BRUSH PRAIRIE — When Mussè Barclay started sixth grade at Hockinson Middle School, he was feeling self-conscious about his appearance, but Superintendent Sandra Yager told him something that has stuck with him more than six years later.
“I had this curly hair in a mostly white school,” said Barclay, now 17. “I didn’t even know who she was then, but she stopped me and said, ‘I love your hair. It’s so curly. It’s so handsome.’ It was a motherly thing to do.”
Barclay, who was born in Ethiopia and adopted by a family in Hockinson when he was 6, used the word “motherly” multiple times when talking about how Yager has looked after Hockinson students during her tenure with the district, which is coming to a close.
Yager, 52, has served Hockinson for 17 years, first as the principal of Hockinson High School when the district moved from a K-8 to K-12, and for the last eight years as superintendent. In November, Yager announced she would step down after this school year to take the same position with Cornerstone Christian Academy in Vancouver. The school board hired Steve Marshall, currently the director of educational resources for the Camas School District, as her replacement.
Yager is sad to leave Hockinson, she said, but is looking forward to joining Cornerstone, an opportunity she feels like she has been working toward her entire life.
She’s excited about combining her love of teaching with her faith, and the challenge of fundraising to build the K-8 district an actual building. Yager said she’s loved education since she was a child growing up outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“I’m thankful for the way the community embraced this fiery Latina girl,” Yager said. “They entrusted me with their kids.”
Yager was studying to get her teaching degree in Argentina when she met an American man traveling abroad. She stayed behind to finish college, they got married and then she moved with him to Vancouver about 30 years ago. After arriving, she worked as a bank teller for about four years but knew something was missing, she said. She had her college transcripts translated and evaluated, and got her teaching certificate here.
Yager worked as a math teacher at Jason Lee Middle School for four years and was hired as assistant superintendent of Skyview High School when the school opened in 1997. She later spent a year-plus as principal at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, took some time off to have her first daughter and was hired to open Hockinson High School. She joined the district before the school was built; a Columbian headline in May 2001 described her as “Principal without a school.”
It’s her journey that has inspired many students, including Barclay.
“I cried the first time I heard her story,” he said. “To see how far she has come since coming to the (United States), you can see how she did it in what she values: education and a loving home.”
Barclay recently discovered that firsthand when he dropped off Yager’s oldest daughter at her house. He was invited in to share some mate, an herb tea used as a symbol for community and welcoming.
“Her passion, her energy, her love is like that,” he said. “She passes it around to everyone.”
Hockinson’s school board hosted a farewell party for Yager on Monday night where guests could speak about the outgoing superintendent. Both of her daughters — Belèn Yager, 18, and Sofia Yager, 15 — described how they often come home to find people they don’t know invited over for a meal.
“She’s the most loving person I ever met,” Sofia Yager said.
Multiple people described Sandra Yager as “passionate,” “compassionate” and a “spark plug.” She is a welcoming presence but knows how to turn the pressure on those who get in her way, according to a few people who spoke, including some who have tried to go head-to-head with her.
“She is a fighter,” said Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver. “She fights for the students, teachers and Hockinson community.”
At the event, Marshall, the incoming superintendent, said Yager is humble but has left her fingerprints all over the district. She not only opened the high school but oversaw the district as it passed a bond to build a replacement middle school.
“Every time I drive by the high school and see it, I’m still impressed,” Yager said. “It’s still a beautiful building. But the brick and mortar don’t make a district. The people do. Parents, teachers, staff and students do.”
For Yager, the best part of her time in Hockinson has been the relationships she formed. She wanted to show her students that she believes in them, based on her own experiences. She remembers a teacher, Señora Baraveira, in Argentina who had a great impact on her as a child. Yager hopes some of her students will remember her similarly.
“You cannot kid a kid,” she said. “When you truly, genuinely care for kids, they know. It’s my calling to care for them.”