How do you keep 500 kids ages 4 to 11 quiet? Tell them that their school principal is on the way to the cafeteria and they’re throwing her a surprise party.

Students at Greenlawn Terrace Elementary School in Kenner gave a big thanks last week to Katherine T. “Kitty” Croft, as she marked her third decade as principal there. “I was so surprised, I almost passed out,” she said of the party.

Fooling the veteran leader took a lot of planning. Much of the work seemed to happen while she was out of town at a conference for four days, Croft said. Then, on the big day last Wednesday, Croft was invited to lunch with a School Board member, a lunch that was mysteriously cut short. Stopping for gas on the way back, however, put her a bit behind schedule returning to school.

“The assistant principal called and said, ‘Where are you? I have a huge problem in the cafeteria,’ … I thought an electrical panel caught on fire. … There were cars (in the school lot), but I didn’t pay attention because they told me there was a parent meeting.”

The elaborate planning did the trick. The party brought out family, educators, kids and community members, with a program that included special performances from the students. “I’m never speechless — I’m always full of it. I was at a loss for words,” she said.

Croft’s secret to success and longevity is enjoying life after school, as well. She’s an avid traveler.

“I love school. There is no greater thing or greater reward than working with little kids,” she said.