Vickiy Van Beek has had plenty to distract her from remembering this was her last week as principal at Southgate Elementary School.
She worked with teachers to arrange field trips and a field day for students. She prepared for an awards assembly and signed attendance awards, making sure she had enough certificates and pins for the Kennewick school’s 17 winners of the President’s Award for Academic Excellence.
“You’ve got to pay extra for (the pin) but we go for it,” she said.
But Van Beek’s eyes watered Thursday when the retiring educator walked behind the school’s fifth-grade students during their final send-off through Southgate.
“It’s just such a great place to be,” she said, choking up, as her students began leaving for the summer.
Van Beek’s education career has come full circle since she started at Southgate 35 years ago. She’s worked in all three Tri-City school districts, as well as at the region’s educational service district and Washington State University Tri-Cities. She returned to Southgate in 2010 so she could finish her career around kids, she said.
Teachers, parents and students are glad she made that choice.
“I wish she’d been my principal,” said Melinda Adair, whose fifth-grade son will go on to middle school next year. “She’s so personable and so loving.”
Van Beek didn’t decide to become a teacher until moving to Wyoming with her husband after college and becoming a para-educator, she said. She earned her teaching certificate and became a first-grade teacher at Southgate, which had only been open a few years, in 1978 when she and her husband moved to the Tri-Cities.
Reading was a big focus in Van Beek’s classroom, she said. Her students had a theme and a reading goal each month — if the goal was met, students would get to stay after school for a treat or other reward.
In 1985, Van Beek became a reading specialist at Kennewick’s Washington Elementary School as she pursued her master’s degree. She decided to also go for her principal’s credentials. She went on to Educational Service District 123, where she worked in professional development, and then to WSU Tri-Cities to work with student teachers.
But she’d gone into education largely to be around kids, and her supervision of student teachers reminded her of that.
“I started spending more time in schools then and realized how much I missed it,” Van Beek said.
She returned to schools a decade ago. She worked as an administrator at Horse Heaven Hills Middle School in Kennewick, Chief Joseph Middle School in Richland and Edwin Markham Elementary School in Pasco. She then became an administrator in Pasco’s central office, helping the district open Chiawana High School.
As she neared retirement, Van Beek finally got her chance to be back around kids. Southgate needed a principal. Several people asked her to apply and she got the job.
During her first year back, the school operated in temporary quarters in the Kennewick School District’s Fruitland building as Southgate was renovated. The school has been back at its original location near 19th Avenue and Highway 395 since the 2011-12 school year.
Although she’s not in a classroom teaching, Van Beek has worked to impact each of her school’s students. Reading is still important to her. Her school’s first-graders read her books they’ve written. She gives students postcards at the end of each school year so they can update her on their summer reading.
Southgate fifth-grade teacher Steph McAfee became friends with Van Beek in the early 1980s. Their careers have taken different paths, but McAfee said her friend is still the dedicated and enthusiastic educator she met more than 30 years ago.
“As she walks through the building everyone wants to stop and hug her,” McAfee said.
A few parents said they’re sad to see Van Beek go, knowing their younger children not yet in school will not benefit from her attention. Carrin Rhoten said she bonded with the principal after going to her about one of her children being bullied, noting Van Beek quickly addressed the situation.
“I’m having a hard time (with her leaving),” Rhoten said. “She’s the best principal.”
Wandering the halls shortly before her students walk or ride their bikes home, Van Beek was stopped regularly by students wanting a hug or just to say goodbye. She advised a fifth-grader to avoid boys in middle school and told another student to watch out for his younger sister next year.
At one point third-graders Meredith Winiarski and Carlley Eissens came running up to her, begging her to sign their T-shirts. She obliged and they rushed back to their classroom to grab their backpacks and wait for the final bell.
“I’m really going to miss her,” 8-year-old Meredith said. “She was really supportive and nice.”
Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver