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'Outstanding Communicator' To Retire

Kings Park Elementary principal Mary Agnes Garman is retiring this year after 15 years at the school.

When she arrived at Kings Park Elementary School in the summer of 1990, Mary Agnes Garman faced a power struggle of a different kind taking place in the building.

"When you would plug in something, the whole (power) would go down, because it didn't have enough juice," said Garman, principal at Kings Park.

Responding to the technological demands of the computer age has been the defining change of Garman's tenure as principal at the Springfield school. And it has been a power she has sought to harness in order to improve her passion — opening the lines of communication between administration and parents.

"She’s never satisfied the way things are. She’s always looking to improve upon what is now. That’s the way she works," said Michele Beck, PTA president for Kings Park.

Garman will retire this June after 15 years as principal. She has no immediate career plans, but will likely spend time traveling with her husband and pondering what to do next.

"I would like to have the option to have a little more flexibility in my schedule," she said, confessing that she often didn't take advantage of the leave offered to her during her time at Kings Park. "I wasn't tired of it. I like school and I like school-related things, but I'll take a couple months and see how it goes, see where my energy takes me," she said.

GARMAN'S LEGACY will be as a communicator, according to those who worked most closely with her. In March, she was presented with the Outstanding Communicator Award by the National School Public Relations Association, reflecting the attention to detail as shown in items such as the school's Web site, monthly newsletter and slimmed-down school handbook.

It's all designed to make parents more aware of what is going on in their children's school, said Garman.

"We're trying to rework how we communicate with parents, and meet them where they are, not like the old generation of people like me," she said.

Parents appreciated Garman's willingness to adapt to the sound-bite era.

"She responds quickly, no matter how little or great a matter. You’re never left unheard, she never leaves you unknowing," said Beck.

Garman came to Kings Park from Layton Hall Elementary in the City of Fairfax, replacing long-time principal Lenore Plissner. A graduate of Bishop O'Connell High in Arlington and George Mason University, where she also received her master's degree, Garman had previously taught at Hunters Woods Elementary for the Arts and Sciences in Reston. She became assistant principal at White Oaks Elementary when it opened in 1978, then moved to Layton Hall. Her time at Kings Park was marked by a major renovation in the mid-1990s, which brought a more centralized library, and of course, extensive wiring to accommodate the technology boom.

"In the old days, you only needed a couple plugs, and that was the end of it," she said. Also in the mid-1990s, Kings Park was selected to be one of 10 elementary schools in the county as a model technology site. The staff was ready to embrace the changes as it began receiving training in Apple computers.

"She's open to allowing people to try something new," said Michelle Crabill, a third-grade teacher at Kings Park whose daughter also attends the school. "The drive … to better yourself, to become a better teacher, to high-achieving is wonderful."

Crabill said she appreciated the fact that teachers at the school were given one half-day of leave every month for professional development, which she said has made her a better teacher.

"I had never had someone hand me professional literature (and say), 'Oh, you need help in language arts? Why don't you read this book,'" she said. "I don't want her to leave. I was just hoping for a few more years."

ENROLLMENT HAS grown to nearly 700, up 100 from when Garman started, and the Kings Park community has grown more diverse, but she said she believes that has benefited the community.

"The children work well together, they don't see differences. They just see that's part of the way people are," she said.

The environment at Kings Park is what kept her going over the past 15 years, said Garman.

"I think that teaching and schools are very creative, dynamic organizations. It's busy and there's a lot of enthusiasm," she said.

"There's always something new we can reach for, and I like that. It's not a desk job."