PASCO -- Susan Sparks said it was clear early on that she wanted to spend her life in a classroom.
"I always used to play school as a kid," said Sparks, principal at Ruth Livingston Elementary School in Pasco. "My nieces and nephews used to say I would never let them be the teacher -- I always had to be."
Sparks isn't in a classroom any longer, but her days still are all about students. She greets them in the hallways or meets with their parents to discuss issues, concerns and successes. Those are just some of the reasons she recently was named Distinguished Elementary School Principal of the Year for the Lake Wallula region of Washington School Principals, and Elementary School Principals of Washington, which includes schools in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties.
District administrators, fellow teachers and parents spoke of her dedication to the community that's connected to Ruth Livingston -- in the doughnut hole of west Pasco -- evident by her spending almost all 30 years of her education career at the school.
"My kids, they get what they're supposed to be getting," said Musse Adan Wacays, an interpreter for the school's Somali community with his own children at the school and others in the district.
Sparks grew up in Spokane and attended the University of Washington. Her husband convinced her to move with him to his childhood home in Pasco so he could complete his training as an electrician. Sparks said she wasn't thrilled to leave Seattle, but her husband promised it would be for just a few years.
"He tricked me. I don't think he ever intended on leaving," she said, laughing.
In 1982, Sparks started as a third-grade teacher at Ruth Livingston. At the time, children were bused from the east side of Pasco as part of the district's integration initiative.
Wendi Manthei, now principal at Rowena Chess Elementary School in central Pasco, recalls being taught that year by Sparks. Students who successfully learned their multiplication tables could earn a trip with Sparks to McDonald's.
"She was very motivating when it came to multiplication tables," Manthei said.
Sparks would go on to teach fourth- and fifth-graders at Ruth Livingston before becoming a reading specialist. She acknowledged those transitions weren't always easy.
"When my principal promoted me to fourth-grade, I remember crying because I was born to be a third-grade teacher," Sparks said.
She earned her master's degree and administrative certification, which set her on track for a principal's position. It led her briefly away from Ruth Livingston as she was named an assistant principal at Emerson Elementary School in 1999.
A year later, though, she moved back to Ruth Livingston to be an interim principal because the school's principal was ill. That principal did not return, and Sparks kept the job.
She's spent the past 13 years dealing with the concerns of Ruth Livingston at large. Now a neighborhood school, it has 880 students, more than double the enrollment when she started in 1982. Part of that is because it plays host to the district's Highly Capable program for gifted students. And about 40 percent of the school's students receive free or reduced-price meals.
Ruth Livingston has been high achieving, Superintendent Saundra Hill said in an email, with its students regularly exceeding state averages on standardized tests. It has been a School of Distinction for three years and the only school in the Tri-Cities named as a Reward School in 2012-13. The Reward School designation is given to schools receiving federal money to aid students from low-income families and are considered high achieving.
"Her vision, practical know-how and stable leadership are the reasons Livingston is so successful," Hill said.
Wacays said Sparks has been receptive to the needs of his children and those of other Somali immigrants who have moved to the area. He was brought on this year to help with interpreting, and he said Sparks has been sensitive to cultural issues, which include providing for dietary needs in the lunchroom.
Pam Wheatley, who became Ruth Livingston's music teacher in 1983, said it's been an awesome experience working with Sparks.
"One thing Susan has is love and respect for everyone," Wheatley said, adding that Sparks' support has allowed her to build a large choir and remarkable music program.
And despite decade of working at Ruth Livingston, Sparks doesn't take it for granted. Last week, for example, her assistant principal told her they needed to have a last-minute standup meeting. When she got to the school's library and saw Hill and other administrators, Sparks panicked.
"Oh my gosh, they're going to move me!" Sparks said she thought.
But then, they told her of the award that also places her into consideration for the National Elementary Principal of the Year.
"I was just totally overwhelmed," Sparks said.