Retiring Centreville Elementary Principal Jim Latt will definitely not miss all the paperwork his job required. But he will miss the hugs he received.
“Every day, you’re greeted and hugged by 1,000 people,” he said. “My favorite times of day are 8:50 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. because that’s when I get the hugs.”
NONETHELESS, Centreville’s leader for the past nine years is heading off into the sunset — literally — planning a new life that’ll begin in Florida. And with 30 years’ teaching and administrative experience in Virginia and 25 in Fairfax County Public Schools, he’s doing it now, he said, “Because I can.”
During his long and distinguished career, Latt, 55, was a speech and language clinician and an auditory-developmental specialist. For 11 years, he taught hearing-impaired children in grades pre-kindergarten through sixth. Then he served as an assistant principal and, finally, principal at Centreville since 1998.
He says his former wife Pam most influenced and inspired him professionally, and he considers his son Jeremy, 25 — a software engineer on Wall Street — his greatest accomplishment. Regarding Centreville Elementary, he says its multicultural and multi-ethnic mix is the biggest change he’s seen there, over the years.
“The growing diversity of our community in Centreville has had a large impact on what we do instructionally,” said Latt. “But it’s also a gift because it allows the students to see the real world.”
HE’S GLAD he got to remain at this school for nine years and “really get to know whole families.” His highlights include all the fun things — such as sitting on the roof and even kissing a pig — that he did to encourage students to read and to always do the best they can do.
And Latt will miss “the energy you get from so many people every day. You interact with hundreds and hundreds of people every day in a very personal way. I also liked interacting with so many parents, community members and staff. I never have a planned agenda for the day because each day just unfolds.”
His caring attitude is reciprocated by teachers, staff and parents. Susie Collier, whose three children attend Centreville, said he’s been “a wonderful, wonderful principal. He’s great with the kids; there are 900 kids here and he knows 99 percent of them by name. And the kids love him; he’s very interactive with them and approachable. We’re going to miss him, and the kids are sad, too.”
Sheri D’Amato, library media specialist, said everyone at Centreville is sad to see Latt leave. “I don’t know who we’ll get to kiss a pig in the future,” she joked. D’Amato said what makes Latt special is that “he believes every child is the best, and he always brings a smile to the room.”
“He’s awesome to work for — a pleasure,” added educational office assistant Brenda Caton. “He’s a very caring person with the students, staff, everybody.” Kathy Sweet, also an educational office assistant, said Latt’s such a good principal because “his love of children comes through in everything he does.”
THE STUDENTS dedicated their yearbook to him and even drew a picture of him on the cover. They wrote a book for him called “The ABCs of Retirement.” Inside, they drew pictures illustrating their words, such as, “H is for having fun in the sun” and “R is for relaxing in a pool.” Students also presented him with a thick, bound book of farewell and appreciation messages.
And the fifth-graders adorned a fishing pole with 120 wishes on paper fishes. Some of them said: “I wish that you have fun and enjoy the beach;” “I wish that you come back and visit your favorite school, Centreville Elementary,” and “I wish you a happy rest of your life.”
Reflecting back, Latt said the toughest part of helming a school is “when kids and families are hurting in some way and you have to manage those dynamics. But what comes out of it is a wonderful sense of accomplishment when you can have a positive impact on their lives. And being able to coordinate teachers and staff to support students is very gratifying when everything works out.”
He’s always believed his school is a “community of learners.” But after the Virginia Tech tragedy, said Latt, “My greatest revelation was that we are a family of learners.”
The most satisfying part of being a principal, he said, is that, “Along with the awesome responsibility you feel, you feel that you’ve been successful in leading and inspiring some people along the way.”
And when a graduate visits and tells him that, he gets confirmation. After all, said Latt, “Educators don’t look at this as a job — it’s a calling. And the joy is in the work.”
Now, though, he’s turning over the reins to Dwayne Young, who’s been the principal at Louise Archer Elementary, and he says Centreville will be in good hands. “He’s a great guy and a wonderful addition to this area,” said Latt.
SO WHAT’S NEXT for Latt? For starters, after living in this area for 32 years, he plans to sightsee in Washington, D.C., for the first time. He’ll keep his condo in Belmont Bay so he’ll still have a home in Northern Virginia, but he’ll go to Florida by Christmas. He has friends in Fort Lauderdale and Miami and plans to rent a home in Fort Lauderdale for awhile. But he wants to be free to travel wherever he wants.
“My new life will be a perpetual vacation,” said Latt. “I plan to travel in the USA, Canada and overseas, but I’ll also work and volunteer in various venues.” Other plans include possibly working at an American school overseas; substitute teaching; continuing to explore music, the arts and movement; and going to culinary school.
“We wish him a lot of happiness in Florida in whatever he wishes to do,” said Sweet. “But we think he’ll end up working with children again because that’s where his heart is.”