By Mary-Justine Lanyon
Thomas Wolfe may have written that “you can’t go home again” but Bethany Negersmith did not heed that admonition.
Negersmith grew up on the mountain, attending Lake Arrowhead Elementary School and Mary Putnam Henck Intermediate School before her family moved away.
She began her career in education in California in 2000 but moved to New York, where she was an administrator for 12 years in both public and private schools in grades pre-K to eighth.
Negersmith’s husband, who was a union carpenter, passed away in 2020. Her immediate reaction, she said, “was to go back to what I knew. I loved my school community (in New York) but it was the start of the pandemic and I needed a change.”
She packed up her car with her two daughters and the dogs and headed west.
Initially, of course, her girls were doing distance learning with Negersmith at their side. Then the schools opened back up.
“I realized,” Negersmith said, “that for the first time in 20 years I didn’t have my own first day of school. I knew I needed to go back.”
She learned there was an opening for a fifth-grade teacher at Valley of Enchantment Elementary School. It had been, she said, a long time since she had been in the classroom but she embraced the opportunity to join Stephanie Plemons’ fifth-grade team.
When the principal’s position at VOE opened up, Plemons looked at Negersmith and said, “Don’t you dare!”
But dare she did and Negersmith is now the principal at VOE.
“I love being with all the children,” she said. “As the principal, I get to experience the excitement of all the children. All decisions get made with what’s best for the children in mind.”
She relishes, Negersmith said, “walking by a classroom, hearing the children’s giggles, walking in, being part of that lesson, seeing the growth happening.
“It’s not about what’s not happening,” she said. “It’s about the awesome things that are happening.”
What she has found since joining the team at VOE is that there is something very different about this school. “There is a real family-oriented feeling here,” she said. VOE, Negersmith noted, is almost the same size as MPH – “It’s the largest of the elementary schools.”
As a fifth-grade teacher, Negersmith spent a lot of time preparing her students for the move to sixth grade and the intermediate school. Last year, she was pleased that the MPH principal and counselor visited with the fifth-graders, talking with them about what to expect.
“Everyone gets nervous about the unknown,” Negersmith said. “I told the students to ask me questions. I’ve been there as a student, as a parent. There are no silly questions,” she reminded the students.
As for her goals as principal, Negersmith said she is “excited to continue taking our ‘homegrown’ school and expand on it. What can we do to make it even better?
“We are a great school – this is a great community. It comes down to a great staff,” she added. “We are like sisters, brothers, cousins – a family.”
What’s great about the VOE staff, Negersmith noted, is that “we can throw ideas around and come up with great solutions for the kids.”
An immediate goal is to beautify the school. To that end, she has asked staff members to come in on one of two days prior to the start of school to do some cleaning and painting.
“When the students come the first day of school, I want it to look lovely, comfortable. I want them to feel good (about being here).” The entryway, she said, needs some TLC – “it should feel welcoming.”
Negersmith plans to hold coffee talks once a month with the parents, during the day and in the evening. “I want families to come in and feel comfortable. I want them to bring their concerns. How can we make the school even better?”
In a letter going out to VOE families, Negersmith wrote: “As we work together to build a positive school culture, I will ensure that my own role in setting high standards for teacher performance, increasing academic expectations for all students and engaging the community is enthusiastically achieved so that all VOE students will be prepared for a bright and successful future!”
Back to school night – scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 9 – will be more of a community fair this year. The teachers will be there to meet their new students and a variety of community organizations will have booths with information of what they have to offer to the families.
Negersmith is hoping the administrative team will meet often to share ideas. The principals are going to an Angels game together as a way to get to know one another.
“My door will always be open,” she said. “And if I’m asked a question and don’t know the answer, I will say so – and I’ll help you find the answer.
“It’s important I be at that level with everyone – I’m an educator.”