Dianna Hulbert will leave her bee costume behind this week for the new principal of Silverthorne Elementary.
Hulbert is retiring after eight years as principal of the school, where she and other staff members sometimes dress up as bees to represent the school’s four rules: Be respectful, be responsible, be safe and be ready.
Reflecting on her years at Silverthorne, Hulbert said she was proud of how she led the school in responding to shifting demographics, changed teacher mentalities and improved the overall school’s culture.
Hulbert, 62, was born in Denver and came to Summit County after living in Montana, Washington, Arizona and other parts of Colorado.
She earned a bachelor’s in physical education from the University of North Colorado in Greeley and worked for many years as a PE teacher and gymnastics coach, at one point running her own gymnastics program in Telluride.
In 1991, Hulbert started teaching PE at Minturn Middle School. There, she met state Rep. Millie Hamner, then the school’s principal, who remembered the way Hulbert customized PE classes for special education students.
“I have never seen a better PE teacher,” Hamner said. “She just made them feel like winners in the gym.”
Hulbert later worked as principal of Berry Creek Middle School in Eagle County for seven years before Hamner, as Summit School District superintendent, hired her for the job at Silverthorne Elementary.
Hulbert started two years after the school moved to its new building. Though she had never worked with elementary-aged kids in public education, she had worked with them outside of school. And she had experience transitioning schools through fast demographic changes.
Silverthorne was the third school she saw shift to majorities of students who were learning English as a second language and in poverty.
Her biggest challenge, she said, was helping teachers understand the need to adapt to the kids and then guiding them through the changes.
Though she couldn’t make the demographics of her staff match that of her students (“I would love to be able to do that”), she said she hired great people, teachers who were willing and able to tackle the school’s challenges.
“All the research says it takes five to seven years to become academically fluent in a language,” she said. Her teachers had to teach their students before that. So she helped them “develop the language of kids,” which means “let them do more of the talking then you’re doing.”
She guided teachers in changing who in the classroom was doing most of the talking. That benefits all students, she said, because they all need language development.
“Poverty in my mind is a bigger challenge than language,” she said, because parents can’t afford to expose their children to faraway places, for example, or spend as much time with their kids reading or exploring nature.
For that reason, poor children often lack background knowledge to anchor new knowledge, she said, adding that “all kids have background knowledge. It just may not be in the same things.”
Hulbert raised the expectations for students at Silverthorne. Teachers now have the same expectations for all students, even the kids who don’t speak English fluently and the ones in poverty.
Though academic achievement and test scores are still not where she would like them to be, she said, she is proud of the school’s academic gains.
On the behavior side of school issues, Hulbert said she helped show teachers that the school must take responsibility for kids who act out.
When she first arrived, teachers would sometimes go to her and ask her to fix a problem with a child.
She changed the culture so that teachers would come up with solutions with her and everyone would share the blame if those strategies weren’t effective. When she and her staff worked together to solve something like a behavioral issue, she said, “pretty soon it wasn’t a problem anymore.”
Now every teacher treats all roughly 300 of the school’s students as if they are theirs even when they’re not in their class.
“I consider every teacher in this building a leader,” she said. “Everybody takes responsibility.”
Hamner, who encouraged Hulbert to earn her doctorate in 2010 while working as principal, said Hulbert pulled the school’s staff together as a team and empowered them to step up.
Fifth-grade teacher Kirsten Browne, who’s worked at Silverthorne for 18 years, said, “She definitely helped a lot of us improve ourselves as teachers.”
Browne praised Hulbert’s improvements to the schools through grant writing, field trips and technology.
Hamner agreed that Hulbert is tech-savvy.
“She’s always been into technology,” she said, “so she knows about iPods and iPads and how to use technology to motivate students.”
At lunchtime, you’d find Hulbert serving food, Hamner said, and during recess she would be out on the playground.
“I’m really proud of her,” Hamner said, for completing her doctorate in 2010 and for making Silverthorne a place where parents want to send their kids.
Hulbert said every day she would walk into every classroom at least once, if not more.
In her career, she said, she has learned “don’t assume and don’t judge,” especially with students who may have deep-rooted behavioral issues.
“You really got to take the time to dig it out,” she said. “The only way you’re going to get to the root cause is if you have a relationship.”
She knew every child by name, said Helena Kinton, an English language development specialist. Kinton said Hulbert always listened to her staff and was involved in the school community.
“It’s my first year,” Kinton said, “and she just made it like I never want to leave.”
Kindergarten teacher Mary Anne Davis started the same year Hulbert did.
“She really supported me during some hard times personally” and “she valued what I had to offer to the staff,” Davis said. “She will be missed.”
Hulbert’s last day at the school is Thursday, June 12. After that, she said, she plans to move to Estes Park and take some time off.
“I don’t know that I’m going to be really good at retirement,” she said as she sat in her office full of books, gifts from students’ families and a few stuffed bees.
She will miss the kids the most, she said, tearing up and stopping to blow her nose. She’ll miss the kids she taught to use sign language for the letter B to remind themselves of the four rules: Be respectful, be responsible, be safe, be ready.
Ready or not, Hulbert won’t be returning next year.