He rules community and school
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/129486
By Jeff Commings Mayor/principal is about to leave his post at Sopori
Principal Charles Oldham walks into a kindergarten class at Sopori Elementary and a swarm of students rushes him.
Most of their hugs are brief and accompanied by a cheery "Good morning, Mr. Oldham." But one girl grabs his waist and holds on for dear life. She stares up with affection as she patiently waits for him to hug back.
Some principals get this daily. But Oldham is arguably a bigger figure than most of his peers in Pima County. As mayor of Sahuarita, he has two jobs that put him in the public eye, and it appears he's been handling both responsibilities well.
"He's a peach," said fourth-grade teacher Eric Heesacker. "I wanted to teach here because of him."
In a few weeks, the daily number of hugs could drop dramatically, though. At the end of the school year, Oldham, 65, will reach the end of an era: 13 years as principal of this rural school, just this side of the Santa Cruz County line. He'll remain mayor of Sahuarita, an 11-year job he says "starts at 4 p.m. every day," though he admits he does receive frequent mayoral calls in his school office.
Oldham's departure will be the first major change at the school, which is part of the Sahuarita Unified School District, in more than a decade.
But there are more to come.
A new principal, current Sunnyside administrator Maribel Lopez, will take over in the fall. The school is building two classrooms to start a sixth-grade class in August, a decision officials say will ease the transportation costs of busing sixth-graders to Sahuarita Middle School. A community center is going up on campus, too, and school officials are working to buy a neighboring park and help renovate it.
There is academic work, too.
Last year, the school was labeled "underperforming" for the first time in Arizona Learns, the state's school-ranking system. The label is given to schools that don't show enough improvement on such criteria as test scores. Teachers say the label was given because not enough students improved on AIMS and Terra Nova scores, which had been high for many years. One of Sahuarita's hallmarks is its high achievement rate, extending to the "highly performing" high school.
From the look of things, being called "underperforming" hasn't put the school into a frenzy, though.
"The law puts that thought in the front of our minds every day," said Heesacker, who started teaching at Sopori two years ago. "We're focusing more on language skills and reading, and because of that, we have to go the extra mile."
Sopori didn't start out as a shining star in an already-glowing district. In the 1950s, it was its own entity, struggling to get money from taxpayers for remodeling. So Sopori officials asked its neighboring district to annex the school in 1968. The remodeled school — which looked very much like it does today — opened in 1971, thanks to Sahuarita dollars. Voters in Sahuarita also are helping the school start the new grade.
A current sixth-grader may have to ride as much as 61 miles to get to school, said district Superintendent Jay St. John, who started his job the same year Oldham became mayor. "It's a pretty significant length of day even for a high school student."
The student population is 75 percent Hispanic and largely bilingual. It's one of the smallest elementary schools in Pima County, with about 215 students, and an average class size of 20. Many Tucson elementary schools struggle to keep their classrooms below 25 students.
Because Sopori is about 18 miles from district headquarters, teachers and administrators feel less pressure and more autonomy to continue doing what has helped the school thrive for more than a decade.
"The demands of being on the Sahuarita campus are great," Oldham said. "We only have about 200 kids here, but at the main campus you have to worry about 3,500."
Its relative isolation has created a close-knit community. Oldham said he taught or oversaw the parents of many of his current students, which puts parents at ease.
Second-grade teacher Jeanine Sparks loves the school so much that she was willing to drive 75 minutes from Tucson's East Side to Sopori. She moved closer to the school recently, though.
"This school is such a gem," she said.
As for the students, the small class sizes seem to allow them freedom to learn and enjoy what they're learning. Some classes have as few as 12 students. Working with only 15 students allows first-grade teacher Kristen Brackey to spend more time with each one as they work on vocabulary with a word search.
In Heesacker's class, students aren't bunched together in organized rows. Some students inhabit their own personal spaces, able to jump from their chairs to get the teacher's attention as they discuss the eating habits of carnivorous plants.
"My teacher is real funny," said 10-year-old Juan Pedro Ahumada, one of about 15 kids in Heesacker's class who said they want to watch the movie musical "Little Shop of Horrors," about a man-eating plant.
Oldham often is found peeking into some of these classes and participating in lessons. He says he won't miss the hectic schedule. The kids, however, are a different matter.
"I think I'm ready" for retirement, said Oldham, who was principal of Sahuarita Middle School for 17 years before moving to Sopori. "Except for a few years, I've been going to school every workday since I was six."
● Contact reporter Jeff Commings at 573-4191 or at firstname.lastname@example.org