FAIRBANKS — Every day is funny for Sandra Kowalski.
Her four boys and two young grandchildren surely add to the hilarity, but there are no questions as to where Kowalski gets a steady supply of laughs each day — middle school.
Kowalski is principal of Randy Smith Middle School in Fairbanks. She began working for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District four years ago, and she won the Fairbanks Principal Association’s Secondary Principal of the Year award this year.
Kowalski said she can appreciate middle school-aged humor. She also said that while many middle schoolers’ parents are exasperated by their children, the preteens’ teachers often are in heaven.
“They love this age,” she said. “They chose this age. You have to actually choose it.”
“They say kindergarten gets you ready for school, but I think middle school gets you ready for life. It’s an important time in the development of our students.”
Kowalski was born in Seattle and raised by her grandparents, James and Annie Savok, in Buckland for her first eight years of life.
Buckland, on the north coast of the Seward Peninsula not far from Kotzebue, is a small Inupiat village. It is part of the Northwest Arctic Borough and is where Kowalski’s passion for the Inupiat language is rooted.
At 8 years old, Kowalski moved with her parents, Rick and Suzy Erlich, to Kotzebue and Anchorage and Washington state and Washington, D.C.
“We moved a lot after I was 8,” Kowalski said. But her parents brought her back to Kotzebue for high school.
She attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks to study the Inupiat language and English. For a brief period, Kowalski tested the business school waters, but quickly decided she wanted to be a teacher instead.
She married Karl Kowalski in 1988. After she graduated in 1989 and again in 1990, with her two degrees, the couple headed to Deering, so she could teach.
They stayed in Deering for a year and moved to Kotzebue with a growing family.
She taught in Kotzebue for several years before she took a year off to help at the newly opened Inupiaq immersion school. She helped get the program running before she returned to the public school district. She went into an administrator position of director of state and federal programs. Her job began just as the No Child Left Behind Act was created.
“One of my roles was to figure out how NCLB would be impacting our schools,” she said. “That was a pretty interesting time. The best time of those years was, not my time in the central office, but traveling to the villages.”
She traveled throughout the borough to places like Kivalina, Noatak, Ambler and Selawik.
After four years in the central office, she decided to take a position back in the school. She applied to become principal of the June Nelson Elementary School in Kotzebue, and she served in that position for three years.
In college, Kowalski and her husband knew they wanted to live in Fairbanks one day.
“I knew I’d be back, I wanted to return,” she said.
After 18 years in the northwest, though, Kowalski said she and her husband had a wake up call.
“We realized that we had never returned back to Fairbanks to show our kids Fairbanks,” she said.
Though their oldest son, Aaron, had graduated in Kotzebue already and didn’t want to leave, the family moved to the Interior. Eventually Aaron followed.
Kowalski started teaching eighth grade at Effie Kokrine Early College Charter School. After a year there, she applied for an internship with the district’s secondary administration program. She worked for a semester at Lathrop High School as a principal intern and really enjoyed the experience.
“An urban high school is really different than a rural elementary school,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed working in both.”
She became principal of Randy Smith Middle School three years ago.
Kowalski said she has a lot of pride in her school.
When parents come to student events, she notices how excited they are for their children, just as the teachers are excited for their students. While everyone is snapping photographs of the children’s achievements, Kowalski often finds herself wanting to step back and snap a shot of their happy educators.
“The staff I work with, they just put so much into our students,” she said. After she won her award this spring, Kowalski credited her staff with building the backbone of her school.
Kowalski said she has learned things through the years, especially patience.
“I’ve had to learn patience and patience with myself and patience in getting to understand the larger picture,” she said. “For instance, I used to operate like I was driving a speedboat all the time.”
She learned that it was more effective to imagine she was operating a much larger boat.
“Just navigate slowly,” she said.
Kowalski has been back to Kotzebue a couple of times since her family moved.
“I miss the people and the connections and the large family gatherings,” she said. “I really miss my cousins and my aunties — the networking that you’re just kind of born into. When you move to Fairbanks, you have to rebuild all those.”
But she is still happy with the move, she said.
“We wanted to teach our kids that they could uproot and re-root,” she said. “It was a big change and a big move, but it was one we thought our family and our sons would benefit from.”
Her son Aaron is now an apprentice with the local plumbers and pipefitters union. Her second oldest, Michael, is going to school at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Brandon, her third oldest, just graduated from West Valley High School this spring. Her youngest, Nicholas, will start high school in the fall and is relieved he no longer goes to his mom’s school, Kowalski said.
Her husband Karl works at UAF with Information Technology.
The family thrives on finding people they can relate to and connect with.
“It’s a neat community, you still feel like you’re a part of home,” she said.
Contact staff writer Reba Lean at 459-7523.