First-year Camp Creek Elementary Principal Valerie Robinett shows pictures of the four other principals who have led the school since it opened in 1972 with Principal C.R. (Randy) Morris. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)
LILBURN — About three months ago, when Marilyn Kruse went about a morning meeting at her school, she slipped in a couple of minutes late, and heard the area superintendent sing praises about Camp Creek Elementary, mentioning that its principal was retiring.
Near the front of the room, Kruse noticed one of her former students. As they made eye contact, Kruse waved. Valerie Robinett had kept in touch with Kruse since she left Camp Creek Elementary some 26 years ago.
Robinett returned to visit after she graduated from Parkview High, and the two were colleagues when Robinett began teaching at Parkview, their classes even working together on a joint project about Australian geography. They saw one another at football games, and Kruse met Robinett’s husband.
But in a fleeting moment during that morning meeting, Kruse recognized that Robinett would have a new job. Her former student, from a kindergarten class she taught in the 1981-82 school year, was now her principal.
“I felt like my face just dropped, and I went into a big smile,” said Kruse, who now teaches second grade and is beginning her 34th year at Camp Creek. “I think that’s when I knew.”
Of the more than 1,000 students that Kruse has taught, Robinett is the first one that she is aware of to become a principal, much less her boss.
The role reversal has been smooth and comfortable, Kruse said. While she may have a former student as a boss, Kruse said she knows who Robinett is because she knew where she came from, and she’s a good person, “down inside.”
“I’m just so proud of her the way she set her goals and reached them,” Kruse said. “I know people ask, ‘Aren’t you old? Well, I am old, but this is a great opportunity.’ And like we’ve said, it’s just the comfort level. She feels comfortable being here, we feel comfortable with her. It’s just been so easy.”
Robinett is the fifth principal at Camp Creek after Kathy Jones retired last school year, and beginning her 16th year as an educator. She previously was the principal at Mountain Park since 2008, and an assistant principal at Ivy Creek Elementary and Duluth High. She began her career in Gwinnett in 1998 as a U.S. History and Political Systems teacher at Parkview.
In the first few days as principal at Camp Creek, Robinett said she had to make adjustments.
“It was hard for me in the beginning to stop referring to everybody as Mr. and Mrs.,” she said.
While the hallways are structurally different, Robinett said the atmosphere and environment at Camp Creek remain the same. The open classrooms with accordion walls are gone, and her former kindergarten classroom now has its door at the opposite end. There is limited turnover in the school as evident by the average teacher staying there for 16 years.
Robinett credits the school and its teachers for why she entered the education profession.
“The foundation that I got in this building, that I had the privilege of being in their class, I knew when I left elementary school that I wanted to be an educator,” she said. “The example that was set by the adults that I had influencing me, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. That was never an issue.”
While Robinett grew up in the Parkview cluster, the majority of her professional experience is also among the schools who proudly wear the orange and blue and root for the Panthers.
That familiar community is why she chose to raise her children, a fourth-grader, Kara, and a first-grader, Nate, in Lilburn. As a youngster involved in ice skating, Robinett said she traveled for competitions and experienced different places that caused her appreciation for the Parkview cluster to only grow.
“There’s something about the Parkview community where I know, especially now as a mom, I’m not raising my kids alone,” she said.
Patty Cheek, a third-grade teacher at the school who is entering her 29th year, said that Robinett returning home shows that she cares about her upbringing and where she came from.
“The fact that she’s part of the community is gigantic for the teachers, it’s like family already, because she grew up here and came back here,” Cheek said. “It says a lot about our community that adults want to move back to the community.”
While she knows plenty of people in the community, and taught some of her Camp Creek teachers as students at Parkview, Robinett recogizes there are people she hasn’t met yet. That’s why she made “connect” a theme for this school year. And she wants to continue the foundation of knowledge and skills that she received.
“It’s just a fondness, I had such a great educational experience,” she said. “Having the perspective of a parent, who doesn’t want that for their child? A foundation that will provide them with knowledge and skills to be successful in life, whatever path they choose. To know that there are people in the building to love their children, take care of them, protect them, grow them, educate them to high levels. That’s all you can ask for, and I had that here.”
The teachers admit that they can use Robinett as a role model for their own students’ career dreams. While some of Robinnett’s former classmates went on to work in television, the arts in New York, as lawyers in Atlanta, she can be held up as an example.
Even in elementary school, one teacher described her as a “40-year-old in a third-grader’s body.”
“She’s always had her goals set,” Kruse said. “And she’s reached everything that I’ve seen she’s had for herself.”