Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. After more than 30 years in education, Radloff Middle School principal Patty Heitmuller waves goodbye to students for one last time, as she heads into retirement. Heitmuller spent her whole career in Gwinnett County Public Schools and opened Radloff Middle seven years ago.
DULUTH -- Patty Heitmuller waved goodbye to students as they rode off in yellow school buses Friday afternoon for the last time in her 31-year career.
Heitmuller, the principal of Louise Radloff Middle School, is retiring after spending her entire career as an educator in Gwinnett County Public Schools. In all, 372 employees are retiring this year, 132 of whom have been in the system since they began their careers.
It was an emotional day for Heitmuller and her students, who exchanged tearful farewells after the last bell rang on the final day of school.
"Dr. Heitmuller was the best principal for the school," said Patricia Ventura, who will be in eighth grade in August. "Us kids don't want her to leave."
Patricia said Heitmuller "helps us" by "making us be the brightest kids in the school."
For Heitmuller, the students have been the focus of her professional life for more than three decades.
"They're the reason why this has been my passion for 31 years," she said.
Heitmuller, who began her career as a teacher at Duluth Middle School, said she learned early in her career not to put too much focus on herself.
"What I do is important, but it's ultimately more important want the kids are doing," she said.
Heitmuller still has vivid memories of teaching at Duluth Middle, which at the time was located in the building that now houses Monarch School. She said she still remembers what she wore on the first day that she taught -- a floral wraparound skirt, fuchsia shirt and black sandals.
"I worked so hard on my lesson plans," she said. "And then I left them on the kitchen table at home. My mother had to bring them to me at school."
On that first day, Heitmuller said she learned an important lesson: Hold kids to high standards, but cut them some slack sometimes, because everyone makes mistakes.
After working at Duluth Middle, Heitmuller worked at Sweetwater Middle School for a couple of years as an instructional lead teacher. She then moved to Britt Elementary, where she became an assistant principal.
Heitmuller also spent five years working at the central office as the coordinator of teacher development and director of staff development. During her time there, she helped create the Teachers as Leaders program, which graduated its 21st class this year.
In 1995, Heitmuller opened Harbins Elementary School in Dacula. She worked there for nine years and thought she'd continue working there until her retirement.
"I had the opportunity to open Radloff," she said, of the school named after the longtime school board member. "Who turns down the opportunity to open a school named after a legend?"
Heitmuller said she also wanted to work in the diverse Meadowcreek cluster.
"I love the international flavor of the cluster," she said. "I like knowing that there is incredible potential with our students, and I wanted to be part of proving that poverty has nothing to do with how much kids can perform in school. Poverty can limit experience, but it does not limit potential."
Heitmuller said Gwinnett County is a great example of a school district that has grown and changed demographically but has become better as a result. She said she's proud to have spent her entire career in the district.
"I love it just as much, if not more, as when I started," she said.