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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Meet Ridgecrest’s new principal Sara Allen

Mar 28, 2022 09:38PM ● By Julie Slama

New Ridgecrest Elementary principal Sara Allen checks in on students during lunchtime. (Kerri Walker/Ridgecrest Elementary)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Nine days after the Canyons Board of Education announced the immediate approval to step in as Ridgecrest Elementary’s principal, Sara Allen was still on cloud nine.

“This position was an incredible gift,” she said.

She takes the position from Julie Winfree, who also has been overseeing the construction of a new school, Glacier Hills in White City, and the merging of two student bodies into one next fall where she will be principal.

Allen served as Ridgecrest assistant principal for the past six months.

Before that, she worked as a special education teacher both at Draper Park Middle and the now defunct Crescent View Middle. She also was an instructional coach for four years at Midvale Middle and an assistant principal at Butler Middle for three years.

She began as a paraeducator at Silver Mesa.

“As a para, I had a small groups of kids, but they are kids that really need somebody to believe in them and can break things down into small steps so I could help them feel successful,” Allen said. “Right off the bat, I was a good fit for that. You make a difference in these kiddos’ lives and that’s a powerful thing.”

Then, she was offered a teaching position in special education.

“Two weeks in and I knew this is where I’m supposed to be,” Allen said. “Administration never was my aspiration. I was a special ed teacher and my focus has always been making sure that every kid knows how capable they are. They just might need different help to get there. I think sometimes kids get stuck being told what they can’t do, and my goal is always make sure they know what they can do.”

The shift to leave teaching was hard.

“There’s nothing like having your own classroom full of kids. I think anyone who moves out of the classroom feels that,” Allen said. “At Midvale, I learned a lot of what it takes to help kids who are struggling, do what they need to do. I could see that I would still be making a difference for kids as the coach is there for teachers, which is incredibly important. As a principal, I feel like I have a similar impact. When a kid is really struggling, they’re still going to see a fair amount of me; I’m a good listener and I’m good at figuring out what’s going on so I can support and help the kid do better and move forward. You have that as a special ed teacher, and you have that as a principal.”

At Ridgecrest, Allen was immersed in the culture early on as she and PTA president Carrie Christiansen said they would sleep on the school roof if students met their fundraising goal.

“It was my first bonding moment because you bond when you’re on the roof together in a rainstorm, that’s for sure,” Allen said, who adds that normally she camps, backpacks, hikes and goes river rafting with her family away from the city landscape.

Looking ahead, Allen will navigate what many school principals need to face, how to successfully rebuild the school culture as restrictions loosen around the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Coming out of the pandemic, one of our biggest priorities right now is rebuilding community. Our attendance is not great and it’s hard because it’s been a mixed message: ‘Please be here. We can’t teach you if you’re not here.’ But the healthy piece, ‘Please don’t come if you’re sick.’ So, it’s been tricky. We have significantly more kids who have not been here or are in range that we consider a risk for attendance,” she said.

As the school has recently started allowing the return of volunteers, Allen said they are finding ways to rebuild the community which will help with attendance. She hopes there will be opportunities to hold assemblies and intermix students, such as buddy study pals, where older students will review their skills and be positive role models for younger students.

“My first graders don’t know my third and fourth graders. There hasn’t been a whole lot of mixing and if you’re new to our school and you’re a parent who hasn’t been able to volunteer, it’s been difficult,” she said.

Currently, there are plans in May to hold an outside Year of the Tiger celebration, which supports the Chinese culture and dual immersion program with their own mascot.

“We’re finding ways to rebuild the community. I think it’s a special thing: Ridgecrest takes care of Ridgecrest. We’ve counted on our community to fill in as substitutes. I think that’s an amazing feat in a year like this, that our community has filled in that need, and I don’t know many places that can say that. I think that’s a legacy that Julie left. She was good at building community and people trust her. They want to be here and make a difference. Whenever we’ve needed help this year, our community has been there every step of the way,” Allen said.

With the announcement of the position Feb. 15, Winfree’s seven-year stint at the school came to an end, but not without fist bumps and high-fives from students and an impromptu goodbye from faculty, who spontaneously sang the Ridgecrest school song, bringing Winfree to tears.

“I’m thrilled that I get the opportunity to stay,” Allen said.

While her office walls are adorned with her father’s paintings of local scenery, Allen can’t bear the thought of taking Winfree’s nameplate off the office.

“What a gift, right, who gets to learn from the person that’s been running the job for seven years,” she said. “No one gets to do that in education and I did. I just feel incredibly fortunate.”