Sometimes, the tears sneak up on Lincoln Options Elementary School retiring teacher-librarian Donna Dannenmiller.
It happened earlier this week, during lunch recess, as she leafed through her favorite picture book, “The Three Questions” by Jon J. Muth.
She read her favorite passage out loud: “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.”
“It’s all about relationships,” Dannenmiller said afterward, wiping her eyes. And relationships have been the basis of her lengthy career in alternative education, she said.
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In September 1984, Dannenmiller and a group of other parents who had met through the Eastside Cooperative Preschool helped start the Options alternative elementary school program with two multi-age classrooms at Olympia’s McKinley Elementary School, which is now defunct.
The following year, Dannenmiller — who grew up in the Burien area but studied alternative education at the University of Massachusetts and Lesley University — became one of the teachers of the Options program that now calls Lincoln School home. The program that promotes high levels of parental involvement now is a districtwide alternative K-5 program that serves about 300 students.
Dannenmiller spent the first 19 years teaching grades 1 to 3. She obtained a librarian credential from the University of Washington and eventually became the school’s teacher-librarian.
“She’s amazing,” said Lincoln parent Megan Conklin. “She’s just a really wonderful person.”
Last year, Conklin’s 9-year-old son, Leo, had a difficult time transitioning back to school after being out for several months with a traumatic brain injury. But when he came back, he wanted to spend the beginning of his school day with Dannenmiller, Conklin said.
“I think that exemplifies how good she is with kids,” she said. “They’re drawn to her. Donna would let him come in and help out, and let him be in a quiet space while he got in the swing of school.”
Dannenmiller said education has changed a great deal during her career. These days, schools struggle with oversized classes, and tend to focus on student outcomes for reading, writing and math tests, Dannenmiller said. She said she hopes the pendulum will swing back soon to a system that promotes music, art, books and play, in addition to basic education.
“We have to bring back the joy and passion in teaching,” Dannenmiller said.
Liv Monroe, one of the program’s founding parents, described Dannenmiller as “a person who always considers everyone and accomplishes things she sets out to … exquisitely.”
“She doesn’t do anything halfway,” Monroe said.
Dannenmiller said her favorite part of working in the library has been story time, and helping kids connect a piece of literature to their lives. Although many schools put more of an emphasis on technology skills in their libraries, Dannenmiller said she believes story time is still an important tool for educating the whole child, which is a philosophy at Lincoln.
“I tell (students) ‘If you know these words, you’ll ace any SAT test you take,’” she said.
“Being read to is so crucial to a child’s education.”
Dannenmiller’s husband, Jim Dannenmiller, recently retired as budget manager for the Department of Ecology. The two timed their departures so they’ll be able to spend more time together, traveling and camping.
After years of reading for work, Dannenmiller said she’s looking forward to reading adult titles in retirement. “And just slow down and be present with my granddaughter and my family,” she added.
The school’s library and two of its classrooms were vandalized over spring break by teens from out of the area who were visiting a family member’s home in the surrounding South Capitol neighborhood, Dannenmiller said.
“They filled the library with fire extinguisher chemical,” she said. The library was closed for several days while crews cleaned up the mess, which involved special care because of the chemicals. Then a team of about eight volunteers worked a week to help reshelve the library’s 16,000 titles.
Dannenmiller said she was touched by the response, and it’s that caring community at Lincoln that she’ll miss the most.
“It’s such a tight community,” she said. “It’s a family. It’s like leaving my family.”
Dale Rayburn, a licensed practical nurse at the school, said Dannenmiller has “an incredible connection with children” and a talent when it comes to matching kids with the perfect books, and getting them excited about reading.
Dannenmiller has made the library the school’s heart, she said.
“We are going to miss her,” Rayburn said.