By Alexa Epitropoulos | email@example.com
Lucretia Jackson’s is the first face students at Matthew Maury Elementary School see when they get off the school bus in the morning.
She’s also likely the person who sees them off as they board the bus again to head home at the end of the day.
That’s because students have always been at the heart of what Jackson does as principal, most recently at Matthew Maury, which she has headed since 2004.
“It’s what I really loved. I love children. To me, they’re my babies. They’re my heart. They’re my life,” Jackson said. “They’re everything that I actually have to live for.”
Jackson will retire as Maury principal at the end of the school year, after almost 45 years as an educator. She became interested in teaching at the age of 13, when she taught children participating in her church’s summer program.
Later, in 1973, she landed her first education job in Washington, D.C., where she taught fourth grade and, later, worked in a multi-age classroom with first grade and kindergarten students. In 1980, she moved to Alexandria, looking for a fresh start.
Her teaching career in the Port City began at John Adams Elementary School, and included a stop at Patrick Henry Elementary School before she was hand selected in 1984 to form a new magnet school, which became Cora Kelly Magnet Elementary.
She got her start in school administration when she was selected as assistant principal at Mount Vernon Elementary School in 1992. Within four years, she was picked for her first principal posting at Lyles-Crouch Elementary School.
When she arrived at Lyles-Crouch in 1996, parents were actively avoiding sending their children there. The school was not accredited and was missing its adequate yearly progress goals.
“My goal going into it was making sure all children succeeded and had success, but, most of all, making sure children came to school every day and were happy to be there,” Jackson said. “If they’re not happy, they’re not going to be successful.”
From there, Jackson and her staff decided to make a number of changes, including transitioning Lyles-Crouch from a 3-5 to a K-5 school. They also took field trips to a number of traditional academies in the area to see if that was a route they wanted to go down.
“What we were extrapolating from those schools is that we loved the uniforms,” Jackson said.
Lyles-Crouch introduced uniforms, an equalizing force in the classroom, and went on to make a number of other changes – reducing the size of classrooms to 15 for lower grades and 20 for upper grades, introducing band and orchestra programs after school and homework clubs. At the same time, parents were stepping up to the plate, volunteering as tutors, chaperones and whatever else was needed.
The school became Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy and, by the end of Jackson’s second year at the helm, it became accredited and was making its AYP goals.
“I felt really, really good about it because I did not do it alone,” Jackson said. “It takes a village and, if we needed a village, we certainly had one.”
By the time Jackson had completed eight years at the school, Rebecca Perry, who was then the superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, was calling on Jackson to make another transformation.
“She asked me if I’d like to come to Maury from Lyles-Crouch. I thought ‘no way am I going to leave my babies to go over there. No way!,’” Jackson said. “I named the school Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy. There was no way I was going to give that up.”
But supporters in the community ultimately convinced Jackson that she was the right person to turn Maury around. After her change of heart, she took over as principal there in 2004. At that time, the school was in a similar situation as Lyles-Crouch was in the beginning – it wasn’t accredited, but, more troubling, it was the lowest-performing school in Alexandria and in Northern Virginia.
“In my heart, I knew I could do it,” Jackson said. “From the moment I walked in the door, I felt I was lifted up by a higher being.”
Jackson, as always, prioritized the students. She set her sights on getting the school accredited and also on increasing the school’s dwindling student population, which was down to about 158 at the time and is now around 410.
“I was begging for children,” Jackson said. “I stood outside and put on the marquee ‘Wanted: More children to love and educate.’”
The students eventually did start coming, though it took the school gaining accreditation two years after Jackson arrived to convince skeptical parents. Jackson, however, was the real motivating factor for many others.
Laurie Kahl, a past PTA president at Maury, has sent three of her daughters through the school in the past ten years. Her youngest daughter is in fourth grade at the school. She said Jackson is a reassuring force.
“She knows all the kids. She knows all their quirks. She knows all the teachers and she knows what’s going on,” Kahl said. “She’s the most loving, caring person. She hugs every single person every time she sees them.”
In her decade as a Maury parent, Kahl has also seen the school come a long way. Though she felt like she was taking a chance by sending her oldest daughter there, she has stayed with the school due to the progress Jackson initiated.
“She’s really worked to make it the best, loving environment,” Kahl said. “When you think about where to send your kids to elementary school, you want them to go where they’re loved. For me, that feeling of welcome and being loved is probably the number one thing.”
As Jackson prepares to leave the school after 12 years, she has a number of fond memories, like listening to the conversations that kindergarten students have among themselves and interacting with students and their parents.
“I’ll remember just loving the children and hugging them. Seeing them when they get off the bus. The expressions on their face. Knowing my babies from the aspect of ‘are you okay? Can I help you?’ Telling them each and every day that I love them,” Jackson said.
When asked her advice for her successor, Victor Powell, Jackson had a few thoughts.
“The first advice I would give is establish relationships – not only with our babies, but with our families,” Jackson said. “Take it slow. Observe before you come in and make changes.”
Jackson also says her successor will need to get out of the office – something that’s worked for her during her time in education.
“You have to get out there and you have to do,” Jackson said. “You have to learn on your own from the experiences you have each and every day.”