David Koyama’s education career began where few would expect — in a war. As a lieutenant serving in Vietnam, Koyama picked up what would become a lifelong approach to working with young people.
Koyama, the principal of Lynnwood Elementary, retired this month after eight years at the school and 34 years in education.
“When I was an officer in Vietnam, I had 18 and 19 year-old kids under me, and I realized so many of these kids had burned their bridges already,” Koyama said, sitting in his office after the last day of school earlier this month. “They had not had a lot of opportunities in life. As an officer, I was playing the role of teacher to these kids.”
The soldiers in Vietnam came from many disenfranchised groups, Koyama said.
“I went into education with the idea that there are things that can be done better,” he said. “I still think we fail too many young people today.”
That mind set stayed with Koyama through the years as he tutored fifth graders on a Native American reservation, taught grades one through nine and served as the affirmative action officer with the Bellevue School District.
It’s guided his path at Lynnwood, where almost 40 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Schools fail kids, in part, by failing to form relationships with them, Koyama said.
“There are a lot of kids who drop out of school because they never connect with adults or don’t find it a caring place,” he said.
The key to engaging young minds is connecting with students, even on a deep level, he said.
When Koyama arrived at Lynnwood Elementary — then Lynnwood Intermediate — eight years ago, the school wasn’t what it is today.
“When I started, I knew I wanted to change the culture of the school into a caring school,” he said. “The culture of the school was a lot more challenging (then).”
Koyama helped create several programs to make the school into more of a community. “Peace days,” for example, was started after 9/11.
“(We) created an initiative that we can’t control peace in the world, but (can control it) on campus,” Koyama said.
Peace Days, which run through the year, teach kids to treat each other with respect and without aggression.
PAWS is another program that aims to bring kids together. (There’s no connection to the animal welfare group of the same name.)
Students of different ages meet together with a staff member at least once a month.
“They get together so kids know other kids younger and older than themselves,” Koyama said.
Until this past school year, Lynnwood Elementary, which now hosts kindergarten through sixth grade, used to be Lynnwood Intermediate, with grades three through six.
“One of the reasons we made it into K through sixth (was so) we’d have opportunities to form deep relationships with (students) and form a stronger community,” Koyama said.
Koyama feels he’s succeeded in his goals.
“Not just (changing) the culture (of the school), but academically,” he said.
In creating a kinder school, he also boosted achievement.
“Achievement scores have gone up,” Koyama said.
Now that he’s achieved those goals, he’s ready to slow down.
“I’ve always felt life is short,” he said. “It’s too short to spend your time working.”
The need to slow down hit Koyama about 10 years ago during a summer run around Greenlake in Seattle.
“I used to run around Greenlake,” he said. “It hit me like a ton of bricks when I realized the scenery changed seasonally.”
He’d never noticed that before, he said. He found himself wondering about the lake’s birds.
After doing some research, he learned that a group of ducks called widgeons, which are distinguished by a mohawk-style white stripe on their heads, stop at the lake on their way to Alaska.
Again at Greenlake not long after, Koyama noticed something strange.
“I saw a widgeon different from other widgeons,” he said. “It had a pink stripe.”
It was, in fact, a Eurasian widgeon.
“He’d gotten in with the American widgeons,” he said. “It made me realize the stories that happen in nature.”
Koyama has been bird watching ever since.
“Bird watching has become a metaphor for slowing down,” he said.
Now that he’s retired, Koyama plans to spend more time bird watching. He also wants to travel to Africa, go on safari and climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Koyama’s also excited about the birth of his first grandchild, due in December.
But he has mixed feelings about leaving the school.
“The last couple of weeks have been an emotional roller coaster,” he said. “There’s a sense of loss, of sadness and parting, (but also) a sense of excitement.”