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Centre Ridge Principal Joyce Dantzler Retires

After 34 years in education — 25 of them in Fairfax County, including the last five years as Centre Ridge Elementary's principal — Joyce Dantzler is retiring. And teachers there say she'll really be missed.

"SHE ENCOURAGES teachers and students to do their best and reach their highest potential," said sixth-grade teacher Kathy Young. "She's committed and dedicated and always gives 200 percent. And she's been truly amazing at handling some emergencies and crises at our school. Everything's in place, planned and ready to go."

Dantzler began her career in education in 1971, teaching in Hawaii, Alabama and Virginia. She then became a resource teacher, adjunct instructor and assistant principal at Greenbriar East Elementary. Next, she was the Area IV Elementary Schools coordinator before becoming principal at Westmore Elementary and Centre Ridge.

She's spoken at three national conferences on teaching strategies and innovations, behavior management and handling crisis situations. She participated in an Educational Leadership program at Oxford University in England and, in 2002, was nominated for Principal of the Year. And she's mentored numerous teachers and new principals and served on the Fairfax Association of Elementary School Principals board.

But what people in the local community know Dantzler for is her outstanding leadership at Centre Ridge. And while there, she's had more than her share of challenges, remaining steady at the helm while guiding students, teachers and parents through the scary times of 9/11, the sniper attacks, smallpox scares, the war in Iraq, snow and ice storms and the tragic 2003 loss of three Centre Ridge students killed by their father.

"THAT WAS monumental," she said. "It was difficult for the children to understand why someone would do that to their classmates." Social workers and psychologists came to the school, and they and Dantzler prepared the teachers to answer the students' questions.

"It made us really close-knit and built a tight sense of community," she said. "As tragic as it was, it did bring a lot of harmony and caring for others, and the support of the community showed what a good place Centreville is to raise children."

Dantzler also mentored two assistant principals and established an after-school homework club, Junior Great Book and Young Scholars programs, ESOL student ambassadors, good-citizenship recognition, a bully-free program and character-education street signs. And she developed a math lab and brought in math resource teachers.

"My greatest reward is, and always has been, to watch children grow and achieve," she said. "And through each adventure, I've been fortunate to have a wonderful, capable and trusting staff, cooperative and happy children and supportive parents."

Centre Ridge has 1,000 students, and Dantzler was also pleased to see the school continue to be one of the largest elementaries in the county. And with almost a 64-percent diversity — mainly Korean, followed by Hispanic and Middle Eastern students — Dantzer said children there have a "total acceptance of each other's cultures."

And because of this diversity, she said, "Children have so many opportunities to learn from each other, which makes for a richer learning environment for everyone. Centre Ridge has made a definite effort to bring its language-minority parents into the events here so parents are coming into the school and feel welcome. They weren't, when I first came here, but we made a real, first-class effort."

Instead of asking these parents, "Can you help?" Dantzler would instead say, "It's your turn." And she said this approach has been very successful in helping them become involved in their children's education.

"AN EXTENSION of that is our student ambassador program that's made leaders of many of our students with limited English," she said. "They worked with our student council program, heading different activities."

For example, they led games at the school fun fair and helped with movie night so students speaking their language would feel comfortable going up to them and asking questions. At the same time, parents attending could register for conferences with teachers. And in the classroom, these students also played a tutoring role, reading with children from their cultures.

And, added Dantzler: "For all our population, we offered more enrichment activities and after-school programs to work on the academic achievement of all the students."

Teacher Young said Dantzler doesn't only want to see the children when discipline is involved, but also wants to know when they're doing good things. "She likes to say to them, 'What a great job you did!' and 'I just want you to know how proud I am of you and how proud we are that you're at Centre Ridge,'" said Young. "She's helped the kids see what it's like to work together and to be respectful of others."

Young said Dantzler even wrote hundreds of "good-news" postcards for the teachers to send home about the students. In addition, said Young, "She even sent them home to teachers and went on about the strengths of that teacher so family members and spouses would read them and would know what a gift teachers are to Centre Ridge."

Kindergarten teacher Patty Cruzan noted how hard-working Dantzler is. "She fought to get what she thought our school needed, such as a playground," said Cruzan. "And we had many fund-raisers to get that wonderful and badly needed playground. She's also innovative and always knows what's new in the county. And she's compassionate to teachers and makes sure they understand that their families come first."

Cruzan said Dantzler fought for full-day kindergarten, and Centre Ridge will have it in September. "It's to help our ESOL population and give all the students more time in language arts," she explained. Cruzan said Dantzler's no-bully policy also meant a great deal. But what she'll miss about her most of all, she said, is "her strength, her knowledge of Fairfax County curriculum and her encouragement to excel as a teacher."

"QUITE HONESTLY, I don't know when the woman sleeps," added Young. "She's always doing little things for the staff — whether it's baking or bringing in something to put in our mailboxes. When something's going on at school, professional or personal, she's right there with a card, some kind thoughts or a hug. Her door is always open; she's just involved in everything. She's always going and has more energy than a 20-year-old."

Young said Dantzler also has a funny side "that I don't think everybody always sees. But she really does have a great sense of humor and often sees irony in many situations. She definitely is going to be missed."

A Chantilly resident, Dantzler will now have time to travel with her husband Marshall and will continue teaching adult English and coordinating weddings at Centreville United Methodist Church.

She plans a second career, possibly with children or in teacher recruitment, and said she'll especially miss the students. Said Dantzler: "I love watching children learn and challenging their minds with the variety of ways we have to teach them today."