Deeba Zaher knows that she will be emotional when she reads An Amazing Book by Dallas Clayton to the class of 2012.
“There will be tears,” she said of her task at fifth grade promotion, set for Wednesday.
It has been a tradition for the principal to read a picture book at the ceremony, but this time it will be special. These children were in kindergarten when Zaher took the helm at the school.
“I started with these kids and now I’m going to be leaving with them,” she said.
Last fall she decided to retire and move back to New England to care for her 97-year-old mother.
“She’s starting to get a little frail, a little forgetful, and she has fallen a couple of times, so before it gets really bad I need to have time with her,” the Massachusetts native said.
She and her husband brought a 40-acre farmhouse in southern Vermont, surrounded by fields, woods, hiking trails and mature maple trees that are already tapped. Her brand will be called Tinker Hill Maple Syrup.
“Instead of education I’m going to be learning how to make maple syrup,” she said.
Zaher has been an educator for 37 years as both a teacher and an administrator. For 25 of those years, she has been a Coronado resident. Leaving will not be easy.
“I’m going to miss the kids most,” she said. “They gave me a reason to get up in the morning and come here and make a difference.”
And make a difference she did. “Deeba brought an expertise in reading instruction to Village,” Superintendent Jeffrey Felix said. Her success with the program remains, he added, “her brightest accomplishment.”
“Balanced literacy” and seminars in critical thinking were ideas Zaher carried with her from the literacy department at the San Diego Unified School District, where she served as a project manager for five years.
With the seminars she was trying to persuade children to show the same passion as adult lovers of the written word, or as she put it “trying to create book clubs in classrooms minus the wine.”
“I wanted to create a place where kids could have conversations about what they were reading,” she said, not only to help them with comprehension, but to teach them to think critically.
Students at Village always have struggled with reading comprehension. Once the new programs were fully implemented in the 2007-08 school year “scores shot up,” Zaher said.
More importantly they have remained high. The most dramatic jump was in the fourth grade, where writing proficiency scores almost doubled in just a year, from 47 percent to 91 percent.
Initially there was resistance. “Some of the teachers asked, ‘What do I give up for this new thing?’” she said.
So she started slowly with a handful of teachers, a few grade levels at a time. As literary scores rose, the number of skeptics declined.
Among them was Kathy Shady, a teacher who said “now I can’t imagine teaching without” Zaher's program.
Literacy is a fitting legacy, one that she has confidence her successor, , will build upon. Zaher's predecessor, Lorraine Boyle, expected her to do the same.
“She told me I’ve taken them this far and you are going to take them even further,” Zaher said. “I can’t wait to give the reigns to Ms. DeSantis, who I know will go even further than I did.”