LAWRENCEVILLE - When Olivia Hodges began her career in 1977 as a physical education teacher, there were only six elementary schools in Gwinnett County. The entire county's school system could fit into the gym of Parkview High School. And "diverse" wasn't ever a word used to describe Gwinnett schools.
Almost 30 years later, the school system has grown to be the largest in Georgia, with more than 140,000 students. It's a "majority-minority" district that has less than 50 percent white students.
Through all those dramatic changes, Hodges has been an educator in the Gwinnett school system. Now a principal at Freeman's Mill Elementary School, she served as a top administrator at many schools, including Dacula High School and Brookwood Elementary School. She was instrumental in opening Freeman's Mill and the new location of Dacula Elementary School.
This month, Hodges will be retiring. Parents and staff members honored her lifelong commitment to education by raising funds for a new walking track outside of Freeman's Mill. They had a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday afternoon to commemorate its opening.
"I don't consider it retiring so much as it is transitioning. I'm going to continue to be very involved in the lives of children, just not as a principal or educator," Hodges said.
Hodges knew from the age of 12 that she wanted to be a teacher. She grew up in a family of five children, though none of them shared her passion for education. Through her hard work, she rose through the ranks to become one of the county's most celebrated and longest serving educators.
Louise Radloff, vice chairman of the Gwinnett Board of Education, has known Hodges since she was a young teacher just starting out at Peachtree Elementary School. Even then, Radloff was impressed by her enthusiasm and ability with children.
"She's too young to retire. She has too much energy, too much insight," Radloff said. "If we ever end up closing the achievement gap in this county, it will be because of people like her."
Though it has been many years since she was a P.E. teacher, Hodges continues to be a proponent of good health and wellness. The walking track was a goal she had in mind to promote daily exercise for students, faculty and staff. Because of the trailers out back, there isn't much space for the kids to stretch out and play.
It was a $21,000 effort, but the PTA worked quickly to raise money for the walking track so it could be completed before her retirement. It reads "Freeman's Mill Firebirds," but it is named for Hodges.
"We wanted to do something for her, since the school is already named. We wanted to honor her vision and her commitment to the school," said Si Morris, co-president of the PTA.
Marian Hicks, an elementary school staffing director for the school system, will be taking over as the principal of Freeman's Mill Elementary School after Hodges retires on May 31.
PTA co-president Suzanne Tonneson has one child who is a fourth-grader at Freeman's Mill, and another who will be entering as a kindergartner this Fall. She was always impressed with Hodges, especially after she saw how involved she was at the school.
"She's still going to be there and working with the new principal to get everything all set for next year. And that makes us all feel good," Tonneson said.
The school will be having a retirement reception for Hodges on May 13. She hopes that she will get to see some of her former students there, including ones who are now in their 40s.
Soon she will be heading to Florida for her retirement. But the walking track will remain outside of Freeman's Mill as a reminder of the indelible mark she left on Gwinnett County schools.
n What: Retirement reception for 30-year Gwinnett educator Olivia Hodges
•When: 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. May 13
•Where: Freeman's Mill Elementary School
2303 Old Peachtree Road, Lawrenceville