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Forest Grove Gets a Great Backup Singer


When she became a teacher, Rhonda Lopez, the new principal of Forest Grove Elementary, knew exactly the kind of student she wanted to reach in the classroom.

“I realized that I wanted to be a teacher to help students like I was. I was very shy. I probably was a little anxious. Even if I knew the right answer – and a lot of times I knew the right answer – I wouldn’t raise my hand in class. I really wanted the teacher to leave me alone and let me do what I needed to do.

“I wanted to be the teacher who helped those kids that didn’t always realize their full potential.

“In my classroom, I gave them opportunities to shine, but in a way that wasn’t scary. Through the year, you see those students blossom and grow.

“You want the kids to be happy when they come to your classroom and enjoy coming to school.”

Lopez said she never was one to seek the spotlight. “I always consider myself a backup singer. I didn’t have to be in the forefront.” (Lopez actually was a backup singer at one time, performing in a gospel group organized by her husband).

Being a good backup singer means providing harmony and support. Those are things Lopez said she’ll be providing at Forest Grove. (She succeeds Shontel Simon, who recently became an executive principal in the Office of Elementary Education.)

Lopez comes to Forest Grove after serving as assistant principal at nearby Guilford Elementary. She said being a part of the educational community in Sterling Park is special. “You really feel like you’re serving your community here. You are supporting – not only the kids academically – but the entire community. It’s more than just testing. You’re helping to provide so much more than that; whatever families need. It’s definitely what I call ‘heart work.’ I do love that. It’s exhausting sometimes. You have to go above and beyond what you would normally have to do.”

Lopez said she’s been very impressed by what she’s seen at Forest Grove.

“You’ve got phenomenal teachers. You can see their spirit in their instruction and working with kids. The kids are super sweet.” Even students who are having some difficulty will still talk to staff. “They’re very open. They want someone to listen and hear them.”

Lopez said Forest Grove is very much a community school. “It’s a beautiful place to come to in the morning.”

Coming into the principal’s role in November has its challenges, she added. “I want to learn. I love to learn. I don’t want to come into any place and think I know better than what they’ve already done and start to change things. I’m here to absorb, to listen and to identify the strengths that are already here. There are definitely some strong practices that are already going on. I don’t want to change those. I want to enhance what’s already here. Then, if there’s areas to be fixed, we’ll fix them together as a staff.   

“I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to serve and support this staff. I’m excited about what’s coming up. I want people to know that I’m approachable. I want them to know that I genuinely lead with my heart as well as my mind. I work with people. I am a collaborator. And I feel like I’m a really good listener.”

Lopez was a longtime teacher who was at first reluctant to seek an administrative career. She has served as a first grade teacher at Edlin School in Reston; as a fourth and sixth grade teacher at Faith Christian School in Sterling; as a fourth grade teacher at Potowmack Elementary; and as a fourth grade teacher and dean at Steuart Weller Elementary “I grew into this a little more over the years. Initially I thought I would always be a teacher, and I still am a teacher, just in a different capacity.  I could affect change in a different way.”

Lopez said she didn’t want to become an administrator until her children were older. The encouragement of her husband, Victor, and her father, James Cottom Sr., was the deciding factor in Lopez getting degrees in administration and seeking a principalship. “They always saw something more than I ever saw in myself.”

Lopez and her husband were high school sweethearts (they’ve known each other since 10th grade) and have been married almost 28 years. They have a son who is pursuing a graduate degree and a daughter who is a college freshman.

Victor Lopez operates a performing arts school, Lopez Studios, in Reston. “I say it’s his second wife. I share him.”





Published December 17, 2021