Correction: The name of Flippen’s elementary school in West Virginia is Falls View, not Falls Church.
A quiet buzz of excitement energized the hallways at Oak Grove Elementary as teachers and students alike ducked in and out of classrooms on Tuesday morning, June 5.
Longtime principal Cris Flippen was in for a treat–and everyone was in on the surprise but her!
To honor her 19 years at Oak Grove and to wish her well in her retirement all 550 students, led by music teacher Gloria Howell and at the suggestion of PTA president Frances Rogers, sang the song “Smile” in a ‘flash mob’ before the school’s awards ceremony on Tuesday.
The students worked with Howell for several weeks to learn the lyrics to the song, and they created accompanying pieces of art in their art classes. On one side of their handcrafted signs was a smiley face of each student’s own design; on the other was a drawing of one of several nouns mentioned in the song.
Flippen’s husband, Wayne, also made a surprise appearance to wish his wife well.
“She will be emotional at this one,” Wayne said of the surprise as everyone waited in the gym for the woman of the hour to make her appearance. “This is her passion, her life.”
And a full life it’s been. Flippen spent five years teaching in WVa. before moving to Roanoke in 1980. The following 32 years she worked with Roanoke County Public Schools (RCPS), 19 of which she spent at Oak Grove Elementary. She also worked at G.W. Carver Elementary, Cave Spring Middle School, Burlington Elementary and Clearbrook Elementary.
“Oak Grove has a special place in my heart,” Flippen says. “I remember driving by Oak Grove and thinking, ‘Someday, I will be principal in that school.’ ”
She made her goal a reality when she became principal in 2002, “thanks to lots of help,” she says.
“Like many of us, a teacher made a difference for me,” she says. Namely, she remembers her principal when she was in sixth grade at Falls View Elementary School in WVa., Mr. Dix. “It was a drabby atmosphere, but he made it fun. He got the teachers motivated and moving.”
She also remembers the day when former superintendent of RCPS, Deanna Gordon, told her she “would make a wonderful elementary school principal.” Those in the Roanoke County school system nurtured her and offered support. “I’ve had wonderful mentors along the way,” Flippen says.
Of the people in her life who offered her feedback and encouragement, she thanks, among others, former deputy superintendent for personnel Tom Hall, current superintendent Lorraine Lange, former Oak Grove Elementary principal Peggy Moles and former superintendent Linda Weber.
“The power of people helping people is so strong,” Flippen says. “That’s why I try to pay it forward. My success relies on so many people.”
Flippen says the decision to retire was something she weighed for a long time. But with the “influx of grandchildren” (she has four–two in Rocky Mount and two in Maryland–with twins on the way in Northern Virginia), “I want to be there and enjoy it. I love being a Mimi.”
She and Wayne also met goals in their lives like downsizing their home. That, coupled with the knowledge that her father passed away young and her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s, Flippen says she felt a need to be “flexible with her time.”
“It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” she says. “I’m at peace with it today, but I struggled with it for three years.”
“Some kids have been here for seven years, from pre-K through fifth grade,” Flippen says of the students at Oak Grove. “That’s what’s hardest for me. I love my teachers, the community, the parents, the children…” she trails off. “I love coming to work every day… . This has been a great run.”
After making the decision to retire, Flippen began to focus some attention on sorting out what her next adventure will be. First on her list is an 18-day trip to France to celebrate her and Wayne’s 20th anniversary. They leave Sept. 1.
“I love first days,” Flippen says. “The thought of not having a first day next year is hard. We planned the trip [to France] so I wouldn’t think about it as much.”
France is just one location to be added to the long list of places to which the Flippens have traveled. Other memorable trips include Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Peru, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
And there’s one other location that’s important to Flippen’s story, one she used to call home. She and her family immigrated from Havana, Cuba in 1961.
“As a child, I knew something was wrong in Cuba,” Flippen said. “In 1959, when I was five years old, I remember tanks coming through Havana when Castro took over. My mother had to stand up to a soldier who came to our home and questioned my parents’ political views.”
Saying goodbye to her dog, her toys and her family, Flippen, her parents and her two sisters left everything behind to get a fresh start in the U.S. The family faced the culture shock of leaving Cuba for Montgomery, WVa., but she recalls how willing they all were to become part of the community there. When they first arrived, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they “depended on their [the Montgomery residents'] generosity for beds, clothes and shoes,” Flippen says.
Flippen’s father became a doctor in Montgomery–he had been head of plastic surgery in Havana–and sometimes she would go on house calls to very rural areas with him. They met people who, as Flippen says, were doing they best they could.
“All of your life experiences help mold you,” Flippen says, and she believes those experiences in her life helped her to achieve her success as a teacher and, later, as a principal.
With her success achieved, she’s ready to “hand the torch to someone else”–namely, Kim Bradshaw, who will take over Flippen’s role as principal at Oak Grove beginning July 1.
As for Flippen, she’s looking forward to being able to focus on her hobbies and other interests, like her church, golfing, traveling, volunteering and, of course, her grandchildren. Even so, her passion will always be for education.
“Public schools are the last great equalizer in America,” she says. “It’s amazing what public schools can do.”