Retiring Piñon Elementary School Principal Janis Devoti leaves big shoes to fill.

Her career offers proof that when it comes to educating children, the right principal can make the difference.

Piñon, located just south of Rodeo Road, is not an affluent school. And it is not the small school so prized by Santa Fe parents in search of the perfect place. In many ways, it is typical of a public school in Santa Fe and a lot of other places in this country: a diverse campus with people from all walks of life, a place where students have been known to speak more than 15 languages and a school that remains at about 500 students in enrollment no matter how many new south-side schools open.

None of the hurdles mattered to Devoti, who set standards of excellence and helped her teachers and students reach them — together. In large part because of the school’s ability to close the achievement gap between affluent and less affluent children, it was named a Department of Education National Blue Ribbon School last year.

That’s in no small part because of Devoti’s leadership. For almost three decades, she and her team proved to skeptics that a large and diverse student body wasn’t a recipe for failure.

Her example offers lessons that can create success at other schools.

The average principal remains at a school for about four years in the Santa Fe Public Schools. Devoti has 49 years as a teacher, instructional coach and principal — but nearly three decades were spent leading one school. She had hoped to make it to 50 years in education but chose to leave a year early to care for her father.

Devoti always had her priorities straight. In the article about her being named principal in 1992, she said, “I wouldn’t have applied anyplace else but Piñon.”

In looking at her record of success, it’s easy to see consistency and stability provide leadership that teachers, students and parents can count on. She was the principal who would stop to help a kindergartner form letters, or who cleaned school bathrooms when the janitor was out. She was known to shovel snow if necessary or direct traffic.

To be certain, she’s not the only principal in Santa Fe to perform such tasks, but coupled with her longevity, her work always brought a special light to Piñon. She kept the focus on the classroom, keeping a pledge when she became principal: “I’m hoping my 21 years as a teacher will help me. I’m hoping the experience will always remain fresh in my memory.”

Like a good leader should, Devoti has a colleague ready to step up. Assistant Principal Danielle Aagaard-Sais is taking over come July, just another one of a number of Santa Fe public schools principals mentored by Devoti.

Even as she steps down, Devoti’s presence will remain at Piñon — in the adults she mentored, the children she cherished and the staff members who love her. They had roses waiting at her home shortly after she announced her retirement. She is a boss who is respected, but also loved.

Through her example, Devoti demonstrated the Piñon Eagles were a family — one that shared respect, laughter, apologies, encouragement and second chances. The school works because everyone — from the principal to the smallest kindergartner — was in it together.

That’s the biggest lesson for other schools. Education is a team effort. And Janis Devoti happened to be one heck of a captain.

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