WE GRADUATED. IN 2015. FROM PRE-SCHOOL – Kim (left) and Joey Williams made graduation caps in Jennifer Mortenson’s preschool class on the Swinomish Reservation five years ago. They remembered that momentous day and surprised Mortenson, giving her their caps Friday. Mortenson had a place of honor in the traffic circle with other retiring elementary school teachers. She has taken on a number of positions in the school district since she started in 1985. For her, school is out forever. – Photo by Ken Stern
The school year at La Conner Elementary ended Friday where it had begun in September – with a special event in the shadow of the campus totem pole.
But much was different than it had been nine months ago.
The COVID-19 pandemic made for a modified and motorized send-off to mark the final day of school with those attending donning masks and practicing social distancing during the two-hour afternoon event.
The La Conner Elementary Drive-By Goodbye and Retirement Celebration allowed all involved to come full circle to where they had gathered at the start of the school year. Then they witnessed re-installation of the school’s landmark totem pole, which had been refurbished by a team led by master carver Kevin Paul over the 2019 summer.
“That seems like such a long time ago,” first-year La Conner Elementary Principal Heather Fakkema told the Weekly News. “I feel like I’ve gained three years of experience.”
The school closed in March to help curb spread of the coronavirus. Teachers and staff have provided on-line instruction and take-home assignments since then.
It has required much planning and the use of new and different teaching strategies. All occurred without benefit of the classroom relationships upon which the foundation of so much learning is built.
“We needed to do this,” teacher Judy Zimmerman said of the year-end celebration. “I’ve really missed my students.”
Fakkema credited teacher Megan Lee and para-professionals Heidi Palmgren and Naomi Williams with crafting plans to make it happen.
“They put it all together,” Fakkema said. “Everybody felt we needed closure. Plus, we have some people retiring who are real institutions here and we needed some way to honor them.”
Those retirees, who staked out spots on a makeshift “Retirement Island” near the base of the totem pole, were teacher Jenny Mortenson, secretary Ann Van Pelt, nurse Maggie Woodard and custodian Ken Allen.
All will be difficult to replace under the best of circumstances. But just what those circumstances will be this fall remains unclear given the fluid nature of COVID-19.
Teacher Becky Swanson said much of her summer will be spent furthering her training in technology, should in-person instruction be limited next year due to the virus.
“I have to learn more new stuff,” she told a parent driving a carload of students around the school parking lot. “The good thing is I can do it on my time. There won’t be any strict deadlines.”
Summer will be more restful for the retirees. Fakkema said all four were gifted by the Swinomish Tribal Community with ceremonial blankets in honor of their service to La Conner Schools.
In Mortenson’s case, that extends back to the 1980s.
“She has pretty much taught everything,” said Fakkema, “starting with pre-school.”
Zimmerman lauded Van Pelt for being able to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously in the school office.
“She can pretty much do everything,” Zimmerman said of Van Pelt. “She will be very hard to replace.”
Woodard has split her time providing school nursing services at La Conner and Conway.
Allen, a La Conner High alum, spent most of his school career in food services after having worked as a cook at local restaurants. He shifted to custodial work two years ago. He plans to pursue favorite hobbies and pastimes in retirement.
All who circled the school parking lot rolled down windows to bid goodbyes to the staff and retirees. Some made more than one lap.
In return, parents and students were greeted with upbeat summertime music, a cascade of bubbles and no shortage of well wishes. It was hard to tell if there were more bubbles, honks, waves, cheers or smiles – but only a few tears.
“Have a happy summer,” teacher Katie Wigal repeatedly said to families as they motored around the parking lot.
Fakkema praised her faculty for how well it persevered through the COVID-19 threat and continued to deliver meaningful lessons despite the school shutdown. All of which made Friday’s celebration possible.
“I’m proud of how our teachers pushed through everything,” she said. “They had to re-design the whole school system with little forewarning. Everybody rose to the occasion.”