, Hughes stopped two little girls who were running in the hallway. Instead of shouting at them or speaking to them in a negative manner, she asked them, "What kind of example are you setting? I need you to set a good example."
Afterward, she explained, "It makes them reflect on their behavior and manage it in a more positive way and gives them a way to do it. We tell them, 'We want things to go well for you because you're important to us.' Then they like the results they see, and it goes on from there."
And although she's now retired, Hughes takes with her a wealth of happy memories from her years at Clifton. One Friday, she recalled, she was having lunch with two brothers, in first and third grades, as part of the school's Burger and a Book activity. As a PTA silent-auction item, a child and a friend got to go to Borders and get a book and then eat a hamburger lunch with the principal.
While at Wendy's, she said, the boys were talking about the difference between dinosaurs and dragons. Said Hughes: "The first-grader said he'd tell what he knew about dragons and then he'd ask Mrs. Hughes to tell the rest 'because she knows everything and she's wise.'"
"I just love those kid stories," she said. "I will miss all these children — I cannot tell you how much."
The school community will miss her, as well. "I will mostly miss our friendly chats about our own families and her big, beautiful smile," said third-grade teacher Cindy Borer. "And whenever I brought up a student's name to receive extra help or accommodations, she supported me wholeheartedly."
BORER SAID that when she recommended a student for the Gifted and Talented program, Hughes "always trusted my professional judgment." She also noted Hughes' establishment of a mentor program which brings community volunteers into the school to give students extra academic and social support.
In addition, Borer said she and Hughes worked together or several initiatives for the school and, as principal, Hughes "always provided us with an excellent model for leadership and professionalism."
Band teacher Janice Kiehl appreciated her strong support of Clifton's music program and "willingness to try new techniques" and include her in their implementation, when it came to determining the best band schedule for the students.
And Assistant Principal Susan Shadis said Hughes spearheaded inclusive practices for all children there. What she'll especially miss, she said, is "Dorothy's sense of humor and her sense of humanity. She is truly a caring person who makes sure her staff has what it needs to do its job. She is positive and upbeat and has a willingness to stick her neck out for you."
Now, though, it's time for Hughes to relax. She and her husband planned to attend a family reunion in Dallas this summer; and in October, they'll attend her 40th high-school reunion in Little Rock. They'll also visit their son in St. Louis and spend time in West Virginia's Canaan Valley, where they own property and will begin building a second home. "We love nature and the outdoors," said Hughes. "It'll be our little cabin in the woods."
She also intends to make music. Said Hughes: "I haven't touched the piano, except to dust it, in about 15 years, so that's on my list, too." Reflecting on her time at Clifton, she said, "It is thrilling and exhilarating to be part of an organization like this — to effect change and work with others for common goals. And I'll miss working with people who share a dedication to children."