Parkrose School District’s Student Services Director Kathy Keim-Robinson is this month’s Mid-county Memo community builder. She has spent the last 30 years dedicating herself to bettering the lives of Parkrose children struggling with educational disadvantages and ensuring that adults who teach them have the skills to help them succeed.
A people person
Growing up in parts of Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Chicago, Keim-Robinson (rhymes with lime) always knew that she wanted to enter a field where she would be able to help others. “I knew when I was a kid that I wanted to work with people or kids,” she recalls. “I did some volunteer work at a state institution and that wasn’t really for me, and teaching didn’t call to me, but I realized that psychology did.”
Her grandparents and a number of extended family members lived in Montana when she was growing up, and since she’d always wanted to move west, when it was time for her to go to college, the University of Montana was a perfect choice. It was there she heard about the field of school psychology, which eventually brought her to Parkrose. “I got my BA in psychology and then talked to my adviser, who told me that from there I could get a doctorate in clinical psychology or a master’s in school psychology,” she says. “A master’s degree sounded like about the amount of schooling I wanted to do, and school psychology sounded like a great job that I had never heard of before, so I decided to go for it. I came to the University of Oregon for my degree in school psychology and just loved it. I still think it’s the best job in the world.”
Her fulfilling career begins
After graduating from the University of Oregon with a master’s degree, Kathy began working as a school psychologist in Eugene in 1980. From there, she went on to work in the Cottage Grove area with a number of very rural schools.
Eventually, her husband, who was working in advertising, got a great new job in Portland and the couple relocated. Kathy had offers from a few different school districts upon arriving in the area, but with a little help from MaryLu Baetkey, a former Parkrose teacher and current member of the district’s school board, she settled on Parkrose and has been there ever since. “Before she came to Parkrose, Kathy had two different offers for jobs in the area,” Baetkey says. “I was actually the one that talked her into coming to work for us, and I’ve been so pleased with her success here ever since.”
When Keim-Robinson began working in the Parkrose School District in 1986, she was kept busy, but it didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the area and become deeply dedicated to the schools she was working with. “When we came to Portland, I was the only school psychologist in the Parkrose district, so I did a lot of evaluations, testing and individual reports to determine if kids were eligible for special education,” she says. “As time went on, we hired more school psychologists and found that a big focus area needed to be behavior support, so we started working on ways to help our students with behavioral issues.”
Finding ways to support these children has become Keim-Robinson’s passion over the course of her career, and she’s still working on great initiatives in this area now as the student services director. “In school psychology and in my job now in student services, the biggest challenge and the biggest reward is finding support for kids who are struggling with behavioral issues,” she explains. “My interest as a school psychologist was to identify what was going on behind the situation so we could change the environment and teach new skills and help kids be successful.” She added, “No child wants to be a problem, and it’s certainly challenging and frustrating for adults who are trying to teach a kid to read when there are other issues at work,” she adds. “Really the thing that was, and still is, the most rewarding for me in my job is helping adults learn to help children who are in crisis figure out ways to help them cope and be more available for learning.”
Becoming a multitalented dynamo
Over time, as Keim-Robinson’s career at Parkrose flourished, colleagues encouraged her to look into taking on administration roles in the district. Initially, she was uninterested. “Suzie Henry was one of my mentors at Parkrose. She was a special-education teacher and eventually became the director. When Suzie was looking to retire, she encouraged me to get my administrator certificate and take her place, but I had no interest in it,” Kathy says. “[Suzie] would joke about it and I would have to tell her, ‘I’m not joking. I don’t want to hear it.’”
Although Keim-Robinson remained convinced that she enjoyed being a school psychologist more than she could ever enjoy an administration role, her resolve did not hold out forever. “I realized that we had three kids who were going to need to go to college, and in education, the way you make more money is to move into administration. I just thought, ‘I can’t avoid it,’ so I went to Portland State, and then in 2003 I became the special education coordinator, and in 2007, I became director.”
Because Parkrose is on the smaller side, Keim-Robinson finds that she gets to wear many different hats in her job. Ordinarily, someone in her role would handle only the special education area, or English language learning, but Keim-Robinson gets to tackle it all, and she would not have it any other way. “I’m in charge of anything that’s not regular classroom instruction. That includes special education, English language learners, school psychologists and counselors, homeless educations,” she says. “Having a lot of different things [to work on] is one of the things I like the most about my job. It’s never ever boring, and that’s a good thing.”
The life of a school administrator may seem a bit vague and mysterious, but Keim-Robinson says that a majority of her schedule consists of attending meetings. During the course of any given week, she crosses the district contributing to the efforts of various boards and committees, helping plan programs and initiatives to implement at the schools. She also helps countywide initiatives by representing the district at planning meetings for homeless youth services and emergency response measures in schools.
Despite having to focus on so many different things at once, Keim-Robinson stays ahead of the curve in all aspects of her work, wowing colleagues with her dedication and awesome attention to detail. Parkrose school board member Ed Grassel has been working with Kathy for 10 years on various projects, and he says that she never fails to impress him. “Kathy is one of the most congenial people I know. Working with her is never anything but pleasant, and she’s incredibly innovative when it comes to helping her students,” he says. “I’m an engineer by trade, and I’m always impressed by her intelligence and her ability to analyze problems from all angles and come up with alternatives when necessary.”
A perfect fit
Though she was apprehensive to accept the administrative position at first, it now seems like a great fit for Keim-Robinson, and she finds that making the tough decisions that go with her role gets easier every day. “I’ve been working for more than 30 years in this field now, so I have enough experience to be confident to make any decisions that come up,” she says. “I think early in my career, I really enjoyed the niche of school psychology, but the situations you encounter can be very complex, which makes it difficult to weigh different factors and decide how to best support a student or a school or make some hard calls. With time, though, it all becomes clearer.”
She’s certainly found that she has an aptitude for handling the demands of an administration position, but Keim-Robinson says that she does miss the student interaction she was able to have as a school psychologist. From time to time, however, she has an experience that reminds her what it’s all about. “The most rewarding thing about this job is that now when I go to the graduations at the end of the year, I see children that I worked with when they were coming into kindergarten,” she says. “They were five and having issues and I remember being in meetings working with them, and there was so much frustration and a lot of wondering how they were going to make it. Seeing some of the kids that struggled the most walk across that stage reminds me that we can never stop supporting and planning, and we always have to look at things positively and make sure we’re giving each kid the best possible chance.”
Keim-Robinson found her opportunity to give them that best chance as an administrator. Now, she has more influence and the power to make innovations in the district, which she never would have achieved as a school psychologist. “I’ve realized that I have more impact now on the other adults, school psychologists, special-education teachers and assistants as an administrator. The thing that has really made the difference is being able to recognize the training or professional development that would help these adults learn the skills to better help their students.”
One initiative Keim-Robinson is currently working is Zones of Regulation. She said it promises to help many children. The program brings counselors to schools to train kindergarten teachers to help children stay calm in emotionally difficult situations and focus on their schoolwork. Zones of Regulation helps train teachers to help small children realize they are getting anxious or upset and get back to a zone where learning can happen more smoothly. “It’s something that I wouldn’t have been in a role to be able to support before, but facilitating the training and figuring it out and making it come about for each kindergarten teacher—and ultimately each kindergarten kid—has been really great,” Keim-Robinson says.
In addition, she is working on a program to help English language learners get a firm grasp on academic language. The program, called Academic Language for All, trains teachers strategies they can use every day to help English language learners in the classroom. “This is an approach that we think will really be a support for all kids, which is why it’s called Academic Language for All,” she explains. “It’s not just for English learners, but for any kid who is now part of the Common Core. They need to be skilled in using academic language effectively. We have 90 percent poverty in some of our schools, and whether English is the kids’ first language or not, academic English certainly isn’t, so we’re really working to address that for our students.” She adds, “We’re rolling it out this year [2015-2016 school year], and I’m so excited because the coaches have done such a great job organizing this and structuring it in a way that it will be really embraced by classroom teachers.”
She has also been instrumental in the creation of a new elementary school special education classroom, something she says has been needed for years, and is tickled they were able to provide it for this year’s incoming students.
Life behind the scenes
When she is not channeling her love and compassion into her work, Keim-Robinson is channeling that energy into her family. She met future husband Greg at the University of Montana while working on her bachelor’s degree. He was a teacher’s assistant in one of her classes, and the two hit if off. Greg followed Kathy to Oregon shortly after she moved, and they were married a few years later. “I met Greg in 1974 when I was 18. It sounds a little scary thinking about it now, but we didn’t rush into anything,” she says, laughing. “We weren’t married until about 1981, a long time after that.”
As Keim-Robinson worked her way to Parkrose and then up through the ranks, Greg worked in the advertising industry for a time. Eventually though, he got a chance to pursue his dream job as a sports radio talk show host, which he did for a decade before moving on to a career in merchandising.
The couple also have three children and two grandchildren, who they adore spending time with when they aren’t working. Their oldest son lives close and is their grandchildren’s father. Their middle son is a paraeducator in Portland, and the couple’s daughter just graduated from the University of Oregon.
“I’ve known Kathy as a colleague and as a mother,” says Bev Dixon, a retired Parkrose Speech Pathologist. “She has three of the most remarkable children, and that doesn’t happen by accident. They happened because of her and her husband and the way they were raised.”
When it comes time to get a little rest, Keim-Robinson says that one of her favorite pastimes is cooking. Her family enjoys spending quality time with one another, and she loves to try new things and make meals for the ones she loves. She is also an avid baker and her pies are a big hit at every Parkrose Educational Foundation Auction, where she sells them off to the highest bidder.
Keim-Robinson says that she also finds joy in spending time with all of the close friends she and her family have made over the years, and the group gets together often to celebrate occasions and just hang out. “[Our friends] have become family to us and every gathering is now a huge affair with kids and grandkids. We all just enjoy being together and having good family time,” she says.
Although Keim-Robinson’s heart is in Parkrose, she is looking forward to retirement, which is probably in three or four years. However, she says there are many things she would like to accomplish before then. “I know that we will continue to work toward finding better support for the kids that struggle most,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to seeing this elementary school behavior classroom get a firm start and flourish, and I’m also looking forward to helping build more effective, multi-tiered support systems for kids in all grades.”
Who are community builders?
They are key employees who for years have performed their jobs efficiently and remarkably well. They take pride in and enjoy their work; care about the people they serve and they are loyal to the people who employ them. Their decades-long work at businesses and government agencies builds our area’s identity. Their competent, professional and reliable presence radiates confidence in not only the entity they work for, but also the community. They give our area character by lending us some of theirs.
What do they do?
They prepare and serve us food in restaurants; deliver our mail; check our groceries; do our banking; minister to our spirits; schedule our appointments; do our taxes; repair and maintain our homes, streets, schools and cars; teach our children; build our homes; protect us; haul our garbage; grow our food, and sell us myriad necessities.
If you know someone who fits this description, share his or her story with us at email@example.com or call 503-287-8904.