Woodside Elementary Principal Betty Cobbs waves to students coming in from field day on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Woodside Elementary Principal Betty Cobbs waves to students coming in from field day on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Everett’s first Black principal retires after 51 years

In her office, Betty Cobbs kept a black-and-white photo of herself at age 5: “I am right there, with dreams of becoming an educator.”

BOTHELL — For half a century, Woodside Elementary School Principal Betty Cobbs made it her purpose to improve grades, educate teachers and remember the names of countless students.

The first Black principal in Everett schools has achieved even more.

Cobbs, 73, who said educators don’t know the impact they will have on a kid’s life, will retire this week after more than 51 years in education.

To mark the occasion, Woodside colleagues filled her office with flowers.

On the wall, she hung a note from a former student telling her, “I love you.”

A note from a student hangs on a white board in Principal Betty Cobbs office on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A note from a student hangs on a white board in Principal Betty Cobbs office on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Years after they graduate, students return to visit Cobbs and thank her.

Her commitment goes beyond the school walls. She has been a member of the Everett Youth Symphony board and Everett Community College Board of Trustees, among others.

In her office, Cobbs keeps a black-and-white photo of herself as a 5-year-old.

“I am right there,” she said, “with dreams of becoming an educator.”

Bouquets of flowers cover a table in Principal Betty Cobbs office at Woodside Elementary School on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Bouquets of flowers cover a table in Principal Betty Cobbs office at Woodside Elementary School on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘A wonderful place to be’

Born in New Orleans, Cobbs’ family moved near Joint Base Lewis-McChord around 1954. Her parents expected her to get good grades and be involved in the community.

“I always observed that they knew things and they shared with others, and people liked them, and people listened to them,” Cobbs said. “They would seek advice from them. About anything.”

Cobbs loved cheerleading and played the clarinet.

She set a high bar for her brother, Charles Wilson.

When she left to study education at Western Washington University, she left a trail of books behind for Wilson. Those included Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth,” “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison and books by James Baldwin.

It was the height of the Black Power movement.

“I would see those and I would read them, not knowing that that would be something I needed to read later in life,” Wilson said.

Cobbs invited Wilson to a Black history week she co-organized as a Black Student Union member. He never forgot.

Despite Wilson being four years her junior but she introduced him to everyone.

“I learned a little bit about college and that it was a wonderful place to be,” he said. “I was not intimidated about going to college after spending time with her and talking to her about college and her experience there.”

Her time at Western Washington eventually led Cobbs to Everett. In 1973, she began a hands-on teaching internship here.

Woodside Elementary Principal Betty Cobbs on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Woodside Elementary Principal Betty Cobbs on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Special place in heaven’

Challenges and constant feedback marked her first year.

“You’re learning how to teach while you’re teaching,” Cobbs said. “It was a lot of stress and lots of tears from when things don’t go right.”

She agonized about how to teach the students who didn’t understand.

As one of the few Black teachers, Cobbs sometimes felt lonely.

She finished the year as a much-improved teacher with experiences that would help the rest of her career.

She resolved to never give up on any student.

Soon, children started asking to be switched to Cobbs’ classroom.

“There’s a special place in heaven for teachers,” reads a plaque in her office.

From 2007 to 2009, she created a program to train new teachers.

In 1982, she became principal at Jackson Elementary school.

While there, she led an effort to bring Pigeon Creek No. 1 back to life. The creek had become a dumping ground, unrecognizable as the salmon spawning stream it once was.

Fifth graders took ownership of the project and cleaned up the stream. Salmon came back.

At every school she has been, Cobbs said she always strived to make “it better for kids.”

She improved reading and writing scores at Garfield Elementary.

She aimed to make everyone felt important.

State Sen. John Lovick remembers visiting her school as county sheriff and later as a senator.

“Everywhere she goes,” Lovick said. “She will take the time to talk to you.”

Principal Betty Cobbs receives a hug from second grade student Neela Zarrinabadi on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Principal Betty Cobbs receives a hug from second grade student Neela Zarrinabadi on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Not going to be bored’

Every Sunday, the Cobbs family gathers for a dinner of Southern food.

These nights can last for hours, and guests are always welcome.

It’s through these dinners she makes time to help her family.

Her eldest son, Zeb Cobbs, now a 45-year-old father himself, often asks her how to support his two sons through school.

Ask the right questions and make sure teachers know you care, she tells him.

As a young child, Zeb Cobbs’ teacher decided he needed to be in a special needs classroom. His mother investigated and ended up transferring him to another school.

Zeb Cobbs learned reading was key to problem-solving.

“I like to call her a forward reader,” Zeb Cobbs said. “So anything that she comes up against that she is not aware of, she will go read. She’ll do that forward training so that she has something to give to people. That’s something I really admire about her.”

Betty Cobbs now looks forward to catching up on her sleep and spending more time with her recently retired husband, Zebedee.

Don’t expect her to be done with learning, though. She’s now eyeing piano lessons. Maybe Spanish, too.

“If I get bored, I think I can find something to do,” she said. “But I’m not going to be bored for a while, because I already have a lot of things to do.”

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez: 425-339-3449; aina.alvarez@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @Ainadla.

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