Veteran Principal Set To Move On At Oak Grove

Cris Flippen in front of a display made for her by her students.

by Gene Marrano

As an early retiree at 58, Oak Grove Elementary School Principal Cris Flippen must still come back about 30 days per school year for the next five years, but for the most part she will close the book on a 37 year career on June 30, when she leaves Oak Grove as the ex-principal.

Flippen, who came to the southwest Roanoke County school in 2002, was feted at a community open house several weeks ago. Among the surprises: a display of pictures showing Flippen throughout the years, as a college student, a young teacher, growing up in West Virginia – even some from Cuba, the country that a very young Flippen and her parents emigrated from in 1961. After landing in Florida they settled in West Virginia, where her father was a practicing physician.

Flippen arrived at Oak Grove Elementary just as the school was about to undergo a seven million dollar renovation in 2004. New infrastructure, classrooms, labs, etc. were added. “It was like trying to fly a plane while you were building it,” recalls Flippen, “with 500 kids at the same time. It was a long process.” Flippen had previously been the principal at Clearbrook Elementary when it was undergoing expansion and renovations as well.

An accomplished dancer who has taken lessons (Oak Grove has held dance classes for older students), Flippen first graced the hallways at the school as a teacher in 1981, after teaching in West Virginia.  She graduated from Concord College (WV) and then juggled work, family and school at Virginia Tech to complete her masters later on.

Flippen was about 19 years old when she first thought that becoming a school administrator might be her ultimate career path.  A principal she had growing up as a grade schooler helped seal the deal: “I just remember thinking, what a difference he made in the school.”  That principal added a student newspaper and generally “spiced things up.” Flippen didn’t like the principals that were “sort of aloof,’ and vowed to be hands on and doors open, if and when she rose to that position.

She credits former Roanoke County School Superintendent Deanna Gordon and current school head Lorraine Lange for offering encouragement, recognizing that she might be principal material. “It kind of put me back on the right path,” said Flippen, who resumed that career track through courses at Virginia Tech after starting those studies in West Virginia. Family obligations had put those aspirations on the back burner for a while.

By 1994, five years after she started at Tech, Flippen became a principal for the first time, after working part time as a teacher at Cave Spring Middle while attending school. She was an assistant principal at Burlington Elementary in 1993.

The biggest changes – and challenges – Flippen notes, is the technology that can make learning more impactful and immediate now – providing teachers know how to use the equipment. “All of our teachers have grown in the use of technology,” said Flippen, who is sold on Activboards. “You can bring the world to your classroom.”

Accountability benchmarks like the Standards of Learning “is a huge difference.” Teachers know more about students than ever before, and are under a much greater “degree of scrutiny.” She commends her own staff for taking on the challenges of the SOLs “head on. Our test scores continue to be excellent.”

In fact, Oak Grove Elementary won the Governor’s Excellence Award for its scholastic achievements last year and has been fully accredited for the past three years, meeting criteria for reading and other benchmarks. “As a principal you’re only as good as your teachers,” noted Flippen, who wrestled with retirement for several years. “It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made.”

As she drove to the weekend open house several weeks ago, Flippen was surprised to see billboards and roadside signs congratulating her on retirement. It was one of the happiest days of her life. She hopes to mentor children, when not playing golf or dancing with husband Wayne. Politics is an option; though the 5:45AM workouts thankfully are a thing of the past after 20 years; “that won’t happen,” she chuckles. Kim Bradshaw is the new principal after moving over from Fort Lewis Elementary.

What Cris Flippen will miss most is ‘the love of children on a daily basis; that connection every day with kids.” Flippen feels like a rock star at times when students see her in a public setting and are excited about it. “I don’t know too many adults that get what I do – everyday.” She will also miss her Oak Grove staff: “They keep me young, every day. We’re connected as a family.”