SUQUAMISH — When Joe Davalos first became principal at Suquamish Elementary eight years ago, the PTA had dwindled down to about 20 members.
So, Davalos acted like the former all-league football player he was — he tackled the problem.
Now, eight years later and coming off of a successful basket marsh project that turned a muddy field into a pond and environmental learning center, Davalos is able to reflect on how the school has also transformed.
Things have changed since the days when community involvement was low, Davalos said. You can see it each day before class.
“We have a school where parents walk their kids to school; where kids ride their bikes to school,” Davalos said. “It’s really a community school.”
The change can be also be seen in the basket marsh project, Davalos said. The project, headed by librarian Jan Jackson, brought together dozens of community programs, volunteers, and Suquamish students to turn a muddy plot of land into something the school can be proud of.
Davalos hands much of the credit for the change to the staff, both teachers and administrative staff. He said he is always on the lookout for innovative teachers who are willing to light sparks of learning in their students. How can he tell a teacher is that kind of teacher?
“Their light goes on when a kid’s light goes on,” Davalos said.
Davalos would know; before he became a principal, he taught at schools such as Spectrum Community School and Poulsbo Middle School.
It didn’t start out that way. After graduating from University of LaVerne in LaVerne, Calif. in 1973, Davalos, a former all-league defender for the football team, primarily wanted to coach. He did just this, coaching at LaVerne and later teaching and coaching in middle school. (One of the football players he coached for LaVerne in college was Hilder Pearson principal Chris Willits.)
But then something happened.
“I found out I was getting just as much satisfaction teaching kids and treating them as individuals (as I was coaching),” said Davalos.
After arriving in the North Kitsap area in 1982, Davalos taught at several schools, and eventually become principal at Suquamish.
He helped hire new staff, filled with the innovative teachers he likes so much. He encouraged community involvement. Eventually, the school drew 20 volunteers a day.
“We have so much community support,” Davalos said.
Suquamish Elementary is often complemented on its atmosphere by everyone from school board members to young students. Davalos is proud of it.
“It must be all the collective karma we all put off,” he said.
Now, heading towards his ninth year, Davalos continues to help the school grow; he pops in on classes, trying to visit every room, every day; he talks with teachers to see what isn’t working, and what is; and he learns kids’ names.
“People ask me how come I know everyone?” Davalos said. “I make it my business to know. I think that’s important. Kids like to hear that somebody in authority knows their name.”
He learns adults’ names, too, and tries to sell them on the school.
Recently he spoke to two pairs of parents who sent their children to a private school. Davalos the salesman launched into his case, talking about Suquamish’s virtues.
“I said, ‘Experiment with me. Send them here for a few months, and see if they like it.’”
Davalos didn’t quite win the new students.
But with eight seasons down and more to go, he’s sure to keep trying.