When Mary Collins, 64, decided to return to work when her son was back in school, she found a job working at what was then Spokane Valley Alternative High School in 1984.
Twenty-eight years later, Collins has been named the 2012 Washington State Classified School Employee of the Year.
The school is now Spokane Valley High School, a project-based, nontraditional high school. Collins serves as the building’s assessment coordinator, the GED coordinator and works in attendance and truancy among other duties. She also lets students from SVHS grow a garden on property she owns with her husband, Dale, which produces food for the school’s Thanksgiving feast.
Collins received her award April 11 at a ceremony at the Old Capitol Building in Olympia.
“Collins’ commitment to the students at Spokane Valley High School is clear,” said State Superintendent of Schools Randy Dorn. “After working there for 28 years, she is a valuable member of the staff who has the ability and willingness to step up and pitch in wherever she is needed.”
Collins said students who attend SVHS have to meet the same standards of those in a traditional high school environment. It differs in that learning is project-based – there are no textbooks. Students learn while working on projects such as the school garden, the greenhouse, Web design and catering.
“The kids really like it,” she said.
Back when she first started at the school, which opened in 1981, the military wouldn’t accept a diploma from the school – they weren’t quite sure what an alternative school was. They changed the name to Spokane Valley High School.
Over the years, Collins has served as the library technician, assistant in the special education program and para-educator. She has also worked with English language learners and tutored an autistic student – something Collins said has been rewarding.
Nominated by Principal Larry Bush, Collins had to submit an essay, a résumé and a list of accomplishments.
But what she really likes about her job is the students who attend the school.
“I love the kids,” she said. “I just really enjoy being around the kids. They show respect to each other.”
Assistant Superintendent Gene Sementi described her as “a jack-of-all-trades, who can be called on at a moment’s notice to provide leadership and assistance in any situation.”
Collins said she has no plans to retire just yet. She said when she wakes up three weeks in a row not wanting to go to work, that’s when it’s time to retire. But that hasn’t happened yet.
“I’m not ready,” she said.
In her free time, she likes to spend time with her son, James, 38, who lives in Seattle. The two love to sail the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound and she appreciates being able to spend time with him now that he’s an adult.
Collins will have lunch in June with Gov. Chris Gregoire.
She said she loves her job at SVHS, thinks Bush is a fabulous principal and is proud of the school’s accomplishments over the years, most recently being named one of 22 Washington State Innovative Schools.
“I really like what I’m doing,” she said.