Students will soon come bounding up the steps of Wolftrap Elementary School for the first day of classes, welcomed, per tradition, by teachers and staff holding signs and balloons to kick off a new school year.
But for the first time since 2005, Anita Blain won't be waiting outside the building.
Blain ended a 20-year career with Fairfax County Public Schools this summer when she stepped down as principal of Wolftrap — a "dream" made even sweeter by following a single class from kindergarten through sixth grade during her seven years as principal at the school on Beulah Road.
"It's bittersweet, but it's wonderful," she said, sitting in her office on the last day of classes in June. "I never thought I'd be able to follow a group of children this long."
Blain decided she wanted to be a teacher as a sixth-grader in Florida, when her teacher asked her to go read to a group of first-graders.
"After that first day with the children gathered around me, I never thought about another career," she said.
She began teaching, but as an Army wife, it was always in different classrooms across the U.S. and Europe, where she found Fairfax County's reputation to be just as good across the Atlantic. That was her dream — to teach in a place known around the globe.
When they moved back to the U.S. with her three children, she began teaching at Timber Lane Elementary. From there she went to be an assistant principal at Mosby Woods and then returned as principal at Timber Lane before taking the Wolftrap job in 2005.
It was at Wolftrap she found an environment that allowed her several luxuries, she said. With an enrollment of about 600 students, Wolftrap is a true neighborhood school, Blain said. She gets to know the names of all her students — and their siblings, parents and family pets.
While parents and staff praise Blain for her support of them, Blain credits her success to parents and a "staff that doesn't know how to stop working."
PTA President JoAnne Hammermaster said when she started working with the school more than three years ago, her goal was to help create and cultivate a healthy environment for students, teachers and staff.
"Dr. Blain told me right away how she wanted the Golden Apple award. So she worked with teachers, administrators, parents and students to make it happen,” Hammermaster said.
And the school would eventually get the highest honor Fairfax County Public Schools gives to schools that promote wellness: Hammermaster started a running club to supplement the Girls on the Run Program; Blain embraced it. The school began sponsoring an annual 5k race, which "[Blain loves] it because it brings out the community for a day of fun and fitness."
Hammermaster and another mother started a nutrition club in 2010, and from it grew Real Food for Kids, a countywide advocacy group for healthier school lunches that is working toward reforming the system's food and nutrition program.
"This has been a little touchy, as the subject of school food can start a big debate. Dr. Blain was supportive through this process," Hammermaster said, whereas other principals may have shied away.
Part of those healthy efforts was also the creation of a bike train and a Safe Routes to School program, led by parent Jeff Anderson.
Anderson said when he first approached Blain in 2009 about getting bike racks and starting "Wolfie’s Bike Train" — a caravan of parents and students who ride together to school once a month — "she had complete trust in myself and any parent that will ride with me … [and] that's what made it somewhat unique compared to other schools.”
In the time since then, the bike train — which includes Anderson's three children — has grown to become a regular means of travel for some students, and Blain has been known to join them on their rides.
"She's just in touch with the kids. She shows up at all kinds of events. Her nature is to be very involved in all aspects of the school but not in a my way or the highway kind of approach," Anderson said. "She's just very involved, and that involvement allows parents to do all kinds of things."
Blain also supported the PTA as it began fundraising for a school track, which will be completed just months after her departure.
In a memory book gifted to Blain at the end of the school year, students said "she keeps people happy," and "she hugs," also recalling the birthdays they spent eating lunch with Blain at the "birthday table" she helped create in the cafeteria. One recalled the time she wore Shakespearean tights to a costume day; several remembered the time she brought a Fisher Price basketball hoop to a faculty basketball game so she could deliver on her promise to slam dunk.
Though she's not much taller — or, in some cases, shorter — than the students who tug on her shirt, Blain was hard to miss on the last day of classes. She was showered in hugs and tearful goodbyes as she gave a final so-long to "the kind of school I want my grandchildren to go to."
"I am truly humbled. When you love what you do, you don't expect people to say thank you," Blain said. "The goal is to touch every child and teach every child … [and] if that's the legacy I leave, then what a lucky person I am.”