In the Classroom

Taft Elementary principal knew only one goal: student success

Susan Williamson, the principal at William Howard Taft Elementary School in Boise for more than 15 years, was nicknamed the "red-haired tornado."

The name fit.

She was relentless in seeking support for her students at the school near 36th and State streets, which once had a reputation for tough kids.

Her students needed swimming lessons, she decided. She called Jim Everett, CEO of the Treasure Valley Family YMCA. Hers was one of the first schools in the Boise district to offer swimming.

Her refugee students needed more help in basic skills. She hit up some organizations for money to pay for Saturday school.

Students could learn about service and science from a garden, she thought. She started one.

“Susan was truly a unique personality," said Don Coberly, Boise's superintendent. "She was driven to be the best, all in the interest of kids. "

Williamson, who retired from the district in 2014, died March 26 after a 10-year battle with cancer. Her family declined to disclose her age, because she never would. Williamson thought age was a box that trapped people.

I first met Williamson in 2003 when I did a story on Taft Elementary, a school where more than half the students come from low-income homes. She had come there in 1998, when she moved from Texas to be near a daughter in the Treasure Valley.

I knew the school was different from the moment I walked in.

The old building — tucked behind the Viking Drive In on State Street — didn't look like a school.

She'd moved living-room furniture into the entrance to give the place a homey feel. She consulted with parents about the best colors to paint the school’s interior.

But Williamson was about more than cosmetics. She told me about walking into a classroom where students were working on artwork. She wondered why they were doing that. The teacher said art was a way to build self-esteem in the children, who often came from troubled backgrounds.

If you want kids to feel better about themselves, Williamson said, teach them to read.

Williamson was a self-described data queen. She had books and books of test data from her students that she — and at her insistence, her teachers — pored over to guide instruction.

If something worked, she kept it. If not, it was dumped.

And always, the ideas kept coming: A writing club, a drama club, a chess club, a pottery class.

"Everything we do is to engage kids and keep them off the street, " she once said.

Saying no to Williamson was difficult.

“If (she) called you at home at 7 in the morning with an idea that sounded nearly impossible, your best bet was to join her, because she really wasn't asking your opinion, she was asking, ‘Are you going to help me make this happen or not?’” said Cristianne Lane, professional development director at the Lee Pesky Learning Center in Boise, which helps students with learning disabilities. The center helped train Williamson's teachers,

Lane, who regarded Williamson as her hero, once stopped by Taft for a dose of inspiration. Williamson met her at the entrance. "We’re going to pick up free books for the kids," Williamson told her. "And you're driving."

Williamson turned Taft around. Kids quit fighting. Learning happened. Scores got better.

Awards followed. Taft was recognized in 2003 by the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School, a top school in the country.

Just a few years before, Williamson was begging parents not to pull their children out of Taft and send them someplace else.

In 2011, she was selected as Idaho’s National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the U.S. Department of Education.

Journalists are supposed to be detached observers. I make an exception for Susan Williamson. Her resourcefulness and dedication to a bunch of kids, many from low-income homes, was unlike anything I have seen in my nearly two decades of covering education in the Treasure Valley.

I will miss her.

But more than that, I am sad that there will be students out there desperately in need of a Susan Williamson who won't have her as their champion.