May 30, 2012 - Ortonville- A chalk-written message on the sidewalk in front of Harvey Swanson Elementary School on Wednesday read, "We will miss you Dr. Clemetsen."
Harvey Swanson Principal Helen Clemetsen puts wristbands on students in the Mileage Club. Photo by Patrick McAbee. (click for larger version)
While the message will fade away, exposed to the elements and the hundreds of small feet that cross over it every day, the sentiment won't be erased from the hearts of current and former students, parents and colleagues of Harvey Swanson Principal Helen Clemetsen.
After 38 years in the district, 24 of those as the only principal Harvey Swanson Elementary has known, Clemetsen is retiring this month.
"I am going to miss this community greatly," she said. "I know the Brandon community better than the community I live in. It will be hard not to see everyone on a regular basis. It has been an honor and privilege to serve this community. I served with my heart and soul."
Clemetsen always knew her calling was to be an educator. She graduated from Michigan State University in 1974 with a bachelor's degree in elementary education and was hired immediately by the Brandon School District to be a first grade teacher at Belle Ann Elementary. She would go on to receive her master's degree from MSU in reading instruction, and in 2000 earned her doctorate degree from Wayne State University in curriculum and instruction.
Clemetsen was a first grade teacher at Belle Ann for 12 years.
"It was exciting and challenging work," she recalled. "I built a foundation of relationships as part of the Belle Ann family. I loved this community right from day one."
She enjoyed teaching first grade, especially watching the growth of the students over the school year as they learned how to read and write, grasp mathematics concepts, and adapt socially, learning to get along with their classmates. The one challenge Clemetsen had, one she believes was shared by all her fellow first-grade teachers, was the waning of students' energy by the end of the day.
"After lunch they'd want to go home," she laughed. "They weren't used to the full day."
After a dozen years teaching first grade, Clemetsen was named the learning specialist for Belle Ann and H.T. Burt Elementary in 1986 and for two years, assisted teachers with academically challenged students, administering formal and informal tests and constructing and helping to implement intervention plans for these students.
In 1988, the principals of H.T. Burt and Belle Ann, Bob Harvey and Bud Swanson, respectively, both announced their retirement. Clemetsen applied for a principal position and was hired— as the first principal of Harvey-Swanson Elementary, named after the retiring principals. Brandon's third elementary would be housed in the building on Varsity Drive next to H.T. Burt.
At that time, the building was a community center and housed all kindergarten classes, but a conversion to an elementary was necessary to accommodate growth in student enrollment in the district.
"I was so excited about getting the keys from Bob Harvey and I came in awestruck," remembers Clemetsen.
In a guest book at a recent retirement party, Harvey wrote to her, "Helen, I would stack your school up against any school in Oakland County... I will not forget what you have done for this school and the many happy faces I saw this day. It's part of you."
With no playground and only four shelves of library books when Clemetsen was named principal, a large task was laid before her and the new Harvey Swanson staff. The building had to be furnished and supplied as an elementary school, with limited resources. Money raised in the community was used to put in playground equipment and to build the library.
"It took a lot of teamwork and enthusiasm," Clemetsen said. "We built this school from the bottom up 24 years ago. When you look around, it's amazing to see."
Over the years, the school has undergone three building renovations and in 1998 the Fantasy Castle playground was constructed. But while the material improvements helped the school immensely, the accomplishments of which Clemetsen is most proud are programs with direct impact on teachers and students— the professional learning community work, data wall, the school's mileage club, extracurricular activities, community partnerships including the school's credit union in conjunction with the Clarkston Brandon Community Credit Union, scholarship programs, arts, and NCA accreditation.
At the helm of it all has been Clemetsen. She describes being a principal as being the key teacher, walking the talk, visible, involved in all the classrooms as a problem solver, thinker and doer and servant to the whole school.
"The school community becomes your vocation," she says simply. "If you do it right, it's 24/7, a big job. We are all here for the kids, to provide for them and help them succeed— academically, socially, emotionally, and physically."
Children today need the same things as kids did when she began her career almost four decades ago, she adds— consistency, caring teachers with their best interests at heart, emotional support, structure and patience.
Students are more technologically astute today and they also have to be more resilient and adaptable to change with more blended families, Clemetsen said, but parents have stayed the same with always wanting what is best for their kids.
The challenge for educators today is dealing with the funding of education and its inequities, as well as the state's increased control on how local districts educate. Clemetsen is also frustrated with unfunded mandates from the state.
"Students are our most precious resource," she said. "I feel like we are in an era of the dismantling of public education by the government... We need to invest in our children, not take money away."
Clemetsen is looking forward to enjoying life beyond the school setting in her retirement, spending more time with her husband, Eric. The couple also has a son, Jared, 28. She plans to travel, and is also taking a part-time "very flexible" position at Oakland University in the fall as a student teacher supervisor.
Cathy Burbo and Pat Tryska, each of whom have worked with Clemetsen for more than 20 years, are sorry to see her go.
"She's an awesome role model," said Tryska. "She's very caring and always makes time for students, they are her first priority. This is going to be really hard."
When Clemetsen leaves Harvey Swanson in a few weeks, she will take with her the guest book filled with messages of love that will last long after the sidewalk chalk is gone— "Thanks for being the best principal I've ever had. I love you." "You're #1!" "You made the halls come alive!" "Thank you for everything you've done for our family and making our elementary years a blast!"
All in a lifetime's work.
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville