Vanessa Jow Bunker '75 : Principal Player
By LeeAnn Kriegh '94
Early this year, Vanessa Jow Bunker '75, the principal of Deer Creek Elementary School in Tigard, Ore., was honored by Lewis & Clark College's Graduate School of Education for her "service to children and the community." That recognition came on the heels of two other awards. In 2005, she was named a National Fellow by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and in 2004, she was named the Oregon Elementary Principal of the Year.
That's a lot of praise for the former speech and pathology major who has led Deer Creek Elementary since it opened in 1997. Bunker refuses to accept the honors on her own behalf, instead deferring the credit to her staff. "They have worked really hard to generate the trust of our parents. When you've set that kind of tone, then you get to pay attention to the things that matter."
One of the things that matters to Bunker is diversity. At Deer Creek, a K-5 school with 595 students, 26 percent of the students come from homes in poverty, and English is not the first language for 80 of the students, who speak 17 different native languages. The diversity is "a good thing, a richness," Bunker said, adding that she and her staff develop programs designed to "bring a huge variety of kids together toward a common goal."
One such program, developed by Bunker and a staff member, is Project Millennium. Every fourth- and fifth-grade student at Deer Creek is invited to participate - they need only commit to arrive at school early one day a week, when they receive a free computer lesson, and skip recess another day, when they give a computer lesson to a first-grade student.
Project Millennium also includes production of a TV program called "DC Live." DVDs of the TV program are sold to parents, but Bunker said the goal of the project is really the work itself. "Students put the entire program on. They're behind the microphone, they edit, they do the graphics, they're the anchors. It's an incidental way for kids to interact, and it acts as a unifying force in the school, bringing together all kinds of kids - social leaders and kids on the fringes. That's very important."
Bunker said her school's focus is not on numbers, but rather on "reaching kids at their rate and level of instruction." While the numbers may not be the goal, they appear to reflect the hard work and organized approach taken by Bunker and her staff. Last year, 95 percent of Deer Creek's third- and fifth-grade students met or exceeded the state reading standards, and more than 95 percent met or exceeded the math standards. The state average in both reading and math is 87 percent.
"We really try to take a personalized look at what kids need," she said. "I don't believe you can do wide-swath teaching and reach 95 percent of your students. You need to look at developing and delivering specific interventions designed to meet individual needs."
Oregon has more than its share of struggles with school funding, but that and other challenges don't seem to phase Bunker, who said, "I wake up every morning ready to go to work. I'm privileged to have this job. Is it hard? Yeah. Is it fun? Yeah! That for me is a huge, huge piece - how much fun it is every day."
Education is a family affair for Bunker and her husband, Tom Bunker '74, a fifth-grade teacher at Orenco Elementary School in Hillsboro. They met, appropriately enough, in Carnegie Hall, which is home to Pacific's College of Education. "He took classes downstairs in Carnegie, and I studied speech and pathology upstairs," she said. They've been married 30 years, have two children, and share well over 60 years of experience in education.
Bunker said the awards she has received are not what keeps her going. Instead, she pointed to day-to-day events at the school, particularly her interactions with her staff and students.
"Today, I was in a classroom, just watching the kids and listening to them read. That was a cool thing," she said. "And last Friday, we looked at a student's progress with the support we'd given him. That growth was wonderful to see. That, to me, is what makes it all worthwhile."