Dave Estabrook opened the doors to the sixth-grade hallway unsure of what he'd find.
Waiting on the other side were all of Rushe Middle School's sixth-graders, who burst into song for their retiring principal.
"Take me out to the ball game," the kids intoned for the baseball-loving principal, who heartily joined in. They deviated only when they got to the part about the home team.
"Root, root, root for Mr. Estabrook. That he should leave is a shame," they sang as he grinned.
But leave he will, having planned over five years for his retirement. And he's not alone.
Kathy Rushe also is ending more than three decades of service to the Pasco County school system this winter. Like Estabrook, Rushe remembers a Pasco County of more rural times, when the now heavily populated west side had more open fields that you got to along narrow roadways lined with cows, and the east side housed much of the action.
The school district was small but growing.
"Everybody knew everybody," recalled Rushe, sitting in her principal's office at Trinity Elementary School, which she opened in 2001. "It was a huge family, whether you were in Dade City or Land O'Lakes or New Port Richey."
It was a place that Rushe and Estabrook and a whole cast of others dedicated themselves to, for the good of the community and its children. Now the educators who joined the effort in the 1970s as eager 20-somethings are entering their 60s and deciding it's time to move on. Some already have left. Others have their departure dates firmly set.
Rushe held up a card she received from a parent, thanking her for her "leadership of our treasured school."
"That's what it is all about," she said, setting the card back onto her desk. "We have to find a way to reach into every home and make sure we're making a difference. Because if you don't make a difference, then you're not doing the job."
Estabrook took pride in creating a school culture that supported teachers and welcomed families while educating kids.
Assistant principal Ron Michalak noticed.
"Dave has the whole idea of family, and he's brought that in," said Michalak, who will help run Rushe Middle until a new principal is selected. "That's what he is going to leave — a big family. That will stay."
Neither Estabrook nor Rushe knew much about Pasco County before their arrivals.
Estabrook grew up in Delray Beach and attended the University of South Florida in Tampa, and applied for a job at Bayonet Point Junior High in 1975 on a lark. He was offered the counseling job the same day and took it.
Rushe had family living in Holiday, but she went to school in Virginia and worked there, moving to the area after a winter vacation with her husband, Chuck. She accepted a teaching job at Bayonet Point Junior High in 1974 and her husband joined the district's finance team.
They never left.
Instead, they moved up the chain of command, their lives becoming intertwined with the school district.
"We were committed to the Pasco County schools," said Rushe, whose husband ran in a heated race for superintendent in 2004. He died of lung cancer in 2006, and his name is on the school that Estabrook opened a year later.
Retired principal and district administrator Marti Meacher said Rushe's passion for making a difference was evident. That's why she recommended her for the principal pool.
"She is all about the kids," Meacher said. "Any time someone talks about what is best for kids and making a difference, that is a sign that this person is in it for the right reasons. Kathy is one of those people."
Both retiring principals have won respect for running successful schools, academically and socially. They're tough and firm, yet yielding when they need to be. And over time, they've seen all sorts of changes.
Estabrook remembers when reviewing student data meant looking at a teacher's grade book and assessing the curve. Computers hardly played a role. Small class sizes were a goal, not a constitutional right.
Rushe recalls an education system that Pasco leaders set up to meet individual needs, with an emphasis on continuous progress and aiming for the highest level of achievement possible.
She lamented the direction the state and federal governments have taken, saying they have pushed Pasco's aspirations and efforts aside. Testing has taken over, she said, just as it did when the United States was trying to beat the Russians in science.
"I am concerned about the loss of local control. That bothers me," she said. "But I've had a blast."
It's just time to go, said Rushe, 62. So she'll pack up her collection of bears and books, and head off to spend more time with family. Jan. 11 is her last day.
Except for "moving up day," she said, when the students get their principal's awards.
"I am going to be here," Rushe said. "A hundred and sixteen kids are moving on this year. Most all of them have been here since kindergarten. They have made me virtually sign my life away to be sure I will be here to do that."
Estabrook, 60, doesn't plan to stray far, either. He set his last day to coincide with the school's winter concert. And ever the arts fan, he gladly accepted the gift of a lifelong free pass to all Rushe Middle performances from the school's drama club during a Friday celebration of his career.
"I will see you April 1 and 2," he said, to loud applause.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.