As students streamed out of Paterson School heading for waiting buses for their last ride home of the school year, Peggy Douglas stood waiting as always.
The Paterson School District superintendent wished her 117 schoolchildren a happy summer, offering pats and hugs. She spoke encouraging words to eighth-graders headed to Prosser High School next fall and to younger students moving up a grade at the rural school surrounded by sagebrush and farmland in Southwest Benton County.
"(Being with kids) is the fun part of my job," she said.
But that job is coming to an end. Douglas, 63, is retiring after working for the district since 1991 and spending 14 years as its top administrator.
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Staff and students said it will be hard not to see Douglas at school each day.
"She makes things happen," said Monica Burnett, one of Paterson's middle school teachers who will be the school's first assistant principal next year.
Douglas has a teaching degree but most of her career was spent outside the classroom. She worked several years in the Prosser School District business office before becoming Prosser Superintendent Ray Tolcacher's executive assistant.
"I learned an awful lot working with Ray," Douglas said. "I really picked his brain."
She became Paterson School District business manager in 1991, covering the duties in the evenings while still holding her job in Prosser.
But as the workload in both offices continued to build, she approached then-Paterson Superintendent Bob Stoddard about resigning. But Stoddard, also a teacher and custodian at the school, was stepping down and Douglas decided to apply.
In July 2000, she was named Paterson's first full-time district administrator.
"Utmost in my mind was whether I could make a positive difference in Paterson," Douglas said. "I knew things could get better and I wanted to be part of that."
The school primarily serves families working at seven corporate farms in the region between Prosser and the Columbia River and from Alderdale to Plymouth. Nine of 10 students are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals and more than half are English language learners.
Under Douglas' leadership, Paterson added seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms to the district's curriculum in 2001 and added a free preschool. She proposed a bond to double the size of the school, and district voters approved it in 2004.
The district previously didn't pursue grants but now receives $300,000 to $400,000 a year from them. Douglas also pushed to have all students receive free breakfasts and lunches but also required school uniforms -- colorful polo shirts.
The school has done well in reading across several grades since the 2005-06 year, but math and science scores were often below 45 percent passing.
By the 2012-13 school year, no grade was below 50 percent passing in math, with a 76.5 percent passing rate among sixth-graders.
Half of the school's eighth-graders are now passing state science tests. The school was recognized this year by the state for its high academic progress.
"All the things she's done up there absolutely set it up to make kids better (at Prosser High)," Tolcacher said.
Burnett said Douglas always has been supportive of teachers, including when Burnett wanted to bring in a pre-Advanced Placement language arts program but had to fight the program's provider to send materials to such a small school.
"She's really good about finding opportunities," Burnett said.
Not all of Douglas' objectives have been easy. Years ago she received permission from state education officials to modify the district's calendar. Paterson students now have longer school days but only attend four days a week, Monday through Thursday.
The move was to increase instruction time while reducing absences -- many of the school's Hispanic students would be gone Fridays because their parents needed to run errands after getting paid and their children translated for them, Douglas said.
State lawmakers this year opposed allowing Paterson and the Bickelton School District to continue using modified calendars. Support from Mid-Columbia lawmakers and the school's success convinced legislators to extend the arrangement for another three years.
"Our test scores proved it out," Douglas said.
But while she's proud of her successes, that's not the part of the job Douglas likes best. She'll have lunch with as many as five students in her office most school days and she enjoys her "$3 million view" of the playing field behind the school where students on Wednesday played soccer and flew kites before heading home.
She won't be a complete stranger to the campus next year.
New Superintendent John Seaton has hired her as consultant, mostly to help with the business side of the district. She expects to be on the grounds once a week.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald