On the final day of Shirley Biagetti’s 28 years at Douglass School, the attendance secretary was bombarded with symbols of the students’ and her colleagues’ appreciation. Greeting cards and baked goods flooded her desk and a sea of purple balloons—her favorite color—bobbed above her head toward the ceiling of the school’s front office.
“You have so many presents, we can hardly see you,” Principal John “Jack” Robinson said as he made his way through the office.
Douglass School, which houses Loudoun’s alternative education programs, is losing two longtime staff members this year. Biagetti retired Dec. 18, and Robinson will retire Jan. 29.
Robinson, who’s led the school for 16 years, said on his last day he hopes to go out quietly. No balloons. No pomp or circumstance.
“That’s not me,” he said. “Just tell me you liked my work and I made a difference. I get uncomfortable with much more.”
Robinson, a soft-spoken 70-year-old, has helped transform how the county educates its at-risk teens. His efforts to change Douglass School from a program meant to punish disruptive students to a place hundreds of young people request to attend each year are being recognized this month as he ends his 49th year in education. His work made headlines in 2005 when he received the Washington Post’s Distinguished Educational Leadership Award.
Curtis Hose, who has served as Douglass School’s dean since 2000, said it takes a special kind of person to work with the teenagers who, in many cases, other county schools have rejected.
“A lot of these students are kids who fell through the cracks, but they find a community here who cares about them and the help they need to succeed,” Hose said. “That is attributable to him.”
He says, “Douglass School is simply Dr. Robinson.”
An Accidental Career
It was a bit of a fluke that landed Robinson in a classroom 49 years ago.
As a 22-year-old on his final trimester at Columbia Union College, he was set to attend law school at the College of William and Mary. But he was then notified that he would be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War if he didn’t take one of Virginia’s many vacant teaching positions.
“I thought, well, I guess I’ll teach,’” he said with a laugh. “I’d picked up a teaching degree as a secondary degree, so that worked out.”
Teachers were so needed that two days after he accepted his diploma Robinson was in front of a classroom of students at Middleburg Elementary School.
After the draft was lifted, he was again accepted into the law program at William and Mary. “I really liked what I was doing, so I turned down the offer again,” he said. “I’ve never regretted that decision.”
Robinson became one of the county’s youngest principals when he was hired in 1969 to lead Aldie Elementary School. He was 23. “I had only taught a year and a half at that point,” he said.
That year, Superintendent Clarence Bussinger hired four principals under the age of 30, including Robinson, Gordon “Buddy” Fletcher, Roger Bixler and Pete Whitmore. “It was a wave of young blood,” Robinson said. “He saw something in us.”
In his first few years as principal, he started the school division’s first breakfast program at Aldie Elementary, which Robinson said became his “claim to fame.” He began it after he noticed that dozens of the school’s 150-plus students came from poor farming families and qualified for federally subsidized lunches.
He crunched the numbers—figured in federal subsidies plus full-priced meals that students from higher-income families would buy—and thought the school might be able to serve a hot breakfast each morning and break even by the end of the year. “I made the menus, bought the food and ran the cafeteria,” he said. “It was a lot of work, but I did it because I knew some of these kids needed it.”
Now, every one of the county’s public schools serve breakfast every school day.
Throughout his career, Robinson has been drawn to those students who need extra support and encouragement. “I’ve always liked serving with diverse, and different, populations. That’s who I’ve spent my life working with,” he said.
After Robinson taught in Loudoun County Public Schools for five years, he transferred to the school system in Montgomery County, MD, where he worked for 29 years. He served as a special education resource teacher, assistant director of the secondary learning centers, principal at McKenny Hills Learning Center, an elementary special education school, and finally as principal of Mark Twain School, a middle high school for at-risk students.
In 2000, a friend told him about the open principal position at Douglass School. “I wasn’t looking for another job,” he said. “But I knew about Douglass, and I was intrigued.”
Robinson, who grew up in Loudoun, took the job and said he only planned to stay for about five years before retiring. “It turned out to be 16,” he said with a grin.
Douglass School started as a facility to house disruptive teens that other schools did not want or did not have the resources to deal with. Now, most of the school’s students, between 160 and 200, attend its voluntary Alternative Education Program.
“Douglass changed from students who’d been acting out to more of a drop-out prevention program for under-performing students,” Robinson said. “Those kids who aren’t going to function well in a typical school, but find they can succeed in a smaller and more alterative environment.”
The school boasts one of the highest graduation rates in the county, with 96-98 percent of its seniors graduating on time. That usually equates to one or two students not meeting graduation requirements in a senior class of about 60.
Hose said Robinson has a calm demeanor that students whose lives outside of the classroom are less than stable respond to. He never loses his temper. He accepts students for who they are, sets high expectations and helps them reach them, Hose added. “You won’t find too many students who would have anything bad to say about him.”
Robinson said he’s looking forward to spending time with his two grandkids, and skipping the hour-plus commute he has from Gaithersburg, MD. But a big part of him wishes he could stay.
He started to set in motion the retirement process last year, but said he just didn’t feel ready. “And, quite frankly, I was very hesitant to turn my paperwork in this time, too.”
But in a recent interview, Robinson said he feels like it is time to say farewell to Douglass and let someone new lead it into its next chapter.
“Douglass was here before I came and it will be here after I’m gone. I just wanted to be a good steward of it while I was here,” he said.
“I’ve loved working with kids,” he added. “I like feeling like I have something to contribute, that concept of I can make a difference. That’s been my goal the whole time.”
Douglass School is expected to undergo a major expansion in the coming years, and the man or woman who will lead it through that transition has yet to be named. The alternative school is slated to move to the current C.S. Monroe Technology Center building on Children’s Center Road in Leesburg. That program will relocate to the new Academies of Loudoun in 2018.