Principal Spotlight: Penny Clavijo, Hopkins Elementary

Hopkins Elementary principal has teaching in her genes.

Few kids know what they want to be from childhood, unless you grew up a Mullins.

With her mom a teacher for 30 years, and her dad a teacher and administrator also that long, Penny Clavijo always knew she wanted to be one.

"I played school all the time," the principal of Lilburn's Hopkins Elementary said. "I was the oldest in my neighborhood, so I pretended I was the teacher."

Whether in her living room in Winder or in her best friend Gaye's basement, "I had a box and a wagon I'd carry old school material and teacher's editions in. Some of our friends would always be the students, and we'd teach."

Now in her third year as Hopkins' principal, Clavijo is proud to have developed her own style, but unabashed about emulating her father's. Like him, she spends little time in her office, preferring instead to circulate among Hopkins' estimated 1,780 students and staff of some 250.

"He walked his building, knew his staff, knew his kids and knew the community, and that's the way I am, too," Clavijo said of Reid Mullins, who was Snellville Middle principal when she attended school there. "Seeing what he did every day, I knew that's what I wanted to do."

Named Hopkins principal somewhat suddenly two weeks before the 2009 school year, Clavijo found it slightly overwhelming until she learned every staff member's name. Now, the Dacula High 1984 graduate believes she's settled into a rhythm -- and loving every moment.

She prides herself on knowing her staff, as well as their families. She seeks to engage each member individually, like when leaving notes for them all in their rooms the Saturday before school started. She considers Hopkins her second family, close behind John, her husband of 19 years, and son Parker and daughter Perrin, an Archer High junior and freshman who increasingly show interest in teaching.

"My dad used to tell his staff there's no place he'd rather be, and that's how I see it, too," said Clavijo, 44. "I want my students to know who I am and that I care about them, too."

Living on family land in Dacula next to her parents and brother and sister-in-law, who also teach in Gwinnett, Clavijo admits she's spoiled by having so many educators nearby. Almost daily she sits with her folks -- sometimes seeking advice, often only an ear. Always seeking to reinvent herself, she often bounces ideas off them all.

"Especially if she attends a conference or hears of something successful at another school, she wants to share it with us, too," said Clavijo's mom, Deloris.

But Clavijo's family resources aren't limited to the back sun room of her folks' house. Her mom, retired from Dacula Elementary, often helps in classrooms, sometimes by selling PTA memberships, and even at registration the week before school. Likewise, Clavijo's dad used to read regularly to kindergarteners at Magill Elementary and Rosebud Elementary, where she was assistant principal before taking her first head job at Hopkins.

Among Clavijo's fondest memories are riding daily with her dad to Snellville Middle and helping unlock the buildings. She'd often help prepare her mom's classroom as school years approached. She recalls her parents at school early and late, a work ethic that urges her to Hopkins often before sunrise.

"Things I did with them helped me see a bigger picture of what the job entails," Clavijo said. "They didn't look at the clock. They got there early, left late and got done what needed to get done. I don't look at it as a labor either. I love every minute of it."

Of all her father's sayings, one rings still: "Hire well, and trust people to do their job." It's an empowerment Clavijo tries daily to impart to her staff.

But before all this success, when Clavijo was just a pipsqueak in Winder, her father sensed her suited for the family business.

"I could see a lot of her leadership skills with kids in the neighborhood," he said. "She would want to be in control and be in charge and make sure everybody followed the rules. I could see all this coming."

Kennedy October 29, 2012 at 12:50 AM
Kids are being inappropriate in your school
ann January 25, 2013 at 05:49 PM
For a newcomer is this school a place for learning to take place?
evelyn lopez March 13, 2013 at 12:02 AM


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