Education, Feature

Retirees 2024: Fun, hard work go hand-in-hand for Willow School principal

Melissa Lawson can explain to you how as principal she took on a variety of roles, but she stresses that every action was done for the betterment of the students at Homewood’s Willow School.

In June, Lawson’s 35-year career in education will end. She’s retiring as principal of Willow School where she’s been at the helm the past seven years. Before that, she was assistant principal for 16 years. She started her career teaching fourth grade for 12 years.

“When you go into a (principal’s) position it should be about most of the days are amazing,” she said. And the other days, the hard days, required her to think “did I make decisions that are best for the kids, best for the staff.”

Retiring Willow School Principal Melissa Lawson loves being around her school’s young students, like this group of kindergarteners out on the playground. Lawson is one of 25 educators and staff retiring this year. (Marilyn Thomas/H-F Chronicle)

Willow School is crowded with six pre-kindergarten classes, eight kindergarten, nine first grade and nine second grade classes and a Daily Living Skills program for students with special needs. Willow also has mobile classrooms used for intervention services that help students get on track for their grade level.

Lawson’s principal’s job has come with particular demands like filling a substitute teaching position with only a few hours notice, dealing with emergencies and making certain all the district, state and federal mandates are followed.

But there are other parts of the job that were enjoyable. Lawson took time each morning to be at the curb to greet students when they were dropped off at Willow.

“I like to start my day outside getting the kids out of the cars. It gets me out of the office, and I get to see the parents and I get to see the kids. I love my morning hugs that come through. There’s great collegiality out there. I don’t get to spend a lot of time with supervisors, necessarily, so that’s my time with them,” she said.

She’s led student parades through the building, been part of games in the school yard, received gifts of Willow class and special program T-shirts that she proudly wears to school.

“I think the thing that’s really cool is the day is never predictable, but the thing that’s also hard is your day is never predictable,” Lawson said. “I have a running list of things to do,” but doesn’t often get many things crossed off. Generally, she’s adding to an already long list.

Twice she’s helped staff through national crises.

She had joined District 153 as an assistant principal in August 2001. One of her first assignments was to address parents’ concerns on 9/11 letting them know that their children were being cared for while the nation was under attack.

“I don’t think anybody really knew what to do,” Lawson recalled. “I think our job was to reassure them that their kids are safe in this environment to the extent that anyone knew what was happening” and let parents know that nothing about the attack was being shared with the children.

The second crisis was the COVID pandemic.

“I would say COVID was the most impactful to the greatest number of staff and students. And most impactful from the administrative standpoint,” she said, recalling when a Willow School parent orientation session was cancelled and she gave information packets to parents in the hallway. The next day schools were closed.

Lawson and her colleagues on the district’s administrative council were in constant meetings seven days a week because the information on COVID was changing constantly.

“The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) gave reports every Thursday night,” and Lawson used that information to plot out her plans for Willow School on a white board in her office.

“I was really proud of this district that we made sure the students had devices, and we made sure they had hot spots (for connectivity). We were dropping stuff off at homes…It was just so busy.”

Lawson says her days with District 153 have been special because of the dedicated staff who give of themselves, and the support of the school board.

“This is a great, great place to be an administrator because the board is very supportive. And, that’s not to say they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re very involved and they ask really good questions” and the superintendents “have been super supportive and always there when you have a question. They’re willing to have hard conversations.”

Lawson gave the school board notice of her retirement a few years in advance, and it was only when the Willow School PTA dedicated its Inchy’s Bookworm Vending Machine in her honor in October that retirement became a reality.

“The whole rest of (the time) you’re just so busy and worrying about what needs to be done and needs to happen. It really didn’t sink in until that (dedication) happened. It was just touching,” she said.

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