Jeanette Dixon talks with sophomore Robert White, left, and freshman Billoh Waritay during lunch. The principal at Paint Branch High School is retiring after being at the school for 12 years. (Dan Gross/THE GAZETTE)

Paint Branch High School Principal Jeanette Dixon recently announced her plans to retire after 12 years at the school.

She is proud of the legacy she leaves behind: “I think that I’ll be turning over to my successor a school that I’ve been able to move forward,” Dixon said. She plans to turn in her retirement papers May 30 and hopes a new principal will be in place by July.

Brian Eichenlaub, who is in charge of signature programs at Paint Branch, has worked alongside Dixon for 22 years. Students, he says, have always been her primary focus — and pushing them “to see what they’re capable of doing.”

Over the last 12 years, Eichenlaub said, Dixon has improved both the school’s academics and its physical space.

When she started the job, James Hubert Blake High School, in Silver Spring, had just been built, and Springbrook High School, also in Silver Spring, had just undergone renovations. Paint Branch was the county’s oldest high school building, with a student population spilling over into 10 portable classrooms.

Jeanette Dixon stands in front of Paint Branch High School’s new building, which she helped plan. The LEED-certified campus includes courtyards, a music wing and a 3,000-seat gym. Under Dixon’s leadership, the number of AP tests taken at the school rose from about 400 in 2001 to nearly 1,000 this year. (Dan Gross/THE GAZETTE)

The planning phase of designing a new building began under Dixon’s leadership in 2005; she and Eichenlaub were among those on the committee tasked with seeing the project through. The building, which opened this year, is LEED-certified, meaning it meets certain environmental standards. It has a choral and instrumental music wing, wider hallways, a 900-seat auditorium, a 3,000-seat gymnasium and courtyards.

The final phase of the project — the opening of the new sports fields where the older, smaller Paint Branch High School once stood — is slated to be completed this summer.

Dixon has also boosted the academic rigor at Paint Branch, increasing the number of Advanced Placement tests taken from about 400 in 2001 to nearly 1,000 this year. She started the school’s pharmacy program, radio station, academies of engineering and business, and the school’s National Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program.

In 2007, she established the Paint Branch Educational Foundation, which provides students with scholarships and gives special grants to staff members.

Renay Johnson, principal at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, said she met Dixon when Johnson worked as a counselor at White Oak Middle School. “She’s been quite a mentor to me,” Johnson said. “I really value and trust her opinion.”

Johnson said Dixon’s style was child-centered; she believes in getting students involved in the school community. Johnson also remembered Dixon giving out gold stars to staff members at the end of the school year.

“It really was an effective way of praising outstanding staff for their hard work and dedication,”Johnson said. “It was like the staff became the children.”

Her dedication has won her many accolades. Dixon received the award for outstanding principal in Montgomery County public schools by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2009; the educator of the year award from the Maryland Parent Teacher Association in 2011; and the Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award last year.

Dixon plans to stay involved in education after her retirement. She might write a memoir about growing up in Bermuda, and she has not ruled out running for public office.

Working with children, Dixon says, will always be her passion.