Arguably, nobody within Rio Rancho Public Schools is better at beautifying a school campus with limited resources than Suzanne Harper.
A short walk around the Colinas del Norte campus in North Hills or a stroll around the Shining Stars Preschool grounds reveals evidence of Harper’s creative touch. Credit the “Gardening Gnomes” at Shining Stars, too, and the custodial workers attaching the nearly 200 ceramic plates made by the 3- and 4-year-olds attending the school.
Soon, though, Harper will be gone: She has decided it’s time to retire after 31 years in education, citing a desire to spend more time with her young grandchildren, gardening, staying in shape riding her bike — ask her about her experience in the Iron Horse event in southern Colorado — and enjoying life with her husband Mick, which includes more travel.
“Just slowing down and smelling the roses,” she says is her goal.
She probably wishes her own children were still young enough to attend Shining Stars, for which she came up with the prototype for Rio Rancho Public Schools before improving the look of the campus.
“Early childhood is a very special time,” said Harper, who made sure, when “we put in a curriculum, that the No. 1 thing is children absolutely think school is a good place to be.”
Harper was working with Rio Rancho school children in the pre-RRPS days “in the special education department, three years as a special ed clinical supervisor.” She was hired when RRPS began in 1994, then was an assistant principal at CdN for two years before taking the reins as principal in 1999.
She was there through the 2004-05 school year, although she’d been planning for Shining Stars for three years before approaching Superintendent Sue Cleveland.
“I wrote three business plans, took them and she read all three of them. … She asked me which (of the three plans) I thought was the best.
“The time was right,” Harper said. “All the research coming nationally was that intervention was the answer — and this building (formerly Ernest Stapleton Elementary) became available.”
Available is a key word; there’s often a waiting list for parents who want their youngsters to get this special education — a percentage of the enrollment is special needs students — and a great start for the next 13 years of their RRPS education, kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Parents are just so happy to be here; we are the training ground,” Harper said “This school does change people’s lives.”
She said a dozen of the original staff members are still on board; the most-recent enrollment, which includes a satellite center at CdN, is almost 600.
Among her career highlights is the Milken Family Foundation award she won in 2002 while at CdN, where enrollment exploded from 700 to 1,150 students while she was there.
According to the website, “Once on probation as a low-performing school, Colinas del Norte … has blossomed thanks to the efforts of Harper. She wrote and received grants and enlisted community support to build a reading garden, acquire new playground equipment, paint murals and create a ‘bio-park’ with tables for students to eat outside. Harper also instituted a three-tier mentor program for new teachers and devised an intervention matrix to assess the need for remedial ‘focus groups’ with volunteer tutors from the community. After her first year as principal, the school’s math scores increased 27 points.”
The prestigious Milken award earned her $25,000, some of which she spent on “a fly-fishing adventure to Patagonia, Chile,” for Mick.
“It’s been a wonderful ride,” Harper said, really thinking she had one of life’s great jobs because, “I get to spend my days with 3- and 4-year-olds; there’s nothing more positive.
“Look at them,” she said, pointing to a busy playground. “They’re so great.”
She’s convinced Cleveland “was really happy for me — and I’ll be sorely missed and Shining Stars will be my legacy.”
It’s a great way to go out.