The older Valerie Robinett gets, the smaller Lilburn seems.
The principal has lived her entire life in Gwinnett County's southwest city of about 11,500, and after attending one of the state's biggest high schools and its biggest university, she's leading one of the county's tiniest schools -- and loving every minute.
"It amazes me that (30 some) years can go by, and yet so much remains the same," the fourth-year principal once wrote. "The neighbors I knew growing up are still right where I left them (for college), only now their children are grown and some of them even have grandchildren."
Robinett attended Lilburn's and and graduated from a of about 2,400 students. After studying among 30,000-plus at University of Georgia, she returned to teach at Parkview and comparably sized Shiloh Middle, then became assistant principal for roughly 2,100 students at Duluth High and about 1,000 at Ivy Creek Elementary.
Now, in a comparative microcosm she feels perfectly suits her, she's at 45-year-old Mountain Park, whose 570 students and 60 staff members make it the second smallest of the Lilburn area's 13 schools.
The 2007 graduate of Gwinnett's inaugural Quality-Plus Leader Academy for prospective principals said she feels prepared to lead any school -- big or small. But when the opening arose at Mountain Park, whose enrollment is a whisker above the 549 of Lilburn's smallest school, Head Elementary, Robinett leaped at the opportunity. It was reason to move from Suwanee back in her childhood home with husband Bobby, young children Kara and Nate and mother Elwanda White, before building a home across the street just last October.
"There's such careful consideration that goes into placing the right person in the right school and the right school for the right person," Robinett said of the district knowing her small-town sense. "There's a lot of thought and consideration that goes into placing each person at a school. That first time you're going into a principal position, you really do put your trust into the central office that you'll be put in a position to be successful."
See, Robinett believes a school Mountain Park's size has qualities others, like Lilburn's Hopkins Elementary, Gwinnett's largest elementary school with 1,780 students and 250 staff members, might not. Mountain Park's serene, residence-encircled location on Pounds Road, between Five Forks Trickum and Rockbridge roads, gives it almost a school-house feel. It impresses Robinett how often parents walk their kids to her school, something less common at schools near busier boulevards.
"We still very much maintain that sense of a small-town school," she said. "That's a hard thing to replicate. We're fortunate because of our size we can be that way."
"Unlike schools at busy intersections, it's nice to see a school where kids still walk and parents still walk to pick them up."
Built in 1966 to relieve overcrowded Snellville Elementary, when Pounds was a dirt road, Mountain Park's enrollment has crept no higher than 1,024 and typically has averaged about half that. It has a gym, a multi-purpose field, a blacktop area with basketball goals, a track and an upper and lower playground. Unlike some schools, it easily can hold everyone in an assembly.
Remarkably, a school Mountain Park's age nurtures generational ties newer schools don't. Media clerk Vicki Cook's retirement after 32 years there was typical, not unique.
"We have kids whose parents went to Mountain Park Elementary," Robinett said. "We have staff members who go back to remembering their families, when they were here previously."
But Robinett didn't perceive Lilburn to be so small when growing up there.
"When I went to UGA," she said, "that's when I was able to look back and count my blessings for having grown up in the community I did.
"In Lilburn, there was sense you could rely on your neighbor. There was this sense of accountability for everyone to look out for each other."
And for Robinett, the old saying rings true: There's no place like home.
"I'm truly blessed to have my children growing up in the community that raised me," she wrote. "That's the key to the success of the Parkview community. Parents aren’t working alone to raise their children, but rather, the children are being raised by an entire community."
"I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be."