By Dawn Aerts
Iron County Today
CEDAR CITY–Ray Whittier likes to think of his workplace as home, a family, and as part of a community that is about to grow and expand at Cedar North Elementary School.
Whittier, staff, students, parents and volunteers are part of a personal philosophy that says schools can be much more than a building or a series of classrooms.
“I’ve always wanted to have a school where people feel like they are part a larger goal,” said Whittier, principal, and steward of curriculum. “A caring place, where we can always come together.”
But principals like Whittier have a wide range of duties and plenty of unanticipated things that keep them inspired. In October, he celebrated a school fundraiser by agreeing to become an erupting volcano; on Thursdays he might give a much-needed pep talk to a classroom that has fallen behind, and there are times when he steps in to offer up counseling or resources.
In other words, principals like Whittier must fill big community shoes that require flexibility, kindness and the ability to connect with children and their families.
“Thankfully, I am in a place that is all about families and I can tell you there’s something new going forward every day,” he said.
Whittier had served as Assistant Principal at Cross Hollow School, and as principal at Fiddler’s Canyon Elementary before stepping into the role of Principal at North Elementary in 2011. His commitment is rooted in his own family experience.
“I was the sixth of seven children, and mom was a teacher,” said Whittier of his decision to pursue a career in education. ”So we were a very close family, with a lot of fun and noise going on in the house. But our parents encouraged us to reach outside of the circle at home, to build new friendships and to enlarge life with others.”
Last fall, Whittier and the Iron County community opened the doors at the newest elementary building with a facility and STEAM program that he believes will carry students into an exciting decade of education and high-tech advancement. It was, said Whittier, during a mission and travel to Asia, when he came to recognize the huge role a school can play in any culture.
“Schools there were pretty much at the center of any social, or career life for a student,” said Whittier. “And it was common for school acquaintances to keep their relationships in tact over a lifetime.” He believes that reinforcing that kind of involvement for children and families are key to future success. “As a school, we can fill a need, help build relationships and strengthen families – while offering a great place for this community to come together.”
The Iron County School District paved the way for Cedar North and others, to launch afterschool clubs and community-education options for students.
“We know there are plenty of sports to participate in out there, and technology is also taking kids in new directions, but there is still a case for engaging children, and giving families an opportunity to connect,” Whittier said.
In 2016, North Elementary School introduced a Lego Club, an Art Studio Series and began to offer activities like Chess Club and English as a Second Language (ESL) options. “So we see that parents, and families in general, are looking for new ways to experience education together,” said Whitter of expanding small-group learning for students with diverse interests.
While Whittier admits that he sometimes falls short of accomplishing the big vision, he is encouraged with Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) based programs and with learning innovations.
“On some days, it feels a little like trying to keep the plates spinning in the air,” recalls Whittier of a long-ago juggler who could keep more than 7 plates twirling with a handful of sticks. There are so many things going in the right direction.
“We’re happy to see the STEAM program here, the many partnerships we have now with Southern Utah University (SUU) and of course the new facility that will be a great place for this community of families to gather.”
Sign-ups are now underway for a new round of afterschool classes – hosting a five-week Chess Club, a Geology series, and Art Studios for children entering grades 3rd, 4th, 5th. Cedar North will offer a series of five-week afterschool classes (Tues., Wed., and Thurs.,) between Jan., 23rd and Mar. 8th: Chess Express Club; a Geology Rocks Series, Studio-Art (beginners) and cyber-coding classes. He hopes to offer summer camps in history, creative writing, geology, and theater-arts and to see community education grow. Each series fee is $ 25 with limited size. To register or for more information, call the school office, 435-586-2845.
“I have to say, there are some challenges with this job, and ones that I look forward to,” Whitter said. “But who wouldn’t enjoy the enthusiasm that children bring to this school every day?”
Caption: Principal Ray Whittier of Cedar North Elementary.