Strawberry Park Elementary School students and teachers watch Principal Celia Dunham attempt to avoid an onslaught of water balloons Thursday on the last day of school. Dunham, who has served the Steamboat Springs School District for 34 years, will start her retirement next month.

Photo by Scott Franz

Strawberry Park Elementary School students and teachers watch Principal Celia Dunham attempt to avoid an onslaught of water balloons Thursday on the last day of school. Dunham, who has served the Steamboat Springs School District for 34 years, will start her retirement next month.

Strawberry Park Principal Celia Dunham says goodbye to students

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Celia Dunham's last day

Strawberry Park Elementary School principal retires after about 40 years in education

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Celia Dunham’s career with the Steamboat Springs School District started 34 years ago at Soda Creek Elementary School. In 1992, she started teaching at Strawberry Park and has served as principal since 2008.

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Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal Dunham sits with students Thursday on the last day of school.

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Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal Dunham gets hugs from some of her students Thursday on the last day of school. After serving the Steamboat Springs School District for 34 years, Dunham now is looking forward to her retirement.

— Celia Dunham’s last day of school was unforgettable.

Wearing a yellow cape and a shiny, gold crown Thursday, the Strawberry Park Elementary School principal jogged to the center of a field ready to one last time thrill the hundreds of students who surrounded her.

She gave the children hugs and high fives. She whispered words of encouragement in their ears. Then, Dunham shielded her eyes with a pair of goggles and smiled as students lined up to throw water balloons at her.

“This is all about letting the kids see that we like to have fun, that we can play, too,” Dunham said after she dried off back in her office. “It ends the school year on such a great note.”

After serving the Steamboat Springs School District for 34 years, Dunham now is looking forward to her retirement. She spent her last day of school celebrating with students while trying hard not to think of it as the end.

“What I’m trying to do today is just enjoy the day because it’s such a great day,” she said.

Learning together

For nearly 40 years, Dunham has worked hard to inspire her students.

In 1983, she captivated her class of first-grade students with a single computer. The device was simple and boxy, a dinosaur compared to the iPads and computers in her classrooms today. But the old computer allowed her students to print out designs and play simple games that sharpened their math skills.

In 2006, Dunham watched as fourth-graders used podcasts and audio recordings as learning tools. She has embraced change and new learning tools.

“She’s quite the epitome of what an educator should be,” Strawberry Park librarian Sherry Holland said Thursday about the principal she has known since 1983. “She’s incredibly kind. She has been the backbone of this place. It’s hard to imagine not having her around here anymore.”

Dunham started teaching in Pennsylvania in 1972 and in Steamboat in 1977 as a substitute teacher. The following year, she was hired as a full-time teacher at Soda Creek Elementary School. In 1992, she started teaching at Strawberry Park, and she has served as its principal since 2008.

During her career as an educator, Dunham has served on countless committees to promote and advance the education of Steamboat’s students.

From pioneering new technology in the classroom to revamping curriculum, Dunham’s resume is a laundry list of items that extend far beyond the classroom.

“She lives and breathes education,” Holland said. “She never stops learning. I don’t think she’ll ever be done with education.”

Dunham said Thursday that she was destined to become an educator at a young age.

“I come from a long line of educators. My family is either in social work, education or the ministry,” she said, adding that her first student was her younger sister, who turned out pretty well. “It’s pretty much what our family does.”

Changing lives

Dunham said the kids and the community have kept her teaching for so long.

“I’ve been in this field for so long, but I don’t know if that will be the same for educators in the future,” she said. “I hope they do stay for many, many years because it’s a wonderful feeling to have been through so many cycles of education and to see that over time, (teaching) does work out, and it has a great result.”

Some of Dunham’s first students now have children attending Strawberry Park.

Her lasting impression on children was even more evident Thursday when goodbye letters from parents, teachers and students continued to fill her office.

“Mrs. Dunham is very helpful to the school. She was the best teacher ever,” second-grader Cesar Disodado Espino wrote. “Her eyes are very shiny. She is so nice to kids. I wish she would never retire. I love her.”

Third-grader Maddie Voll­mer labeled Dunham “the best principal in the school’s history.”

And what does that principal plan to do next?

“I’m going to relax first,” she said. “I’m looking forward to having more flexibility to travel. But I know whatever I do, there will be kids involved. I know I can’t stay away completely.”

At a glance

The Steamboat Springs School Board on Monday night recognized Celia Dunham and four other retirees who together have served 133 years in the district. The honorees include:

■ Celia Dunham, Strawberry Park Elementary School principal: 1978 to 2012 (34 years)

■ Kerry Murphy, Strawberry Park teacher: 1985 to 2012 (27 years)

■ Gail Haight, Strawberry Park special education aide: 1985 to 2012 (27 years)

■ Lisa Lorenz, Steamboat Springs Middle School science teacher: 1993 to 2012 (19 years)

■ Bob Stahl, Steamboat Springs High School social studies teacher: 1985 to 2011 (26 years)

“All five of these retirees have made a difference in a lot of young people’s lives, and in the lives of their colleagues,” Superintendent Brad Meeks said. “It makes me incredibly proud to know and work with these people.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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