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A look back: Vera Risdon reflects on 47 years with the Renton School District
On July 1 the baton was passed from interim Renton School District Superintendent Vera Risdon to incoming Superintendent Merri Rieger. Although Risdon was only the chief of Renton schools for a year, she leaves her mark on the district, retiring after 47 years serving Renton schools.
Risdon witnessed great change in the city and the schools during her career with the district. An Eastern Washington native, she was lured to Renton straight out of Washington State University in 1966 and hired to teach sixth grade at McKnight Middle School.
Throughout the years, Risdon would rise through the ranks. She would become a principal, an assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and technology and a part-time associate superintendent for elementary education, before becoming interim superintendent last year. She taught at five Renton schools from 1966 to 1982 and served as principal at two elementary schools.
“You might think that because I’ve been here for 47 years, I really don’t know because I haven’t been anywhere else,” she said. “But, I have. As a consultant, I’ve worked in districts as far south as Auburn and as west as Vashon and north as Everett and Renton is special. It just is. It’s sized right to have the amenities of a big city, but it has the attributes of a small, close-knit town.”
Risdon has observed the school district and community in times of growth, social turmoil and population decline. She was teaching at a time when there were no resources or support staff for teachers like counselors or assistant principals and no special education classes until 1976. She would look at the IQ tests of her students back then and see a range from genius to what was called mentally retarded in those days.
During her first years at Hazelwood Elementary school, she had the gifted kids mixed in with the kids who had challenges to overcome.
Risdon also watched the demographics of Renton change, as racial and cultural differences took center stage during her 10 years at Campbell Hill Elementary, from 1969-1979.
“(Those were) great years, really interesting years,” she said. “Years during which social justice and civil strife were in the headlines everyday and where the demographics of that area were beginning to shift. It was a real period of growth and I enjoyed being there very much.”
When Risdon first got to Campbell Hill, the students were primarily Caucasian and Asian, with a fair representation of Native American students and a small number of African Americans, she said.
The number of African Americans increased, as there was a migration from Seattle, down Rainier into the Skyway area, Risdon said.
“It was unfamiliar territory for them and for us as teachers,” Risdon said of the African Americans in the area. “And because of the social context in the country at the time, it was easy for people to be angry with one another. So we had to learn ways to work together and to collaborate in the interest of the students we served.”
She survived and even thrived in challenging times. In the early ‘70s Boeing had massive layoffs and as a result the student population in Renton dropped from some 1,600 to 1,100, Risdon said. By the mid-1990s, schools were being combined, with students and staff from Lakeridge and Bryn Mawr Elementary schools moving into Dimmitt Middle School. Cascade Elementary moved in with Honey Dew Elementary.
As assistant superintendent at the time, Risdon worked with funds from the district’s first passed bond measure to remodel schools and outfit the district with new technology. Phones showed up in every teacher’s classroom for the first time and computers too.
“Those were major, major projects that were on my plate as well as being in charge of all of the curriculum instruction and assessment and being the chief academic officer to the elementary schools from 1992 to 2000.
Risdon tired to retire from the district several times, but kept being asked back by colleagues. If you ask her about the secret of her success over the years, she will tell you that she’s been very fortunate, welcomed and supported by other people.
“People work together in special ways and the school district has a very special relationship with the community and that goes back to Gary Kohlwes,” Risdon said. “I think he was superintendent for 23 years, which is unheard of these days.”
Risdon describes the school board of the early 1990s as “a fractured group at odds with the superintendent and with each other… to the degree that Gary Kohlwes actually sued them and won.”
That development changed the culture of the school district, giving the superintendent the right to manage the school system and reaffirmed the school board’s role in setting policy. In the years since Kohlwes, Superintendents Dolores Gibbons and Mary Alice Heuschel built on Kohlwes’s legacy, Risdon said.
She calls them all “remarkable people.”
“I think that I try hard to model treating people with respect and giving them the room to be themselves and encouraging and supporting their efforts to become more,” she said. “That’s the heart; the technology side is being a person who thinks strategically about processes and systems that support the work I just described.”
Risdon said that over time she’s developed a knack for putting the right people together to creatively generate solutions to problems.
Now she plans to travel starting this month to Scandinavia, next March to the South Pacific and a year from September she’ll be in Spain and Portugal.
A lifelong musician, Risdon is excited to focus more attention on playing her oboe. She plays in an orchestra, a Renton community band and a quintet.
When asked what’s next and if she’ll really retire, Risdon said,”I don’t know quite yet.”
“I know I’m not done learning, that’s for sure,” she said. “I’m not done growing.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Vera Risdon began her career in the Renton School District in 1966.