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The City Journals

At Aspen Elementary, first principal wants all children to belong, learn, feel supported

Oct 04, 2021 03:26PM ● By Julie Slama

Principal Suzie Williams welcomes students and families at the back-to-school night at the new Aspen Elementary. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Almost every morning before the school bell rings, Aspen Elementary Principal can be found in the gym on an elliptical machine or a treadmill. 

It’s not just to keep healthy, but it serves as her secret stress reliever.

“I go to the gym every morning; it’s my therapy at $10 per month for my gym membership,” she said. “It just makes such as difference. If I can get up early and go to the gym, I can handle anything that day.”

Since January, her stress level may have increased as she was helping to oversee the building of the new school, Aspen Elementary, in the Daybreak community. It wasn’t just the building of a school during COVID-19 when supplies are short or hiring of staff and faculty or getting computers, furniture or supplies in place before the first day of school. 

Williams was concerned about the well-being of her incoming students—some she had never met; some were coming from other school—during COVID-19.

“This pandemic has been tough on kiddos, social media—even at the elementary level—and the media in general, everything that they’re exposed to has increased the anxiety that we see in our younger people. It’s just so important to teach tolerance, service and emotional healthiness,” she said. 

That’s why she wanted a wellness center at Aspen.

“I’ve seen them be effective in other schools,” she said, adding that Aspen’s wellness room was used the first day of school. “We had a child that really needed to go in and take a break. I was grateful for it. Today’s kids just face obstacles that we just didn’t have.”

Williams grew up in Moroni, where she remembers riding her bike everywhere. Even now, she returns to Sanpete County to see family and go to the hometown celebrations if she’s not camping in Wayne County, her husband’s home.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in business, administrative systems, and while raising her five kids in West Jordan, she worked as a medical transcriber in their home.

When her youngest son started third grade, Williams started substitute teaching and discovered, “I loved it, and I loved being in the classroom,” she said.

She was hired to teach sixth grade at Terra Linda Elementary by day and at night, studied to get her certification as well as her math endorsement.

“I loved teaching; I loved that they (sixth graders) were grown up and you can have some great conversations with them, but they’re still kids,” Williams said. “I loved the look in their eye when they got it.” 

When she realized her certification and endorsement counted toward earning a master’s degree from Southern Utah University, she went on to accomplish that. With the encouragement of a friend, she decided to become an administrator and got her certification from Utah State University. 

After eight years of teaching, Williams became an administrator for one year at Butterfield Canyon and Herriman Elementary. There, she was appointed to be Eastlake Elementary’s assistant principal for six months before that principal was moved so she stepped into his position for the past six years.

Even though Williams is not studying to earn another degree, she still reads non-fiction books to learn.

“Learning doesn’t stop once you get the degree,” she said, adding she expressed that to her own children as well. “I told them, ‘I’m a student as well, and we keep learning our whole life.’”

At Aspen, she wants her students to feel that hometown warmth and support and desire to learn.

“Our theme is ‘All belong, all learn, all succeed,’” she said. “We’re really making an emphasis on helping everyone feel welcome here and certainly, we have our academic goals as well.”

That belonging builds a sense of community, she said, which was supported when everyone got to vote on the school colors—green and gold—and mascot—alligators — once school began. Students cheered, then created an alligator’s mouth opening and closing with raising and closing their hands together. 

Williams has her own goal as well: “Just being present—being at recess, being in the lunchroom, not being in my office, but truly present with the kids because you do learn about them and to talk to them. It’s just such a great opportunity to build these kids’ self-esteem and to help them be successful academically, behaviorally, emotionally and socially.”