BLOUNTVILLE — The woman who’s held many jobs in Sullivan County’s school system over 42 years is finally taking the pencil from her hair.
Evelyn Rafalowski for the past four years has been director of schools for the region’s largest school system, which serves about 9,400 students and some 1,400 employees. She formally retired July 31.
In the 38 years before that leadership post, she has been everything from a classroom teacher and coach to assistant principal, then in the central office everything from transportation director to human resources officer and assistant superintendent.
Before the July 25 school board meeting, Rafalowski had her trademark No. 2 pencil in her hair, removing it just before the meeting started. In a later interview, she said that students have mimicked the pencil in the hair of the school system’s first and only female director.
During a question about bus contracts, she said she remembered the standard language of 60-mile routes and then quipped she wouldn’t be doing a rundown of every job she’s done for the school system over the years. It was her last board meeting before retirement.
During a recent interview on her first official day of retirement, Rafalowski said the change is still sinking in, and she’s still going through some things in her office and talking with new Director David Cox.
Rafalowski has already mailed her application and dues to join the Sullivan County Retired Teachers Association and will spend more time with her husband of 37 years, Teddy, and her two grandchildren. However, Rafalowski said she definitely plans to be on hand when the new Sullivan East Middle School opens in January 2020 and when the new West Ridge High School opens in August 2021.
“I hope to continue to have some involvement with the two schools as they continue to be completed,” she said.
HOW DID IT ALL START?
Rafalowski, 64, attended Long Island Elementary School in grades 1-7 and then Sullivan West High School in grades 8-12, graduating in 1973. In the spring of her senior year, by federal mandate females were allowed to play sports males played, and she was on the tennis team.
She then spent at year at Wilson-Warren College in North Carolina, where she played basketball, before transferring to East Tennessee State University. While at ETSU earning her bachelor’s degree in education, she also was sports editor of the East Tennessean and spent time covering then-ETSU men’s basketball coach Sonny Smith, who later coached at Auburn.
She later worked part time in the sports department of the Kingsport Times News. One of her jobs was calling high school football coaches on Friday nights if no one from the paper covered the game or if the score hadn’t already been called in to.
HER EDUCATION CAREER
Rafalowski accepted her first education job, outside a Lynn View High School stint of student teaching while working at the Times News, from Principal Normal Tunnel of Colonial Heights Junior High School in August 1977. The next school year, she moved to Lynn View to work for Principal Carl Mattherly. The following year was the first for both Sullivan South High, combination of Sullivan West and part of Sullivan Central, and Sullivan North High, a combination of Ketron and Lynn View.
After Lynn View, she was hired at North to coach volleyball and to help coach girls basketball and softball as well as to teach physical education, which she had done at Lynn View. She quit the part-time newspaper job and stayed at North 10 years, but in 1990 was hired as assistant principal at Sullivan Central before then-Director of Schools John O’Dell hired her for the central office in January 1999.
She subsequently worked as technology coordinator, in human resources and assistant director. Most recently, she oversaw transportation, technology, safety and athletics at the same time before being named interim director in June 2015 and director in August 2015.
She has worked under eight directors or superintendents.
WHAT WERE CHANGES AND CHALLENGES SHE SAW?
— The emergence of technology, including computers and cell phones.
“We’ve become dependent on technology,” Rafalowski said, saying computers didn’t show up in schools until the 1980s and then only in offices, not for students. She said that around 2011 cell phones became commonplace among even younger students. She once, around 2011 or 2012, had to take four K-3 students from a bus stranded in the snow to another bus in her four-wheel-drive vehicle and quickly realized even the younger ones had their own cell phones.
— In late August of 2010, an armed man entered Sullivan Central, which was put on lockdown. No students or police were injured, but the man was killed. Rafalowski said cell phones allowed students that day to notify parents quickly that they were OK. She also attributed the outcome of the incident to having a good safety plan in place and in the minds of students, staff and faculty.
“Whenever we’ve had challenges, our safety plans have worked,” she said.
— Learning to do more with less. Rafalowski said the central office staff has shrunk since she joined it and the school system’s student population has fallen. “The team was about twice the size of the team we have now,” she said.
“Watching that institutional knowledge walk out the door is tough. Then as I walk out of the door, I realize I’m the institutional knowledge,” Rafalowski said.
— Giving raises, including the full 2 percent increase the school board recently approved for teachers and all employees. “If I could give them the moon, I would because they deserve it,” Rafalowski said. “A teacher will never be paid enough.”
— On testing and rating schools, she lamented that Tennessee has had three different standardized test vendors and the forthcoming letter rankings of school systems from A-F, although they have been delayed another school year. “The emphasis is placed on one test, and I’m not so sure that is fair to everyone,” Rafalowski said. “I’m not sure you can measure it (the impact of a teacher, school and school system on students) with a number or letter.”