Vera Risdon: The name behind the school, the voice behind the music

The longtime Renton educator is hosting an instrument drive for the upcoming Risdon Middle School.

For Vera Risdon, who served as an educator at Renton School District for nearly 50 years, the mission is simple — stock the music shelves with as many instruments as possible.

As construction of the new middle school hits the final stages, Risdon — the namesake of the school — has partnered with Friends of Renton Schools for an instrument drive.

“(The drive) is inspired in part by the fact that music is my passion and vocation, and has been for a lifetime,” said Risdon. “Although there is district funding for musical instruments that comes with the school, it is not sufficient to provide for all the students might want. The combination of those two factors led us to collaborate to make this happen.”

Risdon’s passion to stock the music shelves dates back to her middle school days.

“When I got to middle school, I wanted to be in band but my mother didn’t have the means to purchase other instruments,” she said. “I went to the band director and he had on the shelf an oboe. That was my choice and that’s my primary instrument today. If I hadn’t been there, I probably wouldn’t have pursued this.”

Her identity as an educator is so closely tied with her identity as a musician, Risdon said her musical roots directly influenced her teaching practices.

“From my earliest experience learning piano and teaching piano when I was in high school, and teaching oboe later, my model for teaching was a performance one,” she said. “Now we talk about performance-based education, making sure kids are engaged, and making sure kids are not just receptacles into which we just pour knowledge. There’s a response, there’s an engagement and a going beyond that. That is how music and other performance arts work.”

According to Pam Teal, Friends of Renton Schools chair and RSD board member, the partnership is “wonderful” since music education is a priority to the foundation.

“There’s multiple studies about the connection, the importance of music. It’s another language kids get to learn. The most important aspect is that it keeps kids engaged in school,” Teal said. “Friends of Renton Schools wants to empower kids to be engaged and stay focused. This is just a great partnership.”

Currently, the drive is looking for a snare drum, nine violas, 22 violins, 10 clarinets, 10 trumpets, 10 flutes, six cellos, two french horns, two tubas and one bassoon. They have raised close to $25,000, and are hoping to collect as many instruments as they possibly can before the start of the school year.

The history behind the namesake

Risdon’s career in RSD began in 1966, right after she graduated from Washington State University. She started as a teacher at Hazelwood Elementary, which was once on the same ground the Risdon Middle School is currently being build on.

She taught at five Renton Schools, and served as principal at Highlands and Hazelwood Elementary schools. She then made her way to the district office where she served as assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and technology in 1992, and later as interim superintendent.

When her name was tossed into the mix of potential middle school names, and unanimously voted on by the school board (who ignored her request to have her name taken out), Risdon said she was in “complete amazement” to hear the school would bear her name.

“(My name) is already part of the lexicon,” she said. “People refer to the Risdon. It’s already divorced from the person I am and the work I did, except for the people who know me.”

Teal said when the school’s logo was first shown to Risdon, she asked if her name could be smaller. Her request was, again, denied.

While obviously humbled and in awe by the district’s gesture to immortalize her name, Risdon said she hopes a certain aspect of her legacy lives on with the school.

“I am hoping that in some fashion the instruments and the effort behind (the drive), the generous spirit that led Friends of Schools Renton and the people who contributed so far by making their donations and having this impact on kids, will imbue the school with that spirit.”


For more information about the drive or to donate, visit http://www.friendsofrentonschools.org/risdon-music-fund.html

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