Holyoke JR/SR High Principal Susan Ortner prepares to exit her office and head to retirement after a full career in education. — Johnson Publications
Final last day of school closes Ortner’s 40-year career
For over six decades, the end of a school year has simply meant a break before another school year started for Holyoke JR/SR High Principal Susan Ortner.
Not so this year as Mrs. O is officially retiring, with her duties completed at the June 5 board meeting.
Starting as the daughter of a teacher, then a student herself and later a teacher, counselor and principal, Ortner’s life has been driven by the school-year schedule.
She readily admits that Friday, May 25, the last day of school for students in Holyoke School District, was really hard for her. It truly marked her last day of school, and the accompanying emotions were stronger than she anticipated.
However, the day also stamped the finale of a career of solid leadership, pursued passions, effective organization, continued education, focused dedication and memory-making experiences.
Ortner counts her years as an educator at 38, but she leaves out the first three years of her move to Holyoke in 1981 when she was still involved as a substitute teacher and one year as head varsity girls basketball coach.
Knowing the way Ortner approaches any responsibility she takes on, one could readily assess that her total years in the field of education more realistically (if not officially) numbers 41.
Teaching area evolves
Starting her career as a third-generation home ec teacher, Ortner has seen multiple changes in this educational field.
Her grandmother taught what was then called household arts in Los Angeles, California, and her mom was a home economics teacher in Del Norte, where Ortner graduated from high school in 1973.
Earning her Bachelor of Science degree in home economics education from Colorado State University in 1977, Ortner embarked on her own career in education as a home ec teacher in Berthoud for four years.
After marrying her husband, Dan, in June of 1981, Ortner moved to Holyoke, where she filled the educational roles of substitute teacher and girls basketball coach for three years before the retirement of home ec teacher Caroline Kenyon.
A couple of weeks after her second son was born, in August of 1984, Ortner took on the duties of home economics teacher, which was a part-time post at that time.
Demonstrating her passion for the program, Ortner led home ec education back to full-time status in the district. Along with classroom teaching, Ortner advised the Future Homemakers of America organization.
During the next two decades, the program name was changed to family and consumer sciences, and FHA was changed to Family, Career and Community Leaders of America.
Ortner embraced the changes full on, leading to great student achievement and service at the local, state and national levels.
Even when she moved on to her role as counselor and then principal in the school district, Ortner held on to her involvement with FCCLA through the 2016-17 school year, marking 37 years as an FCCLA adviser.
Earning her master’s degree from the University of Phoenix in school counseling and human services in 2006 and a Type D Certificate of Colorado approved program for principal licensure in 2007, Ortner’s career shifted.
In the fall of 2005, she started a two-year stint as counselor at Holyoke JR/SR High School.
During her second year as counselor, in order to preserve the FACS program and FCCLA organization, she also taught two classes of relationships and life management.
The final shift in her career in education came when Ortner was named principal starting with the 2007-08 school year — a post she held for the past 11 years.
Watching passions develop cited as highlight
Observing students pursue their passions — in both activities and the classroom — is what Ortner cites as most memorable in her years in education.
Time spent with kids and watching them grow in a lot of activities continues to be rewarding for Ortner as she watches them do things they are passionate about.
While she loved following all the activities surrounding the students, she said she liked the classroom a whole lot, as well. “Even as a principal, to watch kids in the classroom is very rewarding.”
By way of activities, Ortner hasn’t missed too many in the last 37 years — and as a result, neither has her husband.
“For all of us, school activities are part of what we’ve done as a family,” said Ortner, whose three sons are in their 30s. Even when the boys were little, the Ortners followed athletics, leading to the kids’ own participation in sports and activities through the school.
Activities surrounding sons John, Brian and Steven and their families continue to take priority for Mrs. O and Dan.
John is a territory manager for Pioneer Seeds in Windsor.
Brian is a partner in Ortner Family Farms, and his wife Karen is the FACS teacher and FCCLA adviser in Holyoke. Their children are Brianna, 4, and Casey, 2.
Steven is a captain in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, as an aircraft maintenance officer. He and his wife, Rachel, have a daughter, Grace, 19 months.
Mrs. O is a promptness advocate
“If you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re late” is an Ortner trademark statement remembered vividly by former students, as well as colleagues.
“It’s the way my mom rolled too,” said Ortner, acknowledging that she’s not nearly as adamant about it herself now as she has been in the past.
She will also be remembered for focusing on the honor and privilege of “getting to” do things, as opposed to “having to” do them.
Through all the changes she’s seen in her decades of education, her basic philosophies have remained steady.
In her administrative role, Ortner cited the changes in legislation that have altered education. Specifically, she pointed to statewide testing, teacher evaluation and linking student success on statewide testing to teacher evaluation.
Never backing down from a challenge, Ortner advocated for sex education back in the ’80s and has always pushed for progress in programs and activities.
Major changes seen in her tenure as principal have been random drug testing for students involved in extra-curricular activities, the academic opportunity center and change in criteria for valedictorian/salutatorian eligibility as a result of dropping the weighted grade scale.
All of these programs have been tweaked for perfection over the years and are still subject for evaluation for updates.
Ortner cites the value of community-based committee involvement for moving programs such as RDT forward. The district’s shared leadership committees have helped tremendously with that process, she added.
A lot of collaborative activities within the teaching staff is something Ortner is especially proud of. “I’ve worked with really good people. The staff has been phenomenal,” she pointed out.
“Teachers don’t get nearly the recognition they should,” Ortner added. “We have a really good school as a result of the teachers we have here. They do really great work for our kids.”
With added emphasis, she noted, “We have good kids too — they’ve been awesome.”
Looking back on her career in Holyoke, Ortner reflects, “I couldn’t have done it without Dan.”
From driving a bus to helping kids learn parliamentary procedure, flipping burgers for fundraisers, sitting on a wrestling mat in the coach’s chair, washing dishes and much more, Ortner’s husband of almost 37 years is right there by her side.
“Give him a task and he’ll do it. He just pitches in and does what’s needed. It doesn’t matter who he’s doing it for,” she praised.
Sincere appreciation to the district and administration over the years was also expressed by Ortner. “I have had a number of opportunities provided to me, and I have had many great experiences as a result.”
What plans has Ortner made for the next chapter of her life? Well, she hasn’t!
Admitting she didn’t want to be thinking about that as she was finishing her final year, Ortner really can’t say what she’ll be doing for sure.
First off is closet cleaning, she says with a laugh, but beyond that she hopes to do some traveling and spend more time with her grandkids. With Dan still involved in Ortner Family Farms, that farming schedule will limit some of the travel plans but certainly not all.
Once the closets are clean, she figures she’ll have to find something to do. She said she hasn’t sewn for a long time and could focus on some sewing projects.
Always an advocate for lifelong learning, Ortner said she would like to learn to play golf.
Having worked two 110-day contracts to finish out the last school year of her career, she’s not eligible to substitute in 2018.
She doesn’t know if that’s a direction she’ll take once 2019 arrives. She’ll still have her current licenses, so if she decides that’s what she wants to do, it could be an option.
Meanwhile, it’s probably a safe assumption that she’ll be a supporter from afar for a school district that has nurtured her love of education in a memorable career path.