Katherine Sheiko is approaching the end of a storied tenure as the principal of Green Elementary School in the West Bloomfield School District. Sheiko, 63, will retire at the end of the 2010-11 school year from Green, where she has spent the last 26 years at the helm, bringing in her passion for children and education and leaving a legacy of her own. One of her major initiatives was school themes, including Green’s recent theme honoring the city of Detroit, which was capped with a visit from Mayor Dave Bing. A Waterford resident, Sheiko was born and raised in Flint, where she graduated from Flint Central High School before earning a Bachelor’s Degree from Eastern Michigan University, a Master’s from Oakland University and a Specialist’s Degree from Wayne State. Sheiko began teaching in the Pontiac School District more than 40 years ago and hasn’t looked back.
SCN: After serving for over 20 years as principal of Green Elementary, what factored into your decision to retire after the completion of this school year? Not many people can say they were able to have the type of tenure that you have been able to have as principal at one school. To what do you attribute the most to your longevity?
KS: I’m finishing my 41st year (in education) and I’m turning 64 this summer and decided that it was time to explore other avenues and have other adventures. I love my job, I love my school, and it’s a great place to work and spend the last 26 years, but I thought it was time to do other things.
There are many districts that rotate their principals every five or six years. Fortunately in West Bloomfield we don’t do that. It takes five, six, even 10 years now, the research says, to build a culture in schools.
I was fortunate enough to be here for 26 years. Truthfully, we’re at-will employees, and they can move us as they want. Hopefully it’s hard work and positive attitudes from parents, children and staff that have encouraged people to keep me in my same position.
SCN: Your school is just about to conclude its spring theme, “Detroit-Downtown and Around Town.” How did the school come up with this theme and how important did it feel for Green Elementary to connect with and learn more about the city of Detroit? What are some other themes that your school has selected in the past?
KS: We are the suburbs of a major city in our state and we felt it was important for our boys and girls to learn the positive things about Detroit.
So often in the news we hear only the negatives and there are many wonderful things going on there. So we thought it was important for them to learn the history of Detroit, why was it settled here, why did Antoine Cadillac come and build Fort Ponchartrain so many years ago, why did the auto industry come, and that’s a big part of why southeast Michigan is what it is and where it is, so we thought that was very important for our youngsters to learn. Plus, some of them had never been to the city, so they went down, they went to the Parade Company, they toured the DIA, our kindergarten and first-graders did a tour of the city and walked the riverfront, went on the carousel down by the Winter Garden and actually went on the Diamond Jack boat. So for us, it was a wonderful way for them to connect with the major city that was the reason for this area being settled, and of course the icing on the cake was when we were able to get Mayor (Dave) Bing to come to our all-school assembly last week and accept a check the boys and girls raised for his charity, Motor City Makeover.
Other things that we’ve done — one that we love that we did a few years back was called “E Pluribus Unum,” out of one, many. We investigated and researched about the origins of many of the people that came to our country so children could investigate their own heritage if they came from another country, and we actually put them through simulation of Ellis Island. They all were immigrants. They came with one bag of things they could carry with them; they got off the boat; they had people that changed their names; we had doctors and some of them got sent back because they had a disease; and they were all sworn in at the end by Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court Conrad Mallett, so that was another wonderful simulation where not only could children relate to it, but also children and grandparents.
We did one called “Business is Hopping,” where every classroom developed a business and made a product that we then sold at an extravaganza for just our school. Everybody came down and put money in the stock market, and stocks went up and down each day depending on the market as usual, so that at end of a certain period of time they were given money for the number of stocks they had in their company.
We do several a year, so I can go on forever.
SCN: Your school was recently paid a visit by Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. What did it mean to you and your students to have such a prominent figure visit your school? Would you say that Mayor Bing’s visit was the highlight of your career at Green and if not, what do you believe was?
KS: I don’t know who was more excited, the children or the staff. We were all very excited to have him here. The children had worked very hard to raise money. They took pledges for running in their physical education class for … Blightbusters, which is the umbrella organization for many charities, including Motor City Makeover. We kept writing the mayor to come and visit us, and we were very excited when he finally agreed and we were able to get an unusual time that would work for him to come out here and he was so gracious when he came. He was kind to the children. They talked to him about what they learned about Detroit and he took his picture with each one of them afterwards. He spoke to the parents in addition of course to the entire student body of 550 students. It was very thrilling. The kids sang to him “Hello Detroit,” the song that was made popular by Sammy Davis, Jr. many years ago; and then “I’m a Believer,” which was written by Jill Jack for the “I’m a Believer” campaign in Detroit this year; and they thanked him also. So they were thrilled to have him here.
In terms of what goes on in our building, I certainly think Mayor Bing was a highlight for myself personally. I was fortunate enough to win the educator’s award several years ago and the way you get that award is to be nominated by your staff, so to have my own staff nominate me for such a prestigious award and to get it is certainly a highlight of my career.
SCN: What is it that drove you to dedicate yourself to the education of children? What would you say have been your toughest obstacles that you have had to overcome in your career?
KS: I always liked kids. I played school when I was a little girl, but when I began teaching in the classroom, I knew that I wanted to go a little bit farther to be part of an elementary school building that really centered on the whole child and brought exciting activities and memories to them. Our school themes have done that for us, like our Thanksgiving Parade, where each class has made a float that depicts something about Detroit.
Finances and school funding are absolutely the key to our public schools and without proper school funding, we cannot properly educate the masses and that is what America is about. I wouldn’t be where I am today if there had not been public schools, so school funding is the major issue of our schools.
SCN: If you could have done anything different during your tenure at Green, what would it be? What was your vision upon becoming the principal at Green and how do you think it has panned out now more than 20 years later?
KS: Maybe reach out to more children in need, and I don’t mean just financial need. You’re always looking to help those children that had emotional issues or fragile issues at home — perhaps they come from a broken home, maybe reach out to them even more. You certainly try to do that but you try not to miss anyone.
My vision was to make a school that a staff would like to come to work to and that students want to come to school to. I say people like to work here and if you like coming to work it shows in what you do with children. So if you’re happy in your job and your position, what you do each and every day with the children is going to be different than if you are unhappy.
SCN: What is it that you will miss most about being the principal at Green Elementary? What advice would you give for the new principal at Green?
KS: The children, there is no question. Their funny stories that they don’t even know are funny, their hugs, their laughter, watching them learn something new, watching them present what they’ve learned in a special way (is what I will miss most).
I would tell (the new principal) to enjoy the moment, enjoy the children, build a sense of community, and let the children know about how much you care. If you let them know that, that person will be successful.
SCN: What do you believe public schools in the state are doing right, and what are they doing wrong these days?
KS: There are so many things that we’re doing right. Do we have public schools that need help? Absolutely. Do we all need to be looking to improve what we do? Absolutely. But, look at the number of children that are educated in public schools each and every day, the ones that are graduating from high school with honors, the ones that are going on to prestigious universities. There are so many success stories, but we only hear about the bad things. We’re teaching children to read and write and it doesn’t always show up on a MEAP test. But it does show up when they get accepted to college and they have to write that essay to get in there and they were accepted to the University of Michigan or Harvard or wherever they happen to be going.
Our public schools are “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” that whole quote that is on the Statue of Liberty. We don’t throw anybody back, we take them all, and we try to help them be the best they can be. Private schools can be selective, we are not. We teach the masses and truthfully, our public schools are the backbone of American democracy.
SCN: What do you think would be a practical, reasonable solution to the financial troubles today’s public schools are facing? Tell us why you do or don’t believe that resolution will be implemented; and, whether you do or don’t believe any solution will be put in motion.
KS: We need to raise taxes. Where do we spend our money? Do we spend our money on prisons, where it costs $30,000 or $40,000 a year to house a prisoner, or do we spend money in giving our students intervention that they might need to be successful, to learn how to read when they’re in first- or second-grade? I think the figure is that 75 percent of inmates are illiterate and unable to read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. So where do we need to put our money? We need to put our money and front load it and build public schools, especially at the elementary level where they learn to read and write, the very basics of reading, writing, math and problem solving, and of course getting along with each other.
When Proposal A was passed in 1994, we had an economy that was booming, we had a rainy day fund, a sales tax, and income tax was going to make it for the public schools. It’s not doing that anymore, and it hasn’t done it for years.
With all due respect to our governor, when he came in and said that public schools need to cut, we had been cutting for 10 years. There’s not much more to cut. We’re not going to raise class sizes to a point where it’s not good.
I’m more than willing to pay higher taxes to make sure that my public schools are a fine place for children to come to school. My children were raised in them. I was raised in them. I want to other people to have that opportunity too. But, we cannot do it if we continue to cut funding for public schools.
The governor has just had the biggest business tax cut in who knows how many years. That cut has to be made up somewhere else. Where is it going to come from? Where does it come from to begin with? It comes from us. So, I’m probably in the minority, but it was just like when they wanted to tax pensions. I’m about to pick up a pension. Tax me, it’s okay. It’s going to help fund my schools and my firemen and my policemen and my city’s services. The public is their income.
I’m sure there is going to be some revolution with health care. They’ll be consolidating services, so I’m pretty sure those things will go into place also, but I don’t think that will solve the problem on its own.