Denise Chase is now happily settled in her new home in Emerald Isle, N.C. But for the past seven-and-a-half years, she's been the principal of Poplar Tree Elementary.
She retired after the school year ended in June, after working 21 years in Fairfax County Public Schools. And with two grown children, it was time for her and her husband to kick up their heels.
"I'm healthy, and my husband Charlie has been retired for two years," explained Chase, shortly before leaving. "He's ready to take me away to the beach so we can have fun in the sun. We love to go fishing and will swim in the ocean. And we're great Yankee fans and want to see the three oldest baseball stadiums in the U.S."
Her retirement is well-earned. She was a teacher in New York for 18 years before coming to Poplar Tree in November 1997. And she's seen her share of changes there.
At first, Poplar Tree had half-day kindergarten, switching to full-day in 2000. "And when I first started, we were an ESOL center," said Chase. "Now everyone stays at their base school." She's also seen the school change from Mac to PC computers; then came mobile and stationary computer labs.
"Now children are using the Internet and PowerPoint for research [and presentations]," she said. "It's fabulous to watch how they can incorporate this technology into their projects and reports."
Through research, said Chase, so much more has been learned about the human brain and how children's brains take in and process information. As a result, she said, educators are able to use this knowlege and actually put it into "instructional practice."
In addition, she said e-mail improved communication between herself and parents, and now all teachers have phones in their rooms, plus personal laptops, also aiding communication. Even the student makeup has changed, she said, with an increase in the Asian population — especially Korean — in the past four years.
Chase also found herself with unexpected worries. "Over the years, I've seen security tighten up as we learn and practice new ways of protecting children," she said. "When I started, we didn't have to think about those things."
She said the hardest thing she had to deal with was 9/11. "It was a complete shock," said Chase. "And we had to make sure that, as parents were coming into the building, we had a sense of calm so children could get to them in an orderly manner." Also tough, she said, was "dealing with the aftermath, with the children. It was high-stress time."
But she derived great satisfaction from a number of things at Poplar Tree, including "the professionalism and energy of my staff. I've seen two [assistant principals] become principals, and two teachers have been selected as instructional coaches for Fairfax County Public Schools — so they're the best of the best."
Several of her teachers became reading teachers or beginning mentor teachers, teaching classes to newly hired teachers in the county. "We've been doing that for several years," said Chase.
And, of course, she's loved "watching the kids completely metamorphose from kindergarten to sixth grade. That's been extremely rewarding because it's the longest period of time these kids are in one place. So we can really make a difference in their lives."
Chase also left her mark on those who knew her as principal there. Kindergarten teacher Susan Auerbach — at the school since it opened in 1990, and also retiring — said Chase "understands people's emotional needs and personal situations and supports you through the tough times. She's very motivated, always interested in new ideas and approaches, and will ask what she can do to help you."
Parent Kay Mahan, who has children there in fifth and sixth grades, said, "Dr. Chase is just an incredible leader of the Poplar Tree community. She's been supportive and encouraging and has exemplified our Poplar Tree theme, R2ICH, 'Respect, responsibility, integrity, caring and honesty. And I think our children will live with that for their whole lives because she's instilled that in both the children and the parents."
"I think she's a wonderful principal and I'll miss her," said sixth-grader Chelsea Walker, 12. Chelsea's mom, Alpha Walker, described Chase as loving and caring. "I like the way that she knows every child personally and is able to recall their names and who their parents are," she said.
"Denise has been a really strong leader for Poplar Tree," said Sully District School Board representative Kathy Smith. "And she's involved the community in the school and made sure there's a strong staff here and that both academic achievement and commitment to the arts is strong at Poplar Tree."
At her retirement ceremony, Chase received a special mug, a lifetime membership in the PTA, an American Express gift certificate and the book, "Our Principal Promised to Kiss a Pig," dedicated to her in the school library.
"She will be greatly missed," said PTA President Elizabeth Nelson. "We appreciate all the programs she brought to the school, and her dedication to the kids was obvious."
With a Ph.D. in educational research and evaluation, Chase will be involved in doing that for Wolf Trap's arts and educational programs. She and her husband also hope to travel throughout the U.S.
She said leaving Poplar Tree was bittersweet, and she "shed some tears" when saying goodbye to the children over the school's in-house TV network. But she takes with her a wealth of memories.
Chase said she'll miss eating in the cafeteria with the children and "seeing their smiling faces when they came in to give me hugs. But there's a good staff at Poplar Tree, and under new principal Sharon Williams [former assistant principal there], the school's in great hands."