North Kitsap High School’s Tonja Smith will retire as one of top school employees in state

POULSBO — There’s something about retiring on a high note.

Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway capped his career with a second consecutive Super Bowl championship.

New York Yankee Derek Jeter’s last career at-bat was an RBI single that gave his team a 6-5 win over Baltimore.

Jennifer Heil capped her freestyle skiing career by winning gold medals in single and dual mogul events in the world ski championships.

And Tonja Smith, office manager of North Kitsap High School, retires as one of the top classified school employees in the State of Washington. It’s an education-field equivalent of “an Elway” for Smith. The previous school district she worked for, in California, named a girls soccer award in her honor; the award is presented to this day.

Smith is retiring at the end of this school year, after 23 years with the North Kitsap School District.

“What’s made her most successful is the heart and compassion she has for students and the public,” North Kitsap School District Superintendent Patty Page said. “She’s very dedicated to public education. If you look at her career path, getting involved in schools as a parent, she stayed with that.”

Smith, a regional 2017 Classified School Employee of the Year, was a finalist for the state-level honor. She and the other regional honorees — as well as the state winner, Carolyn Griffin-Bugert, grant coordinator for the Wenatchee School District — were feted on May 8 by state Superintendent Chris Reykdal at OSPI offices.

The other honorees: Debra Campbell, chief financial officer, Sumner School District; Paul Christian, custodian and maintenance, Southside School District; Rhonda Christian, library and media assistant, Chewelah School District; Daniel Holzer, custodian, East Valley School District; Laura Jepsen, graduation success coordinator; Kennewick School District; Debra Johnsrud, paraeducator and administrative assistant, Edmonds School District; and Mary Ann Sturdivan, career program specialist, Woodland School District.

Smith said “the real honor” was the time coworkers took to nominate her for the recognition. “It was quite a process for them,” she said.

She added, “It is a very cool award. What a way to end my career. I feel very honored and it’s good to go out on a good note.”

French language teacher Lola Haveman’s nomination of Smith gives insight into what makes her stand out in the crowd.

“She has a heart for others and serves them with humility and patience every day,” Haveman wrote in her nomination. “Tonja is a model of collaboration and teamwork in our school. She manages our classified staff, provides job-related tasks to students who work in the main office, and delegates appropriately to meet deadlines and keep NKHS running well.”

Smith’s career in education began in California in 1983, when her youngest child started school. She quickly discovered it was the only place where she wanted to work.

“Tonja started in the classroom as an instructional assistant where she felt real joy in helping a student succeed,” according to a presentation by Greg Lynch, superintendent of Educational Service District 114, when Smith was named regional Classified School Employee of the Year.

“After three years in the classroom, Tonja was asked to assist in creating the first computer lab in her school. She became the lead in setting up the 15-computer lab, learning the software and teaching the students and teachers about what a computer could do.

“As her children grew older, Tonja added more to her work day by working with the athletic director. She worked one-on-one with students who struggled to meet GPA requirements and proudly helped the sports teams earn ‘Distinguished Scholar Athlete Awards’ consistently. Soon, Tonja was asked if she would consider starting a girls’ soccer team for the high school. She agreed and got the wheels in motion. … Not many of the girls ever played before. Tonja trained alongside the girls every step of the way and, within six years, they went from last to first in the league, consistently earning the highest GPA award for ‘Distinguished Scholar Athlete.’

“In the fall after her sixth year of coaching, Tonja and her family moved to Washington where she began working with the Athletics Office at NKHS. At the end of the school year, she learned that her California high school started the highly coveted girls’ soccer award, named the ‘Tonja Smith Award for Excellence.’ The award is still being handed out 23 years later.”

She manages the high school office with the aplomb and level-headedness of a winning coach. “In the old days, the office manager was known as the head secretary, but it has evolved into so much more,” Page said. Referring to Smith, she said, “She coordinates the efforts of the other secretaries in the office, works with other classified staff in scheduling, and is the principal’s right-hand person in day to day coordination of how the office runs. The office is the heartbeat of the school. If you don’t have a good office manager, the building can get chaotic.

“She never gets frazzled. I’ve never heard anybody say they’ve heard her raise her voice or be anything but professional in tough times. She’s a calming presence and is able to defuse tense situations. She’s a delightful person.”

Smith said she’ll miss the school district but is looking forward to traveling with her sisters.

“I’m going to miss all the people, the staff, seeing the accomplishments of the students,” she said. “This has been a great school district.”