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Longtime educator at Williams Elementary retires
Cyndee Engrahm is sitting in Portland, Ore., trying to figure out how to do nothing.
"For the first time, I don't want to have plans. I want to be bored for awhile," Engrahm said in an interview Wednesday — three days before her official start to retirement.
Two friends on Friday whisked her away from Williams Elementary School, a place she had called home for 25 years, the last 15 as principal.
The three of them jumped on an airplane and headed to Oregon, all part of a plan to limit, if not totally escape, that emotional departure, and at the same time, a kind of symbolic start to the future.
"It feels like I am going off to college," Engrahm said. "There are new adventures, but also losing the security of the family back home."
California State University, Chico, is where she began buil ing her skills to be a teacher.
The desire to teach, however, was born many years earlier — as a child growing up in Colusa.
It is all she really wanted to do — the only thing she wanted to be.
Certainly not a principal. She never wanted that.
So it is ironic that for a person who describes herself as the "biggest planner there is," it would be unplanned fate that guided her journey.
Engrahm started her teaching career at Winship Elementary in Meridian.
She taught a K-2 class for four years, schooling young minds about reading, writing and arithmetic, and herself learning a valuable lesson about just how big of an impact teachers can have on students.
As a combination-class teacher, she saw that in the faces of the returning students.
Engrahm "retired" for six years to start a family.
She and her husband, Doug, have four children and one grandchild.
Then a friend, who was principal at Williams Elementary, told her the school needed a kindergarten teacher. The school year had already started, and it would be temporary.
Instead, it became a 60 percent job for the next 10 years. Engrahm taught kindergarten, second grade and sixth grade during that decade.
Then she was asked to fill in temporarily as principal.
"I never wanted to be principal because I felt you were always caught in the middle and people are coming at your from all sides," she said.
And she did not want to be stuck in an office, shuffling papers.
This time, temporary lasted 15 years, and it turned out to be Engrahm's dream job.
"I am not a good four-wall person. That is why three days (teaching) was good for me."
But Engrahm found the principal's job allowed her to keep in touch with the students, to still be part of the education process.
She said the teaching staff — colleagues just a year earlier — made the transition easy, and have been key to the success the school has enjoyed.
"There is no turnover here," said Engrahm, noting except for a long-term substitute this year, the most inexperienced teacher on staff has six years on campus. The senior teacher, Donna Hawk, has been there 36 years, and has been a teacher for 38.
Hawk said Engrahm is the best principal she has ever had.
"And I've had a few."
"It is always. 'What can I do for you?'" said Hawk, describing Engrahm's style of always trying to make it as easy as possible on teachers, so they can focus on the students.
"And she is a fun person. She is fun to be around," said Hawk, adding Engrahm knows the names of virtually every student, and often their family members' names, too.
"She is so energetic, she energizes the staff," Hawk said.
Parent involvement, which has grown over the years, has also been important, Engrahm said.
The biggest change, she said, has been the testing accountability and technology.
"A lot more accountability with high-stakes testing. That was a big turnaround," said Engrahm, who has guided the school to a number of Distinguished School designations.
Engrahm, however, is not in complete agreement with the pressures that are brought to bare from the standardized testing process. It does not always allow the students, she said, to be kids.
Yet, she is truly amazed how computers and technology have changed the classroom, and how quickly and efficiently the students take on the challenge.
She also had to adjust to those changes, but admits with a smile, she is behind the student curve.
If she had a magic wand to fix education, her answer may be surprising.
"This is not the (politically correct) thing to say, but I don't think money is the issue. I think it is utilizing the resources right. And parents are a big part of that," Engrahm said.
She said if she had the wand, she would remove the bureaucratic obstacles that keep schools from doing their best, and she would build the kind of partnerships she has enjoyed with the families and community in her tenure.
The worst moment of her career, she said, was the death of a fourth-grader, the year after he had left her K-3 campus.
The boy's death was an accident, and the sorrow does not fade.
"Nine-year-olds should not die," Engrahm said.
Her favorite moment is relived daily, she said. It is the laughter from the students.
"That is what I will miss most," Engrahm said. "What other job do you get 320 hugs a day?"
Engrahm knows she will return to education at some point, but not right away, and she is not sure what role will be waiting for her.
She wants to travel, dedicate more time to the house and spend more time at the family cabin.
"I bought a kayak, so I am going to learn to kayak," Engrahm said.
She admits the idea of retirement came suddenly, and the decision was made within hours.
A teacher had died, one of her relatives was sick, and that day at school was not a good one.
She realized she no longer had the energy it takes.
"I think I have done what I can do, and they need new blood," Engrahm said.
But Engrahm carries off with her great memories.
"I have been a Colusa girl my whole life, but my heart is always here."