McGaugh Principal takes learning experiences into retirement

Roni Ellis had a vision for remaking the school

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Roni Ellis said her primary goal was to make the school feel like a home for students. Photo by Ted Apodaca

McGaugh Elementary School Principal Roni Ellis isn’t quite sure what her life will entail after walking away from 34 years in education, but she is fairly certain that it’s time to find out. Ellis said she doesn’t think she’d ever be 100 percent certain, but with her husband Dave now 10 years into his retirement, Ellis said it seems like a good time to join him.

Her career in education began in East Los Angeles, where she grew up, as a teacher in one of the largest elementary schools in the state. It was also within one of the poorest communities. She spent 12 years there, and she said the experience served her very well throughout the rest of her career.

“It was the best foundation I could have had,” Ellis said.

Though she only spent four years at McGaugh, she made some positive impacts, her supporters said. McGaugh PTA President Farnaz Pardasani, said that Ellis began making changes, and though not all were popular, over time they have proven to be the right calls, Pardasani said.

“Like any good leader she had a vision,” Pardasani said.

Ellis has relished the challenges that come with working in education. As a principal, Ellis said her primary goal was to make the school feel like a home for students. At McGaugh, having military children, who often have to move more than most kids, that goal became particularly prominent.

One of her first priorities was to impress upon students and families that their presence in school was vital. Attendance was not as steady as she would have liked, and Ellis said that was one of the things she wanted to change.

“We need you here, we need you here every day, you make us whole,” Ellis said she would tell students.

But getting the children into the classroom is just one of the challenges, Ellis said. Getting them there only works if they are ready to learn and given a place in which that can happen. Ellis said she has been motivated by the teachers and classified staff who come to work every day and make sure the campus is ready to support the kids and make them feel safe.

“It takes a true team,” Ellis said

Her role was to essentially to be a buffer between the staff and outside influences, such as curriculum changes, either locally, or nationally. Or from the community, if problems or issues arise between teachers and parents, or other staff. Pardasani said that Ellis was always willing to listen to all parties, before making her own decisions on what the course of actions would be.

That challenge became particularly difficult in September of 2018, when Ellis posted a personal opinion about athletes kneeling during the National Anthem. Her post was directed at the Nike corporation, but brought backlash over her use of the word “thug” about Colin Kaepernick. Some members of the community and the district called for her dismissal. Mostly she regretted putting the school in the middle of the issue and she said it was a learning experience.

“What’s most important to me is my responsibility and my role,” Ellis said. “It was devastating to me, that I could hurt people that I care so much about.” 

Many of the programs Ellis brought into the school became very popular with students and families. One of the simplest is arguably one of the biggest favorites. The “A for a Day,” program has become one of the most sought-after recognitions at the school. One student is chosen each day to be the school aide. Teachers nominate students and one is chosen each day. The winner is announced over the classroom PA system and the “A for a Day,” gets to run up to the office to have their picture taken with Ellis and the student receives rewards that include gift cards donated by local businesses. The student also get a pass to move to the front of the lunch line, a huge honor for elementary school age children.

“It was just really a sense of pride,” Pardasani said.

When the PTA came up with the idea for a Culture Club, celebrating diversity, their budget for the year had already been set, Pardasani said. However, when the idea was discussed at the meeting, Pardasani said that Ellis felt it was important enough and assured them she would find money in the school’s budget to pay for it and it was added to the school’s programs. Ellis was also instrumental in getting the school’s Astronomy Night going.

Education is a unique career, Ellis said, because there is a beginning and an end to each school year. After each year, teachers and administrators always have time to reflect on what worked and what might need to be changed. And it is ever changing, which presents new challenges with each year.

“It never gets easier, it never gets automatic,” Ellis said. “It’s a dynamic career.”

At the end of each year, Ellis said that she never had the sense that she did everything right, but that she would find a way to do things better going forward. And that she would find a way to better support her teachers and staff, so that they could best support the students.

“If I can do all that, so they can be the best teachers they can be, I am 100 percent satisfied,” Ellis said. 

Although the timing was not ideal, Ellis said that COVID-19 was not a factor in her decision to retire now. In fact, part of her wanted to stay and help the school navigate through it, but she decided it was time to move on. For now, Ellis and her husband Dave will remain in Huntington Beach, but they also have a retirement home in Nevada. They will split time for now, before deciding if they want to commit to one place. The only constant is likely to be golf, a game which they both enjoy.

She also said she is comforted by the team that will take over. She knows incoming Principal Dr. Issaic Gates from his time at Los Alamitos High School. She describes him as a big personality, who is energetic, joyful and positive, with a sense of kindness. She also knows Assistant Principal Wendy Wood, who remains at the school.

“I think the two of them will make a dynamic team,” Ellis said.

Despite the challenges and setbacks, Ellis said she leaves McGaugh, comfortable with the impact she made and happy to have had the chance to be a part of the community.

“I’m just so proud to be a part of something so beautiful and proud to say I was here,” Ellis said.