It’s a Wednesday in June and Southeast Kelloggsville Elementary School Principal Paula Dykstra is noshing on burgers and fries at McDonald’s with eight fourth- and fifth-graders.
The students talk with her about the different languages they speak. One girl speaks Vietnamese. Other students speak Spanish.
Dykstra tells them how valuable it is to be bilingual, even though it was difficult for them to learn English as a second language.
That’s what Dykstra does; she’s an encourager, a positive force in the lives of her students. She shows them the opportunity within the obstacle.
“She taught me to always believe in myself,” said student Melody Myers.
“The highlight of my career has been the love of the kids. Absolutely. Without a doubt,” said Dykstra, who officially retires Aug. 17.
Every month, she and school counselor Kay Oppenhuizen took students out to eat as a reward for good behavior. Four students at the June lunch were also recognized for raising and lowering the schoolyard flag every day. “What Kay and I have the most fun doing is just talking to the kids,” Dykstra said.
The outing provided just a small peek into how Dykstra has helped shape the lives of Kelloggsville students. While at McDonald’s, students rattled off what they like about their beloved principal. They each wrote messages in special book for her, which they presented as a gift at an assembly.
“She’s funny.” “She’s nice.” “She’s sweet,” they said, talking over each other.
Before finishing lunch, Dykstra took a moment to drive home an oft-repeated piece of advice.
“Make good…” she began, pounding the table for emphasis.
“Choices!” students shouted in unison.
A Second Mother to Students
Dykstra has always approached her job with maternal instinct. Before her principalship, she worked six years as a fifth-grade teacher at Southeast, and prior to that, spent six years as a paraprofessional at Valleywood Middle School, in Kentwood Public Schools. Dykstra was a stay-at-home mother when her children were young, and didn’t pursue teaching until a former Valleywood principal encouraged her to go back to school to get her degree.
She returned to college at Grand Valley State University, where she earned bachelor’s and masters’ degrees. The mother of three doubted she would find a teaching job at age 36. But it was no problem, and she began teaching at Southeast, where classroom management came easy to the seasoned mom. Six years later, Superintendent Sam Wright asked her to become principal.
She’s gone above and beyond, staff members said. Later in the summer, Dykstra planned to take three boys and one girl, selected randomly from all students at Southeast who have had no disciplinary incidents this year, to her cottage on the Muskegon River.
An annual event, she and students spend the day driving a golf cart, helping steer Dykstra’s boat, swimming and eating S’mores.
For the remainder of students with good behavior, the end of the school year culminated with a hotdog cookout at Kelloggs Wood Park, located near the school.
“Paula gives the kids love and consistency,” said Oppenhuizen. “She is like their mother away from home. They feel safe here.”
She also doles out appropriate consequences, letting students know that bad behavior is unacceptable, Oppenhuizen said.
‘There are So Many Good Things’
Dykstra talked candidly about the challenges of leading a school where nearly 85 percent of the 300 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and a large percentage are English-language learners. Many students face issues that stem from poverty, broken families and lack of positive role models at home.
They face transiency, bouncing from district to district over the course of their education. Parents often need help in learning how to effectively parent, Dykstra said. She’s heard students say they are afraid to be home for the summer because food isn’t readily available, or who stay home from school because they have no clean clothes.
Yet, there’s hope, accomplishments and smiles every day, Dykstra said. That’s what’s kept her tied to the community. Her own children graduated from Kelloggsville High School.
“It’s easy to be sad about the negatives of these kids, but there are so many successes and so many good things,” she said. “This is their safe place.
“We feed them we clothe them, we bring the dentist here for them,” she said, noting that teachers contribute from each paycheck to support families with things they need, such as eyeglasses, through the Kelloggsville Cents for Kids fund.
Kent School Services Network Coordinator Brianna Vasquez said Dykstra has embraced the diversity of students from various cultural backgrounds. KSSN, a county-wide program, provides social and medical services within schools with high at-risk populations.
“For the kids learning English and who speak a second or third language, (Dykstra) says, ‘That’s such a wonderful gift that you have,’ and ’embrace that.’
“Instead of seeing it as a hindrance or a barrier, she sees it as an asset. That instills pride in the students and the families,” Vasquez said.
Dykstra has welcomed parents through family nights and the annual International Food Festival, when parents bring in dishes representing their ethnicities to share in the school’s cafeteria.
Perhaps what Dykstra will miss the most about her job are the hugs, she said, because they are part of her many interactions throughout the day. But she will be back, perhaps as a volunteer, to teach students how to knit, a craft she enjoys, and the hugs will continue.
“There must be 20 hugs a day,” she said, a smile spreading across her face.