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Gracie Agnew retiring after 40 years in education
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Gracie Agnew is retiring as principal of Magna Vista High School after 40 years in education. Agnew, who was named the 2013 Outstanding High School Principal of the Year by the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals, is leaving her post to pursue interests that she has put aside due to her career. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Friday, June 13, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Retiring Magna Vista High School Principal Gracie Agnew said “there has not been a minute I regretted” becoming an educator.

“I love education. In what other profession can you touch so many lives on a personal level?” she said, calling education “a noble profession.”

Agnew is not retiring now because she has 40 years of service, mostly with Henry County Public Schools. Rather, it’s to take time to do some things for herself and pursue some interests which she hasn’t been able to do because she is so dedicated to her job, she said.

Agnew, 62, of Fieldale, said she has been cancer-free for three years, also had unrelated hip surgery, and she realizes she won’t live forever. Two years ago, she lost her husband, Frank, who had wanted her to retire. That makes her sad that she had not retired, she said.

She advises her staff, “Your job is important and it’s important to do it well, but it is important to do things for self and family,” she said.

Some of Agnew’s staff members say she never sleeps because of her late hours working and sending out emails, she joked.

Even before her last day on the job Monday, she was trying to secure about $14,000 for equipment to start an aquaculture program at Magna Vista.

She describes herself as tenacious and added a colleague called her “a pit bull in heels.”

“My staff will tell you if there is something that we need ... I won’t let it go till I get it. I find a way. I don’t like to be told no,” she said.

Agnew has a similar tenacity for helping students succeed.

“If a child tells you, ‘I can’t do it,’ you don’t accept that. (Agnew tells the student,) ‘Yes, you can. We’ll do it together,’” she said. “That’s my secret: I believe in children.”

She said students are smart, and if expectations are set high, students will rise to meet them.

Agnew also believes in teachers. “That’s why I’m successful. They’ve been trained as professionals. That’s how I treat them,” she said.

“People seem to think I can fix schools,” Agnew said. She explained her strategies always have included setting clear expectations for students and teachers; having a culture of respect; enforcing disciplinary policies; offering professional development; having a family atmosphere; working together as a team; and being firm, fair and consistent. The faculty at Magna Vista is excellent and the students “wonderful” and well-mannered, she said.

Agnew was an English teacher at Drewry Mason High School from 1974-87; English teacher and head of the English department at Fieldale-Collinsville High School, 1988-90; administrative intern at Bassett Middle School/Bassett High School, 1990-92; English teacher at Bassett High School, 1992-93; administrative intern at F-C High School, 1993-94; and curriculum specialist - Title I, 1994-95.

She also served as assistant principal of Bassett Middle School and, in Rockingham County, N.C., public schools, assistant principal of Morehead High School and principal of Reidsville Middle School.

She was principal of Bassett Middle School, 2000-2002; principal of F-C High School, 2002-04; HCPS director of instruction, 2004-2006; and has been principal of Magna Vista since 2006.

Agnew said colleagues describe her as a strong instructional leader. She said she stresses rigor and relevance, or in other words, making instruction challenging and related to the real world. She also stresses building relationships with students. “You have to know students to be able to teach them, and you have to care about them.”

She added: “Although I am well known as a highly effective school leader, I want to be remembered as a passionate advocate for children. They deserve a world-class education that has prepared them for college and/or a career as well as life.”

Agnew was named the 2013 Outstanding High School Principal of the Year by the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals.

HCPS Superintendent Jared Cotton, who nominated her for the award, said: “ ... I wish we could keep Mrs. Agnew working for (HCPS) for a minimum of 10 more years! I’ve already told her that she can rescind her retirement at any time. The entire school division has benefited from her wisdom, experience and unwavering support for students.”

Cotton said when he first arrived in Henry County in 2012, he was immediately impressed with Agnew’s professionalism and her desire to improve and enhance the educational experiences for students at Magna Vista and throughout the county.

“I’ve worked with several high school principals over the years in other localities, but I would rank her at the top of the list,” Cotton said.

“Mrs. Agnew was also instrumental in working to implement Warrior Tech Academy at Magna Vista High School, which has been such a great success,” Cotton said. “She has a keen sense of how high schools should be transformed to meet the needs of students in order to effectively prepare them for college, career, and citizenship. There are also several examples of when Mrs. Agnew has personally worked 1:1 with students who struggled with various obstacles, limited resources, and challenging backgrounds to help them find success.”

“She is the consummate high school principal,” said Joe DeVault, chairman of the Henry County School Board. He was principal of Drewry Mason High School when he hired her as a first-year teacher right out of college. He said he recognized great ability in her.

Agnew has a scrapbook of letters from former students she taught. The letters say such things as Agnew made them feel they could conquer the world, that she was passionate and compassionate, that she taught not only about literature but how to teach (that one from a student who went on to become a teacher), and that she challenged students. Other letters said Agnew has a beautiful spirit; she treated students like individuals; she made students feel strong, intelligent and beautiful; and she taught students to love, to be themselves and to accept themselves.

As a teacher, she said, one of her biggest achievements was having children care about their educations and produce at a level at which they were capable.

Among the other highlights from her career she mentioned were piloting honors English at Drewry Mason High School, helping teach “advanced exploratory” (career explorations) at Bassett Middle School, and spearheading the establishment of Warrior Tech Academy at Magna Vista.

Low points of her career have come when she felt she “lost” students, she said. “I want every child to be successful. Nothing breaks my heart more than when a child drops out of school.”

Agnew’s retirement is effective June 30.

During retirement, she plans “to keep close ties with Henry County Schools,” including being an athletic booster at Magna Vista and a band booster at Bassett High. She would like to work with youth at St. James Pentecostal Holiness Church, where she is a member, and she would like to start a Girl Scout troop at the church.

“I plan to be actively involved in the Black Box Theatre in whatever role they need,” she said, referring to the theater in uptown Martinsville.

Agnew also plans to spend time with family, garden and complete the restoration of the historic Rock Run School. She also is planning a trip to Alaska.

 

 
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