Working hard for the kids

It may seem hard to believe, but the award-winning principal of Cleveland High School did not want to go into education when she earned her diploma. When the summer of 1969 began, Marshall graduated from Cleveland with a mind focused more on high fashion than higher education. Like most young adults, Marshall's goals and desires eventually shifted and morphed as she made ends meet in the Emerald City.

"I wanted to be a fashion buyer," said Marshall, who delayed her entry into college while she worked a full time job in retail. "I was into the clothes."

Today, clothes are still a passion for Marshall, but her love of children and education has eclipsed her youthful goal. Now, 37-years later, Marshall finds herself leading her alma mater through a challenging time for both the school's students and Cleveland's identity in the South End community.

Drive by the school's Beacon Hill location at 5511 15th Avenue South and you'll see what I mean. Earth moving equipment and building rubble dominate the site. Dozens of construction workers are busy tearing down the school's decrepit buildings, putting up new ones in their place, and restoring the most valued and aesthetically pleasing portions of the historic, 1927 building.

The $61 million project calls to demolish the existing gymnasium, renovate the remaining landmark, historic portions with significant facades, modernize the 1927 building, add a new gymnasium/commons building and construct a new three-story classroom building. The old school's walls hugged 15th Avenue South, but the new plan is to include plazas to open up the campus to pedestrian traffic along the minor arterial street.

Additionally, renovation will expand student capacity to 1,000 students from the current 783. The renovation is scheduled for completion in 2007, two years after Cleveland students were moved over to an interim site in West Seattle.

Student focused

While the school's external transformation is glaringly obvious, the steady-handed leadership over the past year-and-a-half led by a dedicated, creative staff administration can be a harder thing to gauge. Most of the time, Marshall concedes, the hard work of her teachers and her efforts to serve Cleveland's students as best they can goes unnoticed. However, this past fall this cruel anonymity in the South End community ended when Marshall's efforts were recognized with a Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award. The award provides public recognition and an unrestricted financial gift of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and other education professionals. One teacher and one administrator are chosen from each state every year, and an independent committee makes the recommendations to the foundation. A heavy emphasis is placed on educational excellence in and out of the classroom, professional and policy leadership and how inspiring the educator is toward their students and colleagues alike.

Family inspiration

For Marshall, the award recognizes a life-long character trait her father, Frank Marshall, helped foster in her during her childhood on Beacon Hill. The man worked as a Boeing engineer but left this position when his daughter was a young girl to teach at the graduate level in the University of Washington's as a mechanical engineering.

"I think he understood he had to let me be me, find who I was, make mistakes, fall flat on my face and stand up again," said Marshall, who's mom died when she was beginning high school. "I think that was where my respect and love for teaching really started was from my dad. He was a teacher at heart. He knew how to make things come alive, how to make things more tangible and visible to me."

While she no longer spends her days teaching a classroom of kids, Marshall regularly taps into her father's lesson of approaching topics and problems in alternative, creative ways to buoy her staff and students. She also remembers how he showed her, through his day-to-day actions, what it meant to practice a respect for life, acceptance of others and, of course, a love for education.

"He modeled everyday who he was, his integrity, and that's what's so important for me," Marshall observed. "Because I don't care if you don't like me. What I care is if you respect me. So, if I want your respect, I have to behave in a certain manner."

It's a lesson she strives to emulate, and her efforts show by the way people treat her. In November, when it was first announced she had been picked for the Milken award, she received congratulations not only from familiar staff and students but also from former professors, classmates and even strangers.

"You don't go into [teaching] thinking, what accolades are going to be awarded," asserted Marshall. "It's not even about that. It's about the kids. That is what I've always lived by. My little affirmation is that I look in the mirror and ask myself, 'did I do what was best for the kids?' If the students weren't here, then none of us would be here, and we can never, ever forget that."

Erik Hansen may be reached via

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