Umatilla Principal Retiring After 39 Years in Education

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Dianna Veleke
After nearly 40 decades in education - with the past seven as Clara Brownell principal - Dianna Veleke is retiring at the end of the school year.
PHOTO BY JENNIFER COLTON

When Dianna Veleke walks the hallways at Clara Brownell Middle School, she greets students by name. The shelves in the her office overflow with mementos and art projects collected over the past 40 years, and handwritten cards addressed to “Mrs. Veleke” adorn the walls next to abstract paintings.

Soon, the office will be empty, and Veleke will no longer start her morning with a walk through the halls at Clara Brownell Middle School: After 39 years in education, Veleke is retiring.

“I ask myself, ‘Why am I retiring?’ every once in a while,” Veleke said this week. “I’ve had a great career that has stretched me, but I have goals for myself. I will miss the kids probably the most.”

Working at a small school – Clara Brownell has about 300 students – has allowed Veleke to be a hands-on principal. Veleke fills the flower planters near the school’s front door; she plans incentives for student achievements, and she is the one who calculates the honor roll.
“I like knowing the kids, I like knowing their accomplishments, and I like to see every student recognized for something they have accomplished,” she said. “I’ve seen some amazingly talented kids who have gone on to great careers, I have seen kids who struggled and then as young adults got it together, learned from the school of hard knocks.”

No awards or honors, however, grace the walls in Veleke’s office. It’s not that Veleke and Clara Brownell haven’t been honored; the principal has her share of certificates, plaques and other symbols of recognition. But those items sit in a drawer while student work goes on display.

“It’s not about the awards and certificates a school gets – it’s the kids,” she said. “It’s the relationship with kids that are the most important.”

That focus led Veleke on a career that spanned multiple states and almost four decades. It’s a career Veleke had in mind even as a child.

“I wanted to be in education from the time I could remember,” she said. “I didn’t really think of anything else I would ever like to do. Now, I’ve almost spent as many years as an administrator as some people spend in their entire teaching careers.

Veleke has been a school administrator for 28 years, nine of them in Umatilla. She came to the district as an assistant principal at McNary Heights Elementary before taking the principal position at Clara Brownell seven years ago. She previously, worked as an administrator in Pasco, Wash., and has been an elementary teacher, a resource room teacher and ran a young authors conference. Her background extends into literacy and speech therapy; her master’s degree is in speech pathology.

That background allows her to view the classroom through many lenses, and, combined with her “out of the box” mentality, generates some effective and creative solutions. For Veleke, creativity has always come naturally.

“I thought everyone thought like I thought, then I realized not everyone has flashes of creativity and thinks outside of the box,” she said. “That’s probably my biggest fault – being able to stay in the box. I’m always looking at ways to do it, try it, fix it, make it better. I don’t ever think about keeping things the same.”

During Veleke’s time at Clara Brownell, students have become pen pals with professionals at Intel, taken on proficiency-based learning and focused on “The Six P’s” (prompt, prepared, productive, polite, participate and persevere). The school has adjusted to the Smarter Balanced testing system, traveled across the state and beyond on field trips and experienced school-wide reads, where every student in all three grades reads the same novel, such as “Wednesday Wars” or “The Hunger Games,” and participates in lessons and activities featuring that novel. When the school tackled a dodge ball hunger games, Veleke herself donned a pink dress, cap and feather boa to become Effie Trinket, the ornate character from the Suzanne Collins book.

“I have loved being at the middle school level because the kids’ brains operate on novelty. They are drawn to new things; new things excite them, and my brain operates on creativity,” she said.

On Friday, May 23, just days from the end of the school year, Clara Brownell will have “productivity day,” a chance for students to work on final projects, retake tests, and catch up on any work they haven’t finished before grades are calculated.

“Here we are at the end of the year, and we’re still trying to do some new things,” Veleke said.

This year, Veleke’s creative talents have brought the culture and history of China to her students. Veleke participated in an administrator exchange program, hosting a principal from China and then traveling to China herself.

Although she is retiring, Veleke said she would like to continue to develop that partnership on a volunteer basis, including expanded learning opportunities and a pen pal program between Clara Brownell students and students in the sister school in China.

Veleke has a full plate this summer, including her daughter’s wedding and a trip to the Netherlands to visit her husband’s family. After that, the educator said she would like to work in special projects: stepping in when school districts need a short-term administrator, working with grants or supervising student teachers.

Veleke said her career has been filled with moments and memories and she will continue to live by the mantra “Service is the rent we use to pay for our place on Earth.”

“How you spend your time is important, and I have a passion for finding out what the issues are so we can make them better,” she said. “Every day that I can pay for my place is important.”

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