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Garner retiring after 37 years as Penn-Trafford teacher, administrator

| Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 7:45 p.m.
Lillian DeDomenic | for the Penn
Lillian DeDomenic | for the Penn-Trafford Star Trafford Schools Principal Karen Garner is sending her last group of students off into summer vacation on Friday. She is retiring at the end of June after 37 years as a teacher and administrator in the Penn-Trafford School District. 'Who can ask for anything more?,' Garner said. 'Your passion gets to be your career.'

For the past six years, Principal Karen Garner has had one of two destinations when she steps out of the main office at Trafford schools.

If she turned to the left, she would mingle with the middle school students. A right turn would take her to the elementary classes.

At the end of next month, Garner will step out of the office and into a new phase in her life. After 37 years as a Penn-Trafford teacher and administrator, this district alumna is set to retire.

“Penn-Trafford has been very, very good to me, and I think it's very, very rare to start and end in the same place,” Garner said.

“I've been blessed. I just can't imagine walking out of here on the last day. I don't know how I'm going to do it.”

She has until June 28 to prepare for that departure, although her last day of classes is Friday.

In the meantime, Garner is working on a transition with her successors. Roger Sullivan, an assistant high school principal, is taking over at the middle school, while Level Green Elementary Principal Dan DiNapoli will split his time between that nearby school and Trafford Elementary.

Garner's split from the school district hasn't been overlooked by the community.

Last week, the Trafford Elementary PTO celebrated her tenure with a surprise tribute during its “Fun Day” activities. And the middle school chorus dedicated its performance of “For Good” from the Broadway musical “Wicked” to Garner during its spring concert.

“We chose that because one of the lyrics is ‘Because I knew you, I have been changed for good,' and we thought that hit just perfectly,” choral director Renee Rumbaugh said.

An eighth-grade student, Evan Guest, escorted Garner to the stage during the song and presented her with a snow globe.

“It was just absolutely unbelievable because of the emotion,” Garner said. “Some of the kids had tears in their eyes, and that just really did me in.”

At Trafford, Garner has headed a lean office staff of a secretary, nurse and counselor. About 60 teachers are in the classes with the 600 children.

By overseeing two schools, Garner puts in a little longer day than her counterparts in the other buildings. The middle-schoolers start arriving around 7:45 p.m., but the elementary students are in the building until about 4 p.m.

Nonetheless, PTO members Kim Sarnowski and Lauri Federovich said Garner has been very involved in extracurricular activities. Garner has attended all of the monthly PTO meetings and managed to attend a lot of school events, they said.

Federovich, who has three children in Trafford Elementary this year, said Garner has provided a good support system for parents. That started when Garner came to her neighborhood in the new Bradford Square housing plan after becoming principal in 2007 to meet with parents, she said.

“She has handled us as if we were her only school she has had to tend to,” Federovich said. “However, she does it, she does a really good job at it.”

Garner, who said she is the only woman who has been a secondary principal in the Penn-Trafford School District, is a district graduate who started her career as a reading specialist at Penn Middle School in 1975 after graduating from what then was known as Seton Hill College in Greensburg. She received her master's degree and principal certification from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Garner taught at Level Green and Harrison Park elementaries before becoming an assistant principal for McCullough and Sunrise Estates elementaries for about six months.

When she came to Trafford, Garner said, she embraced the role that the school has in the community. The auditorium frequently is used for community events, including the Trafford Recreation Board's annual fundraiser.

She worked with Trafford emergency-management coordinator Brian Ellicker to have the school certified as an American Red Cross warming center.

She also developed a program with the Wilmerding YMCA to provide before- and after-school programming for about 40 of the school's kindergarten students.

“Now it's in full swing, and the parents count on it,” she said.

In looking back over her career last week, Garner said, she's grateful for the dedication of her staff and teachers. But, she said, the hardest part of retiring will be losing the chance to watch the development of her students over the years.

“I remember their little faces and little voices, and then to see them grow into the men and women that they do become, there's a bond there. That's what I'm going to miss.”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or cforeman@tribweb.com.

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