Mrs Virginia Cheng hit the ground running and started planning for an integrated programme (IP) when she took over as principal of National Junior College (NJC) in December 2001.
In 12 years, she transformed Singapore's first junior college, which now takes in students from Secondary 1 and has a boarding programme for all students.
The 64-year-old retires at the end of this year and will be succeeded by Mr Ang Pow Chew, a deputy director at the Education Ministry's curriculum planning and development division, and former principal of Victoria School.
Mrs Cheng told The Sunday Times that being the first government JC to offer the IP in 2004 meant that she had to introduce "a programme that would open doors to all students".
"My student intake comes from at least 70 schools. This is where the students will have a fresh start. I have to provide them with opportunities, no matter where they come from," she said.
The first batch of IP schools included the Raffles and Hwa Chong family of schools, and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent).
While Raffles and Hwa Chong JCs collaborated with secondary schools, NJC chose to run its own programme, by taking in students at Secondary 3 initially.
"We were not sure if we could handle younger students who have different needs. My teachers were used to older students. I had to recruit from everywhere and interview every teacher to make sure they were innovative and flexible," she said.
Several years later, in 2009, NJC started taking in students from Secondary 1, making for a six-year programme all the way to the A levels.
"From a professional point of view, four years from Sec 3 were not enough to do what we wanted to do. We wanted to give more space for the children to enjoy learning," she said.
Starting at Secondary 1 also gave the school more time to mould character.
The boarding programme introduced in 2009 requires students to stay on campus for six to eight weeks from Monday to Friday.
This allows them to take aesthetic courses like music, drama and dance classes in the evenings, get involved in character development programmes like community gardening and take leadership modules.
Students pay a separate fee for the boarding programme, but NJC's school fees remained affordable - $25 a month for secondary school and $33 for JC, or about one-tenth that at independent IP schools.
Going the IP route was necessary to give university-bound students space to explore other forms of learning, said Mrs Cheng.
"Students now are exposed to a lot of information. We try to make changes to better fit the learning of our students. We have to make sure the education system produces better people to serve in our country," she said.
Innovations in NJC would often be followed by a sharing with other schools.
"All along, we pioneered, then we shared. Other principals would say, 'You try first then tell us'. So we did that," she said.
Believing that everyone should have equal opportunities for leadership, Mrs Cheng herself gave leadership lectures for all students at least once a term. "I teach every level. I make time," she said.
She has also developed her teachers.
Former NJC teacher June Wong, 55, a master teacher in biology with the Academy of Singapore Teachers, said she appreciated Mrs Cheng's advice on her career options.
"She groomed teachers, and when they became high-potential, released them to do other things even if it came at a cost to the school," she said.
Mrs Cheng said her most satisfying moments have come when her students are acknowledged by others after they leave NJC.
"It's the character of my students I'm proudest of, not the programmes," she said.
Having seen seven batches of IP students graduate, she said: "I'm most happy when they come back and tell us they are doing well."
After a 40-year career in education, going from teacher to principal to cluster superintendent, Mrs Cheng said now is the right time to leave.
She plans to take art and music classes, read stories to children at the library, learn German, be a docent at the museum, play golf with her husband, who is a semi-retired businessman, and spend more time with her son, daughter and two grandsons.
"I wanted to stay for the first six-year batch to reach at least JC level. Now that batch is in JC1, I thought okay, I've done my duty," she said.
Citing the NJC motto, she added: "I can proudly say, Service With Honour."