Maricopa County School Superintendent Steve Watson congratulates Tonja Yalung of Ahwatukee
Jeff Brush/Special to AFN

Tonja Yalung, an Ahwatukee resident and principal at Kyrene de los Ninos Elementary School in Tempe for the past five years, is one of eight honored statewide with the 2017 Rodel Exemplary Principal Award.

She is the first principal in the Kyrene School District to receive the honor.

Yalung, a 29-year veteran with Kyrene, has been principal at Kyrene de los Ninos for five years, and previously served as principal at Kyrene de los Lagos in Ahwatukee. She was a teacher at Kyrene elementary schools prior to that.

She was presented the award at a surprise convocation at her school attended by Maricopa County School Superintendent Steve Watson, Kyrene School District Superintendent Jan Vesely and Kyrene Governing Board president John King.

The Rodel Award honors principals “who make significant differences in the lives of their students, staff and community.”

And is more than another plaque to hang on Yalung’s wall: it carries a two-year commitment to mentor one or more teachers who will be named Rodel Aspiring Principals in April.

Mentoring is something Yalung said she knows about from her years with Kyrene.

She specifically mentioned her one-time assistant principal Lisa Connor, now principal at Kyrene de la Sierra in Ahwatukee and former Sierra principal Dixie Shirley.

Yalung said a conversation with former Kyrene Superintendent David Shauer helped her make it a goal to become a mentor.

“He asked me what I’d like to do in the next few years, and I said I’d like to mentor principals. So, this award is such a gift because I’m at the point in my career that I’d want to do this for others,” she said.

She recalled another conversation with Shirley when she encouraged her to become an assistant principal.

“I said I’d never be an administrator, I’d rather teach but she encouraged me and kept giving me administrative tasks. I said she either thinks highly of me or she doesn’t like me,” Yalung laughed. “She was a great role model.”

She said the award was an honor, but not for her alone.

“I can’t accept it on my own, but must share it with my staff, my students, my family,” she said.

As principal at Kyrene de los Niños Elementary, Yalung works diligently to open communication with parents of the diverse, multicultural student population.

Yalung, her assistant principal Olivia Parry and other staff members often go to Boys & Girls Clubs in Guadalupe and Phoenix, and the Yaqui Education Services (YES) Center, setting up information tables and talking with parents. They also host picnics in the park for families.

“We initiated these when we got here,” she said, purposely avoiding the personal pronoun. “This allows us to building trusting relationships with our families.”

Among the selection criteria for the Rodel Exemplary Principal award is that the principal heads a school where currently more than half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. About 76 percent of Ninos students qualify.

The award also is based on a documented history of student achievement growth, a positive school culture and an active engagement of parents and community.

For Yalung, the latter is paramount yet often difficult because of the various cultures her school serves.

Yalung said now that her two sons – both Kyrene alumni – are now enrolled at the University of Arizona, her alma mater, she has the time to dedicate to mentoring.

“I have the time now, and this keeps me from cleaning my house every day,” she laughed. “Seriously, this is such a gift because I feel at this point in my career, I can do for others.”

This is the first year the award, initiated in 2008 by the Rodel Foundation, was under the auspices of the Maricopa County Education Service Agency.

While the award programs for principals and aspiring principals remain statewide initiatives, MCESA spokeswoman Laurie King said all the final candidates this year happened to be from Maricopa County.

According to the Rodel Foundation website, of the 150 aspiring principals mentored by award winners, more than a third have become principals.

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