Photo by Nanci Hutson.
Originally Published: May 27, 2016 6 a.m.
CHINO VALLEY – Del Rio Elementary Principal Susan Clark is known by a number of alliterative accolades: “educator extraordinaire, caring counselor, lovable leader, passionate principal.”
Those words are part of her 2015-16 Heritage Middle School Hall of Fame honor – Clark was hired to Chino Valley district as a fifth-grade teacher when Heritage Middle School opened in 1993.
In her years in the district before she became an administrator, Clark taught upper elementary and middle school grades, math and reading, even physical education. She led curriculum and other district committees. She said she never considered administration until she took a course with one of her district mentors in school finance, and caught the bug as she amassed courses toward a master’s degree.
“I started thinking that maybe this would be the next step,” said Clark, a Yavapai Teacher of the Year middle school category winner.
On May 24, Clark retired from her second elementary principal job, departing a district she counts as a second family and a job she embraced even before she was hired to the position in the 2007-08 school year. She spent the two prior years as principal of Miller Valley Elementary School in Prescott.
“I’m so lucky,” said Clark, 62, a University of Vermont and Northern Arizona University graduate who earned her undergraduate in education and two master’s degrees, including one in educational leadership. “I have the job of my dreams.”
Her office is anything but austere; the ambience resembles a playroom/library with a rocking chair, shelves of stuffed animals and books, homemade student artwork and lots of collectibles – her favorites are flying pigs. She said she never wanted any child to fear a trip to her office. She said she can be a disciplinarian when the need arises, yet she much prefers the role of encourager, example-setter and vision leader, both with the students and the staff.
“My staff loves me, and I love them,” Clark said, a scrapbook gift her staff prepared attesting to their affection and admiration. “I have no problem being the boss, but I’m also personally connected to the staff … I feel I’m the steward.”
Clark expects she will shed more than a few tears when she disassembles it for her successor Carolyn Reeder, assistant principal at Heritage Middle who prior to that post was principal at the early elementary Territorial School that next year will house pre-school, kindergarten and first grades.
Clark said the timing of her retirement seemed right, both professionally and personally.
Del Rio is part of a district restructuring plan that will eventually lead it to return to its roots as a third to fifth-grade intermediate elementary school. At this time, the school houses 730 students between first and fourth grade. Next year, it will become a second through fifth-grade school.
As part of the administrative team that has been integral to the school restructuring plan, Clark said she was confident with the direction of the school and the district, and felt comfortable that her departure would not impede those efforts but rather enable a smooth transition into the new leadership.
On a personal side, her husband and one-time high school sweetheart, Greg, is a self-employed classic car aficionado who travels frequently to car shows across the country, and she looks forward to now being able to accompany him on those trips. The couple, too, are invested in some house renovation projects, and they welcome the chance to spend more time with their children, Ben and Julie. Clark said she loves to do woodworking, gardening and sewing.
“I look forward to getting up every morning and doing what I darn well please,” Clark said.
So as not to become too melancholy once the 2016-17 school year begins again in August, Clark opted to plan a reunion vacation with her siblings at Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks.
“That’s where I’ll be on the first day of school; looking over that peaceful lake,” Clark said.
Of course, Clark will always treasure memories of how in her 25 years she impacted another life.
One of her favorite stories is of a former math student who at the end of the year wrote that Clark was the first math teacher that didn’t make her feel “stupid.” She later went on to college where she was studying to be a nurse.
“I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” Clark said.
From a family of educators, Clark said the beauty of this profession is how it can shape lives.
As a teacher, Clark was able to impact individual students; as a principal she was able to set a tone and vision to benefit hundreds of students.
Her success in that mission can be measured best by those who worked closely with her every day.
From entries in the scrapbook:
“You are so loved and respected. You stand by your employees, and truly care for each and every one of us,” penned first-year teacher Shawna Atwood.
“The example you set for your staff is inspiring. Your years in the classroom have made you a great principal,” wrote third-grade teacher Paula Wenz.
Dean of Students Laura Hunter shared a litany of things Clark did to enhance her job and life, but mostly how she “believed in me when I did not believe in myself, forever changing my life.”
The title of the book Clark calls a “treasure” speaks to what all wish as she begins the next phase of life.
“Be Filled With Joy.”