02-19-12: Walker High grad returns to teach at her junior high
02-19-12: Walker High grad returns to teach at her junior high

As a 15-year-old runaway living on the streets of Portland, the last thing Keri Lester thought she would face is a pregnancy.

After the reality of the news sunk in, she decided to do what was best for her and her baby’s future — abandon the life she was leading as a punk rocker, come home to Puyallup, get a job, and go back to school.

The once rebellious teenager, who called attention to herself at Aylen Junior High by talking in class, styling her hair in a Mohawk, and disconnecting herself from teachers, wanted nothing more than to turn her life around.

That she did.

After years of determination and hard work, the 1995 Walker High graduate now teaches at the very junior high where she rebelled as a ninth grader.

This is Lester’s ninth year teaching English, and she learned in November that she joins an elite group of educators nationwide who have earned the highest honor in the teaching profession — National Board Certification.

She will be recognized, along with 20 other district colleagues who earned the national honor, at the February 27 Puyallup School Board meeting. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at Ballou Junior High, 9916 136th St. E. in Puyallup.

Excelling in high school

After returning home from Portland, Lester re-enrolled as a tenth grader at Puyallup High and transferred a short time later to Walker High (then called Puyallup Alternative School). She said she felt more comfortable there as a pregnant teen.

“I needed to work and focus on schoolwork and my child’s future,” she said. “I wasn’t into dating or sports or other social aspects of high school.”

Lester also enrolled in Running Start, a program where she could earn college credit by taking classes at Pierce College at night while attending Walker High during the day.

The teen took summer school between her sophomore and junior year to stay ahead and didn’t miss a day of school when she gave birth to her baby girl over the Thanksgiving holiday break in the fall of her junior year.

On the days she had class, she brought her baby to a childcare center formerly run by the school district. Her father also took several weeks off of work to care for the newborn so his daughter could return to school.

Lester earned straight A’s in the first semester of her senior year, finished the requirements for a Certified Nursing Assistant license, and went to work at Valley Terrace Nursing Center in Puyallup.

She asked the principal, Earlene Bogrand, to transfer her back to Puyallup High. “I didn’t want my diploma to say I graduated from an alternative school,” Lester said.

Instead, Bogrand challenged Lester to stay and work on getting the school’s name changed as part of her senior culminating project.

With the help of first-year teacher Colin Findlay, who still teaches at Walker High, Lester coordinated a naming committee, arranged for public hearings, and spoke before the school board. In the end, the board voted to change the name to E.B. Walker High School.

“Keri was the most driven student I had that year,” Findlay said. “Her desire to succeed has rarely been matched in all my years of teaching. She always took school seriously and was very mature in how she handled her multiple school and personal responsibilities. She showed what students can do when they really put their mind to it and decide to not let obstacles get in their way.”

Lester remembers Findlay for ingraining in students that failure is not an option. Rather, he teaches students it is merely a stepping stone to success.

Retired Walker High teacher Karla Kauzlarich is another educator Lester identifies as being influential during her time at Walker High.

“She taught us that we could be parents, we could be students, and we could be successful,” Lester said.

College and first teaching job

After high school graduation, Lester continued to take classes at Pierce College and went to work as a teacher’s assistant at La Petite Academy. It became clear, she said, that her real passion was not in the health field, but in teaching.

She earned her associate degree at Pierce College and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, with an emphasis in special education and English, from Pacific Lutheran University.

In December 2001 Lester was hired at Aylen Junior High as a substitute teacher on long-term assignment for a class of students with special needs. She accepted her permanent teaching job in August 2002 as a seventh-grade English teacher.

One of those on the hiring panel was Lori Hadley, assistant principal this year at Rogers High School. Hadley was a building learning specialist at Aylen Junior High that year and was also Lester’s English teacher in ninth grade.

“She was a smart young lady who was a good English student,” Hadley said. “However, I was concerned about her decisions and the crowd she hung out with ... I wanted to see her live up to her potential, so it was with great excitement that I was able to help her get hired on at Aylen when the opportunity arose and she was ready.”

Five years ago Lester returned to school again — this time online through Walden University — to earn her master’s degree in curriculum and assessment.

Lester’s second child, a son, attends Aylen Junior High this year. Her daughter graduated from Puyallup High in 2010, earned an associate degree from Pierce College simultaneously from credits she earned in Running Start, and will graduate at age 18 from the University of Washington this June with a bachelor’s degree.

“I love teaching,” said Lester, who teaches pre-Advanced Placement English to ninth graders this year. “It’s all about connecting with the kids and letting them see that teachers are real people who care about their learning and their success. I want each and every one of them to be successful.”