For many years running, Disneyland has been known as “The Happiest Place on Earth,” but that title might get some spirited push-back from Grace Miller Elementary students and parents in La Verne, where Mrs. Deanne Spencer has reigned supreme as principal since 2002.
Before that eventful year, Mrs. Spencer had been a teacher at Grace Miller until the principal abruptly left and she was asked by the district to fill that post until the end of the year.
She liked it so much she never left, greeting children, rain or shine, at the curb in front of the Holly Oak Street primary school and ushering them into their classrooms for another day of learning, socialization and academic advancement.
But this running 15-year chapter is about to close when Mrs. Spencer retires in June and returns to Salt Lake City, Utah, where she grew up and much of her family resides today.
Hard Shoes to Fill
Her shoes will be hard to fill. During her tenure, Grace Miller’s API score, when that index was the benchmark for comparing schools, soared 140 points.
“When I took over, we didn’t even have phones in the classroom,” Mrs. Spencer said about the huge technology changes she helped usher in.
Now those same classrooms are filled with iPads and charging carts holding Google Chrome books so that learning can take place instantaneously and interactively.
Grace Miller has also become the district leader for special education for preschoolers as young as age 3.
Also under her watch, Grace Miller became a big participant and practitioner of the Peacebuilders program, which promotes a culture of respect and empathy on campus among fellow students. Students, in turn, take their values and socialization skills out into the community.
“Whenever we go out on a field trip, we always hear that we have the best kids ever and that we can bring them back anytime,” Mrs. Spencer said. “Of course, we expect that and teach that.”
After obtaining her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Weber State and Utah State, respectively, she thought she was headed for a career as a secondary school teacher, but after a couple of weeks observing and teaching at the primary school level, she was hooked on serving and working with grammar school kids.
“They are so open at that age,” she said. “They are not closed off. Most don’t have any phobias about learning, so they are excited to come to school every day. They really want to learn. It is so easy to engage them.”
When it came time to leave the classroom and put on her principal’s hat, her primary concern was to continue providing that safe, protective space where maximum learning could take place. Steeped in the principles of leadership, organization and management, she grew professionally into becoming the school’s chief education engineer.
“You have to keep the train going down the track,” she said sizing up her administrative role.
In effect, during her administration, she has been helping hundreds of students reach their desired destinations.
As for her own destination, the mother of five will be returning home to Utah to spend more time with family. She is also an avid reader of historical fiction, although she admitted that she is now reading the “Harry Potter” series.
Meanwhile, her husband, Lee Spencer, who taught at Oak Mesa and now produces videographies for clients, will be one of many playing a critical role in helping her make the transition from school principal to pensioner.
“I’m going to miss the kids and my staff the most,” Mrs. Spencer said.
Then before her sentence dropped off, she had another burst of advice for students and parents, proving the adage that once the teacher, always the teacher.
This time, her advice concerned the rewarding of students when they achieve a particular goal or milestone.
“Kids don’t need more things and stuff from their parents; they need more of their parents’ time and attention,” she said. “The best thing parents can tell their kids is, if they do this and that, then we will do this TOGETHER.
“Going on a hike, going to the movies, buying ice cream, but doing it TOGETHER!”
Although Mrs. Spencer will be leaving in June, a part of her will stay securely behind in the form of the newly named Spencer Center.
Every school year going forward, students will pass through the center twice a week to learn and build things and expand their sense of wonder that the center engenders.
“It was hugely embarrassing,” Mrs. Spencer said about the school staff naming the center in her honor.
All those years and memories of tirelessly welcoming all those kids and their parents curbside and working so well with staff and the district aren’t so easily forgotten.
In fact, they will live on in her absence, happy reminders of a job well done.
There is a retirement party for Mrs. Spencer on June 1 at 3 p.m. in the school cafeteria. Don’t be surprised if she greets you curbside.