Cottonwood Valley principal to step down this June
After seven years leading Socorro’s only public charter school, administrator Karin Williams is planning to hand the reins over to Dr. Avery Ewing, a young educator from Tennessee selected for the post by the school’s parent-run governing council last week. Ewing will take over on July 1.
Williams is definitely not retiring from education; she just wants to end her career with a return to working directly with children. Her first choice is to be a speech language pathologist in the Magdalena-Alamo area, a job she held before accepting the principalship at Cottonwood.
Williams said this year was ideal for a switch in administration, given the stability of the school and funding of the final phase of the school’s campus construction project.
“Basically, the school’s very stable,” she said. “There’s very little student turn over. We only lost four students this year out of 170 enrolled, and they all moved out of town.”
The more than 179 children currently on the school’s waiting list exceeds the total enrollment the school’s charter permits. Students are chosen by lottery when openings occur.
Williams said both the teaching staff and the school’s parent-run governing body are top quality as well, also ensuring a smooth transition. Student literacy scores are solid, especially at the primary level, and work has been mostly completed for the school’s upcoming charter renewal, the second such hurdle accomplished on her watch.
“The governing council is very strong, very professional,” she said. “They’ve done a lot of work for the charter renewal.”
Construction of the final phase of the school’s building master plan is scheduled to start in 2015. The current portable classrooms will all be replaced; the last step in a seven-year-long effort. Williams oversaw construction of the school’s new passive solar administrative and cafeteria complex when she took over as administrator in 2007, and has worked with the school community since then to finish the project.
“The whole campus will be completed in the fall of 2015,” she said.
Williams sees Cottonwood’s gradual evolution to a community school as another important part of her legacy.
The demographics tell the story. When she started out in 2007, only 25 percent of the student body qualified for free or reduced lunches. Now, about 42 percent qualify, the same statistic shared by other schools in the district.
“Cottonwood is now more reflective of the community at large,” she said. “It serves the entire community. When I started, it was a majority Caucasian school; now it’s majority Hispanic.”
She said the school’s charter requires each teacher to incorporate twelve community experience projects into his or her curriculum every year, and that community involvement has bloomed.
“We have about 95 community volunteers working with students,” she said.
Of personal importance is the school’s focus on families.
“It’s been very important for me to form really strong relationships with every family,” she said. “You can’t give up on children or their families.”
That continuity has also been a challenge for Williams, since Cottonwood can’t pass problem children on to the next school.
“We know we’ve got them forever, so we’re really invested in each child,” she said. “Sometimes it is the most difficult thing, but it’s also the most rewarding.”
Early childhood literacy has been a passion for Williams, and she is proud of the school’s kindergarten through third-grade readers. Individualized reading assessments show three-quarters of Cottonwood students in first grade performing at or above target levels for the third quarter. But the most important result is the community of book lovers the school has created, according to Williams, a book club leader herself who rates reading as one of her favorite leisure activities.
“We have a lot of happy readers, avid life-long readers who enjoy books,” she said.
She credits the school’s “incredibly strong literacy program” to the teachers’ skills, quality classroom libraries and the practice of having children read at their individual levels.
Teachers say Williams’ mentorship is the reason why Cottonwood children excel at reading.
Cottonwood reading interventionist and former first-grade teacher Kim Schaffer said Williams’ leadership strongly affected her teaching.
“She’s hands-down the best principal I’ve ever had,” Schaffer said. “She’s all about the kids. She’s provided excellent advice and professional development that made all the difference in my teaching.”
The school’s Spanish teacher Sheri Armijo also appreciates Williams’ support for enrichment programs like foreign language.
“Karin helped support the Spanish program here,” Armijo said. “None of the other elementary schools have the program we have for kindergarten through fifth grade.”
Williams plans to take a few weeks off in the Colorado Rockies this summer before returning home.
“My goal is to work in the Magdalena-Alamo areas,” she said. “I really love those communities.”
The mountains and deserts of New Mexico are a far cry from her early years in Chicago, where she first started working with special needs children as a high school freshman.
Williams graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in special education. She started out working as a special education teacher in Santa Fe in 1979, and began teaching at Alamo in the early 1980s, “before the Alamo school was even built.” She started the early childhood special education program at Socorro Consolidated School district before taking a position as an early childhood interventionist with La Vida Felicidad. After she earned her master’s degree in communicative disorders at New Mexico State University, she worked as an speech-language pathologist at Alamo before accepting a position as a kindergarten teacher with Magdalena schools.