For the past 20 years, Laurie Crissman has led Apex Elementary School with Belinda Pratt at her side as assistant principal, a team that balances each other perfectly.
“We complement each other very well,” Pratt said. “She’s a morning person and I’m a later-in-the-day person.”
“She’s calm,” Crissman adds. “And I’ve never been calm in my life. I don’t have a calm bone in my body.”
But after two decades of leading the school, both Crissman and Pratt are stepping down.
Crissman retired last week, just in time for the birth of her granddaughter. Pratt is sticking around until September to make sure the transition goes smoothly.
Their departures will leave a void at the school, where their influence is felt in every classroom, with every student and with every staff member.
Crissman personally hired all but two school employees. And once hired, people don’t tend to leave. Many of the teachers, and the entire front office staff, have been there nearly the entire time Crissman has.
Both Crissman and Pratt have more than 30 years in education, with most spent at Apex Elementary.
Crissman had been a teacher, and later assistant principal, at Cary High School. But she always wanted to work with younger children.
She came to Apex Elementary as assistant principal in 1992 and has been principal since 1996.
Pratt started out in New Mexico but has worked at Apex Elementary as a teacher, teaching assistant and substitute since 1989, and has been assistant principal since 1995.
The two colleagues are also good friends because of – or perhaps in spite of – two decades of working together.
They finish each other’s sentences and have neighboring condos at the beach.
And knowing they’ll miss each other, they’re already planning a joint family vacation to Disney World.
But in the meantime, Pratt still has lunch duty, parent conferences, staff meetings and children to take care of.
Focus on positivity
On the Friday before Valentine’s Day, a kindergartner shuffled into Crissman’s office, encouraged by his teacher. He gave Crissman candy and a hug, and wished her happy Valentine’s Day.
She thanked him effusively and wished him a happy Valentine’s Day as well. After the boy left, Crissman explained he has struggled behaviorally.
“Most kids just basically want to be recognized,” she said. “That’s the big thing.”
Wake County schools has a program called Positive Behavior Interventions and Support, aimed at helping antisocial children through techniques other than punishing their behavior. In Crissman’s early days, she said, Apex Elementary was one of the first to adopt the system.
It’s still in use informally, such as with the kindergartner at Valentine’s Day, and with formal interventions. It even continues after school with a dose of silliness.
While students wait to get picked up, Crissman leads them in a positivity-themed rap. In addition to honing her own emcee skills, it enforces good behavior while not giving the students any chance to act out.
Pratt added that such efforts are worth exponentially more the earlier they’re done, which is why the school focuses on making its kindergartners and first-graders into empathetic, respectful children.
Donna Pritchett, a first-grade teaching assistant, vouched for that. She has been at Apex Elementary for 19 years, having followed Crissman from Cary High. As both a parent and an employee, Pritchett said, she’s thankful for Crissman.
“I had a problem child myself,” Pritchett said. “And she was so great with him. Now he’s 29 and about to have a child of his own.”
A philosophy of caring
Hundreds of parent volunteers and outsiders aid the school’s mission. Crissman is active in local civic clubs, raising money to help low-income families pay for field trips.
She also invites several dozen men to come by every October and spend time with some of the young male students, sharing doughnuts and offering them attention.
Crissman remembers a student a few years ago whom she had never seen smile, and had never had an adult come to school for him.
But that October day, Crissman saw him smiling and asked why.
“My dude walked me to class,” he told her.
“It’s all about making sure no child feels like a second-class citizen,” Crissman said.
Crissman and Pratt learn the names of every child, greeting them in the mornings as soon as they step off a bus or out of a car.
Some current students are the children of students Crissman and Pratt remember greeting in the mornings many years ago. They can each rattle off the names of several such families.
They even hired two former students – sisters Heather Reagan and Emily Stangler – as teachers, building on the familial atmosphere at the school.
And fourth-grade teacher Jackie Lee graduated from the school, back when Apex Elementary was Apex Consolidated School.
Before integration, all black children in the area from first through 12th grades went there. Lee graduated in 1969 and went on to a 31-year career in teaching.
Like Crissman, Lee retired Friday. She said Crissman made school a better place for both teachers and students, by giving them independence and confidence.
“She’s amazing,” Lee said. “Not a micro-manager. She lets you try things and see if they work.”
Pratt and Crissman passed that on, mentoring a half dozen future principals and assistant principals themselves.
But it’s not the mentoring nor the meetings they said they will miss the most. It’s the students.
Pratt said she might come back as a volunteer, even to reshelve books in the library, just to stay around the students.
And Crissman said she might volunteer around the county as an interim principal – just like Bob Umstead, another retired principal who will replace her for the rest of this school year. She simply needs that fix.
“I’m going to miss that sheer excitement of school life,” Crissman said. “That excitement and energy every day as they get out of the cars and buses.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran
A world of change
Crissman and Pratt have seen massive changes in more than two decades at Apex Elementary.
When they first came to the school, lunches were 80 cents “and Perry Farms actually grew tobacco instead of houses,” Crissman said, referring to what’s now a subdivision just down the street.
In the summer months, Pratt would walk into classrooms with a handheld thermometer and declare an early release day if it was too warm. The school had no air-conditioning.
Back then, its 1,100 students were also spread out in a half-dozen different buildings. The school’s population moved to the Holly Ridge Elementary School campus in the 2002-03 school year while Apex Elementary was torn down and rebuilt.
Now it serves about 700 students a year and has seen its base shrink drastically. When Crissman became principal in 1996, it was the only elementary school in Apex and Holly Springs. Five new schools have been built since then to keep up with growth in the area. A sixth, Scott’s Ridge, is set to open in the fall.
They’ve also seen changes in the work schools and students do. Crissman said she dislikes the focus on standardized testing. But she also said the increased rigor throughout the years has been welcome.
“When I first came here, we were not supposed to teach reading in kindergarten, except to the few kids who could already read,” she said. “Now it’s so much more rigorous.”