Debi Pottorff is retiring after 28 years with Camp Verde Unified School District, most recently as principal.
|At left, in April, Pottorff participated in the third-grade music concert at CVES with another memorable outfit. (VVN/Jon Pelletier). Pottorff’s Minnie Mouse costume has long been a staple of Halloween at CVES. (VVN/Bill Helm)|
|"Mrs. Pottorff's presence and leadership will be epically missed here at Camp Verde Unified School District and her shoes will be genuinely difficult to fill." -- Superintendent Amber Lee|
CAMP VERDE - She's been known as the Jackie O of Camp Verde Unified School District. Very organized and highly creative, Debi Pottorff has also been known for her style - like the sun visor-and-clipboard getup for keeping an eye on students on the playground and the annual Minnie Mouse costume for Halloween.
Last week, it was Snow White at a third-grade concert.
Now, as the elementary enters its last month of classes for the school year, Pottorff is coming to the end of her tenure as principal and retiring from the district.
"It's bittersweet," she says. "I love this school. There are great people here. That's what I love best about the school. The students are positive and resilient. Even if they're having a tough time at home, they have a smile on their faces."
After her contract ends, Debi and her husband Mark Pottorff will be hitting the road to see the country. She will also catch up with her writing. Besides a children's book as one might expect, she has also dabbled in sci-fi and a murder-mystery set in Camp Verde. Mark retired last year and has been "champing at the bit to do stuff," she says. Being able to leave with full retirement, they will be move on to the next chapter while keeping a home base in the Verde Valley.
Pottorff has had a 28-year run with CVUSD, starting as a teacher. In 2007, in the middle of some leadership tumult, she became the third principal in three years at Camp Verde Elementary School. Her first challenge was to bring the staff back together as a team.
"Every principal seemed to have a special agenda, but Debi just let us teach and do our job," says Lori Showers, who is in her 18th year teaching at CVES. "She didn't try to reinvent the wheel. She let us do what we do best."
Staff saw Pottorff as one of their own who understood the young children and the teachers.
"She had great ideas and got some good things going," Judy Gilbert says. "She's had respect for teachers and always wanted them to be credited."
Gilbert, who was shocked at Pottorff's announcement, has the unique perspective of an elementary school volunteer who became a member of the governing board. She has seen first-hand Pottorff's work among staff and students as well as with the other principals.
"She's not boisterous. She's reserved and calm. She has an organized and creative mind that helps her see the next step," Gilbert says. "And she's a swell person besides. She's proven to be an inspiration to the students."
Pottorff inherited a new school building with a deeply experienced office staff ("they are so knowledgeable ... and they know everyone") and soon had a new reading series in place. Arizona schools are constantly adapting to the changing expectations and testing at the state level while trying to get the best gauge on student growth. During her 28 years as a teacher, she has seen state educational standards come and go, almost in a cycle. She says the new Common Core initiative is very similar to standards instigated several years ago.
"It's frustrating that we spend so much time and energy mapping curriculum," Pottorff says.
CVES, she says, is "working toward data-driven teaching." Title 1 has gone schoolwide ("We can reach so many more kids that way") and the school is taking on the challenge of the Move on When Reading mandate. At the same time, Pottorff has pushed to keep or return the fine arts as they fell victim to budget cuts.
"We are fortunate to have the marvelous music teacher [Kathleen Murlless] that we have at this time. She has done wonders with the students, not only with grade level performances, but also choir and band," she says. The school also has local artist Carol Hildebrand come in once a week to teach art.
"Mrs. Pottorff has been a champion for education throughout her employment here in Camp Verde," Superintendent Amber Lee says. "Her determination to make a difference in the lives of students has positively impacted generations of students. She is an intelligent, wise and thoughtful person with a brilliant sense of humor.
"In addition, her talents for organization are amazing. She is a one-of-a-kind, unique leader at the elementary school who has demonstrated the extraordinary ability to build strong teams of teachers who are highly effective in their mission to educate children. Mrs. Pottorff's presence and leadership will be epically missed here at Camp Verde Unified School District and her shoes will be genuinely difficult to fill."
"I don't know how we're going to replace her," Gilbert agrees.
For her successor, Pottorff says a major challenge will be "the sheer number of students and staff one person has to handle. There are so many people."
The CVES student population is up to 768, already pushing the capacity of the building. Before she leaves, Pottorff will be asking the board for more classroom space, possibly in the art room. Though the number of students would justify adding an assistant principal, Pottorff says she has always been a firm believer in reasonable class size, which is only possible financially by limiting administration.
But that will not be the only challenge facing a new principal.
"I think everyone will be compared to Debi," says Gilbert, who will see the hiring of a new principal before leaving office this year. "They'll need her fortitude, and her vigor and contribution to what CVUSD stands for."
"She will be hard to replace," Showers says. "She's been efficient and on top of everything. Nothing's ever left behind. And she's a strong supporter of the teachers. We felt like we had an ally."
As Pottorff finishes out her contract and prepares for new adventures like gardening, reviving her piano playing and going off to John Denver Week in Aspen, Colo., she has had time to reflect on a long career at CVUSD.
"I'm probably my own worst critic, but I feel good about the years I've spent here," she says. "I feel like I'm leaving on a good note."
-- Follow the reporter on Twitter @LOUFLU and Instagram @VerdeValleyNews